In Defense of Abstinence (As opposed to abstinence-only education)

Elizabeth Smart’s criticism of abstinence-only sex education has set off a firestorm of commentary about purity culture, and how Catholics in particular should think about sex-ed.

Calah Alexander has written an impassioned plea to do away with metaphors that imply someone is used up once they’ve had sex:

“If you had sex before marriage, it was like someone took a huge drink of your water, swished it around in their mouths, and then spat it back into the glass. The more sex you had, the dirtier your glass of water got. “So think of that before you have premarital sex,” we were admonished. “Think of the gift you’re going to give your husband on your wedding night. Do you want to give him a pure, untouched glass of delicious water, or a dirty cup of everyone else’s backwash?””

Alexander raises the point that this IS Abstinence-only education as it is currently practiced. And I couldn’t agree more that such metaphors are problematic.

When else do we suggest to our kids that they should think of themselves as objects but when we’re talking about sex? It’s very confusing imagery, especially when the ultimate message we are trying to convey is that no one should use others as an object, nor should they allow themselves to be used. The very core of Christian teaching is that every person has dignity by virtue of his or her humanity, so that no one can be used up or beyond the reach of grace.

It can be very tempting to suggest to our kids that their lives will be ruined by unfortunate sexual decisions, because there really are dangers to a promiscuous life, and we want to protect them from disease, bad love, and teen pregnancy, etc.

But suggesting that they will lose their ability to stick to their spouse like a post-it note if they’ve already adhered to too many other people, for instance, sends the subliminal message that redemption is not possible after a point.

Anecdotally, not only do such metaphors extinguish hope, they also just don’t stand up to scrutiny in our current culture. I know formerly promiscuous people who have gone on to have happy marriages, and virgins who have married poorly.

As Catholics, we believe that premarital sex is a sin. The antidote is repentance and grace. The effects of sin are often not felt until purgatory. Many sinners are not unhappy with their lives, I’ve observed, and maybe that’s what troubles parents most–the idea that the children we’ve raised with hopes of passing on the faith will reject Christianity and live comfortably without God in a state of sin.

But scaring them out of sin is not an option, especially since the ironic turn of such efforts is often our children’s flight from the religion in which they believe there is no longer hope of reconciliation.

Neither can we throw out the concept of abstinence.

There can be no authentic Christian life without abstinence of various stripes. Abstinence has always been valued in the Church, whether we are abstaining from meat on Fridays, or from sexual relationships that are illicit due to our married status, or from sex within marriage, for a time, for the health and well-being of the family.

Abstinence is not just “The absence of something” as I’ve seen it termed lately. It cannot be reduced simply to “not doing.” It’s the practice of self-mastery over one’s physical urges, the abnegation of the body for the good of the soul.

Regarding the fourth precept of the Catholic Church, “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” the Catechism says:

“The fourth precept ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.”

Abstinence also protects the freedom of others. There are actions from which I ask all of my children to abstain for the good of our communal life. I tell the boys to please abstain from walking around with their hands in their shorts–for the good of the Kingdom, and everyone who must share a room with them. Abstain from hitting others even though that is a natural response in some circumstances. Abstain from acting on the sexual instinct until you leave this family and cleave to your espoused.

It takes practice to build good habits and at home is the proper place for such habits to be defined and honed. In the home we can also help develop in our children the maturity of repentance. We teach them tenacity in so many things, picking themselves up after they fall on the playground, continuing with sports after a loss. Developing self-mastery over sexual urges also requires tenacity, and the maturity and humility to return to the Sacraments again and again over the course of a lifetime.

And of course, one cannot talk about abstinence independently of the virtue of chastity. As New Advent defines Chastity:

“Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, which controls according to right reason the desire for and use of those things which afford the greatest sensual pleasures. The sources of such delectation are food and drink, by means of which the life of the individual is conserved, and the union of the sexes, by means of which the permanence of the species is secured. Chastity, therefore, is allied to abstinence and sobriety; for, as by these latter the pleasures of the nutritive functions are rightly regulated, so by chastity the procreative appetite is duly restricted.”

A life of chastity includes some abstinence. One cannot get around it.  And we need to move our children towards an understanding of this virtue of chastity. But for kids, especially young ones, it’s often easier to understand why not to do something than it is to comprehend the virtues one might obtain through a variety of life choices that include some do’s and some dont’s.

While it’s fun to think about all the wonderful philosophical concepts that informed JPII’s Theology of the Body and how we might impart this positive message to our kids, the very first instructions God gave to humanity was a list of “thou shalt not’s” because most of us, and especially our kids, don’t have advanced degrees in theology and philosophy, and yet we still need easily identifiable boundaries. A parent has a right and responsibility to tell his children no.

The important thing is that we define these boundaries in a loving way and make clear the way home when the boundaries have been crossed.




A couple of caveats:

1.) Several of my kids have been through sex-ed programs both at Church and at public school. The church program was aimed more at detecting sexual predators and protecting what they termed the “circle of grace” that surrounds the individual. The school program was more of a health class that discussed changes during puberty and the reproductive system. I’ve found it to be very helpful to a) preview these programs and b) have discussions with my children to clear up ideas that do not cohere with our Catholic faith. These have been some of the most precious and useful conversations I’ve had with my kids to prepare them for a world that does things a little differently than we do. Of course I think that the role of sex educator belongs properly to the parents, and both of these programs (from which we could have opted out) have been one more step in a long and ongoing education.

I don’t have a prescription for what public schools should be teaching regarding sex ed.



2.) I have not seen any statistical evidence that the practice of abstinence before marriage makes enjoying sex after more difficult, though I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence for such an argument, often (though not always) by people who have an axe to grind with purity culture or abstinence-only education. I’ve also heard a lot of anecdotal (though not statistical) evidence from people who were promiscuous and have their own corresponding sexual baggage in marriage. Since we’ve already established that the stupid metaphors should go, and that purity culture as it exists in some religious circles is sort of creepy, but that abstinence is a sometimes good in Christian life, I think we also need to accept that difficulties with sex in married life are often due to a complex and nuanced stew of factors.

Rough patches in the married sex life happen to almost every couple for a period of time. This should not be a cause for panic. Marriage should last a long time, and it, too, is an apprenticeship during which both spouses learn the skills that make sex enjoyable for both spouses. But having good sex is not the primary end of marriage, nor is having a less than stellar sex life for a time an irredeemable feature of a relationship.



3.) See also Sam Rocha’s interesting take on this conversation:  Sex Miseducation: Abstinence Doesn’t Make Sense. While I agree with this statement:

“Teen pregnancy can have a whole range of serious and devastating negative consequences, but it does not follow to say that it MUST have those results. In Mary’s case the result was the Incarnation. Perhaps the real issue is not about prevention: maybe it is about putting into place viable exits and alternatives and ways to imagine life outside the hegemony of schooling, psychology, and economics.”


I don’t agree with this one:

“Teaching fertile females and virile males to abstain from having sex is crazy. It is almost as crazy as instructing trees to abstain from growing leaves in the spring”


4.) Darwin Catholic weighs in on the problem of teaching abstinence without morality in public schools:

“Since abstinence programs aren’t allowed to say that sex outside of marriage is wrong, they instead try to come up with way to say that it’s icky — which most people will go and mentally convert to “wrong”.

So while all these suggestions about how the topic should be addressed are great, none of them would pass muster for what’s taught in public schools. They can’t talk about the moral meaning of sex. They can’t talk about how the end of sex is procreation and the proper context for it is marriage. Theology of the Body is verboten.”

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