I always bristle a bit when I hear someone say “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” as part of an argument against abstinence-only education. Before I explain why, let me start out by specifying in no uncertain terms that I am about as opposed to abstinence-only education as anyone.
In fact, I hate using the phrase “abstinence only education” because I think it is a lie. It is not at all education but its polar opposite. It is a refusal to frankly, thoroughly, or neutrally educate about the realities of sex or one’s options related to sex. It replaces genuine education with a command and it backs up that command with whatever mixture of facts, half-truths, myths, rationalizations, fears, and lies necessary to manipulate people into internalizing and obeying. Unlike an education, it does not inform and empower people to make decisions. It dictates and deceptively manipulates people to see only one option as moral and it is statistically ineffective at lowering pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection rates. And when those so “educated” eventually go down the path of being sexually active, they are not equipped to understand their bodies, their emotions, their partners, their sexuality, their contraceptive options, or any of the ins and outs of having sex healthily or happily. And I don’t mean that it hurts only those people who break its rules and have premarital sex, it also hurts people who hold out. (See Libby Anne for much more on this. Two starting points: The Problems With The Ways Evangelicals Celebrate Sex and The Purity Culture and Sexual Dysfunction.)
I would have it that teenagers were given comprehensive biological information about their bodies and about how sex works (and doesn’t). They would be taught about what is normal, so they don’t feel bad over common struggles. And they would also learn about sexual minorities and how there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them just for having a different sexuality or set of kinks than other people. In all things all people should be taught that uncoerced consent and the health, happiness, and thriving of all involved should be the tests by which any sexual activity is morally judged–rather than by its “normalcy” or “deviance”. Girls and boys would learn about the intricacies of contraception. Teens should also learn about and discuss wide ranges of emotional possibilities that people report feeling related to sex and different kinds of experiences with it. And they would be encouraged both to figure out what sorts of values priorities with respect to sex make the most sense for them as individuals while discouraged from engaging in any slut-shaming or virgin-shaming of others over their alternative judgments, decisions, or uncontrollable circumstances. And in open discussion the students would have room to vent their opinions and debate the morality of sex honestly and rationally.
Were I to have my way, this would be a topic that teenagers would be encouraged to discuss openly with educated adults so they could learn as much as possible and make as informed, ethically conscientious, and emotionally and physically satisfying choices for themselves as possible.
The utmost goals would be to instill in teenagers an ability to reason for themselves about sex so that
(a) they never feel pressured (either by society or a specific partner) into having sex that isn’t good for them or shamed away from having sex that is good for them
(b) they know what to expect with sex and have concrete strategies and communication skills so that as much as possible it is mutually satisfying physically, emotionally, and sexually
(c) they are efficiently trained to be competent and dutiful with respect to protecting against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections
(d) they are prepared to deal with sexual minorities or those who struggle with one aspect of sex or another in empowering ways that acknowledges them as equals, rather than freaks, and help them fulfill their own happiness with respect to sex the most.
So with that context in mind, there are a few reasons that I can’t stand when people say “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex.” First of all, I feel erased. I was a teenager who conscientiously was abstinent, for religiously inculcated reasons that I took to be morally right. And I know a lot of other people who also were, for the same reasons. I know people in their twenties who were or are still deliberately virgins. There are even some older than that who hold out. We exist, we matter, we are part of the equation. And we have a lot of complicated feelings and struggles that all get erased when people talk about sex in ways that assume everyone starts as a teenager. A lot of us are too ashamed to talk about the effects of this on us psychologically but there are plenty of us out there who are damaged by messaging that we totally missed out on all the fun everyone else was having. Or that there is or was something wrong with us, etc.
Part of really educating people accurately is acknowledging that sex is not simply a force of nature against which all teenagers are helpless. Except in cases of rape, sex is a choice. We can rightly point to the evidence that a great number of young people who sign up for “purity pledges” and take on “purity rings” wind up caving and having sex anyway. We can use that fact to make the case that even purity pledgers need to be educated and equipped just in case they change their minds, so that they don’t wind up pregnant or sick. But we can do that without snidely dismissing their agency, their sincere feelings of commitment, or their real successes in carrying through in some cases. We can point out that some of them fail without being disrespectful of where those people are at present in their emotional and moral journey. And that starts, in part, by not erasing them with by oversimplifying and saying “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex.” Committed evangelical Christian teenagers themselves will probably tune that message out as contemptuous dismissal towards their values, their personal integrity, and their youth. And, resenting you and your condescending expression of your own values, they may be all the more determined to prove you wrong.
But, why am I quibbling over this little bit of hyperbole. Sensitive feelings aside, the main point is true: while specific teenagers may be successfully dissuaded away from sex, statistically high proportions of teenagers always have and likely always will have sex, and, statistically speaking, those who take purity pledges won’t be any different.
There are several problems. For one thing, abstinence-only education supporters who themselves did hold out and still believe in it will simply dismiss us as making apologies for bad behavior and point to their own example that moral fortitude can change behavior. They will argue that if only the culture changed and stopped excusing premarital sex that more people could be like them and things could change. So, I don’t think the overstatement “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” actually works on such people. It sure never worked on me when I was a teenager or a twenty-something year old virgin.
But what it did do to me when I deconverted and decided that now I wanted to have sex, was make me feel bad about myself as an abnormal freak and a loser for being a virgin. I was able to assure myself that I had chosen to be a virgin but now the pressure was on because now if I remained a virgin it meant I was undesirable. But how was I to perform to expectations when everyone secular around me has been at this (apparently) since they were teenagers! How behind was I in terms of experience? How much had I missed out on exactly?
And I fear it could inadvertently send the message to many teenage virgins that there’s something wrong with them because it is an “everybody’s doing it!” message. And teenagers are infamously prone to wanting to be like everyone else and are known to do things that don’t feel right to them in order to be like what they perceive that everyone else is like. So, when they hear “you can’t stop teenagers from having sex!” they may be hearing “no normal teenagers can help themselves from having sex”. So what does that tell them about their hesitations towards having it? Especially boys who are given extra strong messages about how uncontrollable the teenage male libido is. And what are girls to do with the rancid and insidious counter-messaging that “good girls don’t put out” or “girls don’t want sex as much as guys do”? I think it’s that they’re supposed to have the idea that they’re not supposed to want to have sex, both morally and as a girl, and yet when a guy they really like is cajoling them they are supposed to cave and blame their hormones because “you can’t stop teenagers having sex!”
I am only speculating here, trying to make sense of dizzying and damaging contradictory messaging, but I think a sexist effect behind the message that “girls aren’t interested in sex but that they will cave anyway” is to make it so that the guy can feel like she only wants him and not sex in general. She, as a member of the morally pure order of sex-hating females, would never be interested in the carnal pleasures were it not for this special, magnetic young man and his effect on her, which makes her love it. But only with him. And so this is why girls “give it up”. They’re basically conditioned to be in a dialectic of “protecting” sexual purity and then giving it up because of the appeal of some particular boy to her. None of this involves the girl just liking or wanting sex itself because that might make the boy feel like she might also be interested in others too and not just him, and we can’t have that…
How much damaging and regretted sex (and even rape) results from both boys and girls following this script of expectations whereby girls are supposed to simultaneously be the chaste ones who don’t like sex and the ones who cave to the persistent charms of the “right” guy? “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” boosts this ugly script. It makes sex something teenagers don’t have control over. It’s something they inevitably just fall into without agency. And so, to be normal, that’s how teenagers who might not feel ready for it but still feel pressured into it socially, have sex they don’t really want: by playing “seduced”.
And what about the unwilling virgins? Imagine being one of those teenagers (and twentysomethings, etc.) who would have sex were they to have the opportunity that they felt even remotely good about–but as of yet have been unable to make it happen? What good does it do them to be told by supposedly progressive adults in their “let’s get real here” tone of voice about how teenagers are unstoppably sexually active? I think they’d feel like I have felt: erased. With an additional helping of “like an abnormal freak and loser” possibly thrown in. People are overburdened with sexual pressure and stigmas. And as much awful slut-shaming goes on, on the flipside there are countless people who feel miserable inside because they feel sexually unwanted and like they are missing out on this enormous orgy the rest of the world is allegedly having without them. “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex!” just contributes to this myth that “everyone else is doing it” and puts pressure on people who don’t even feel able to conform to what everyone else is supposedly doing and which sounds like so much fun.
Finally, here is the worst way to say “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex”: as an agreement with the abstinence proponent that our goal should be sexually repressing teenagers and other unmarried sexually mature people. I know that strategically it often looks like a good thing to sometimes adopt your opponent’s values and try to say, “look, even were I to share your values, it’s a bad idea to do this because it will prove counterproductive to those values.” But I hate it when people use this tactic when debating morality because it usually concedes way too much to moral principles that themselves should be challenged. I feel like often liberals want a certain outcome and will push whatever moral button on their opponent they can, even if it’s a moral button that itself needs to be challenged. I hate the way that that reinforces that bad moral principle itself.
I don’t think liberals should be squishily saying to conservatives essentially, “Well, yes, of course it would be ideal that teenagers never have sex”. That just validates and reinforces the conservatives’ values about sex which themselves are in need of vigorous re-interrogation.
I want to argue that in the modern world it makes sense for most people to delay marriage until at least their mid to late twenties because of the amount of education that is required to catch up in the information age so that one can contribute effectively to it and because of the amount of time it takes most people to become stable enough financially, mentally, emotionally, and socially in order to make a wise choice of partner and be a good partner themselves. We also live more than twice as long as our ancestors whose bodies’ reproductive “clocks” we have inherited.
We are a species that can reproduce younger than young girls’ bodies can even handle it. We are fertile and often sexually eager for a solid 10-15 years before most people should reasonably consider marriage, given the realities of modern life. Even were people all capable of conditioning themselves to be abstinent until marriage, I think it is cruel and a waste to make this a moral obligation or promote this as an accepted ideal when it means making it a matter of conscience that people feel sexually frustrated and remain emotionally and socially immature in various ways for such a long period of time. It also damages a lot of people psychologically to engage with sex as a taboo for so many years of their lives. Being at constant war with one’s basic sexual impulses, instead of embracing them and finding healthy outlets for them, is self-destructive. Morally, premarital sex has to be unequivocally encouraged as a moral and healthy option for many people.
Now, 11-13 year olds certainly are much too immature to be trusted or encouraged to figure out wise sexual choices. Without abusive, extremist anti-sex messaging, they should be reasoned with to wait. And 14-15 year olds are only a little more likely to be healthy about sex, so they should also be equipped just in case but encouraged to wait. But by the time we’re dealing with 16-19 year olds we should be putting all of our energies into equipping them emotionally, mentally, morally, and materially if they choose to have sex and affirming their choices if they choose not to, rather than celebrating the ideal of ongoing repression as the ultimate moral choice. We need not encourage them to do it but we should be fairly neutral and non-judgmental about whether they have sex and rather be focused on the ethical substance of the sex they’re having. Is it consensual? Is it a healthy and positive experience for them? Too many young people do have sex for us to make it a matter of secrecy and moral shame and guilt, especially when it can be a positive thing for them in many cases.
Of course it is fraught trusting teenagers with each other’s hearts and bodies. They are going to stumble and hurt one another and themselves inevitably. But the goal is to remove whatever obstacles to their getting it right that we can, to make rape and other forms of abuse as unlikely as possible, to not load them up with long term destructive, repressive burdens trying to save them from themselves, and to make it so the kinds of mistakes they make with each other are the constructive ones that they can grow through, rather than be damaged for the long term by.
The more we push it underground the more we hurt teenagers by making a potentially good thing all the more risky and unhealthy for them. Every teenager needs the education, none need outright repression or moral stigma associated with their sexuality. And we shouldn’t slip into overcorrective statements like “You can’t stop teenagers from having sex” which only sends a damaging “everyone’s doing it” message to teenagers.
1. On Backdoor Ways to Keep Your Virginity (and Defend Your Faith)
2. Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian
3. Before and After I Deconverted: The Development of My Sexual Imagination
5. Hot Passionate Rational Sex
6. How to Create The Sexual Utopia
7. A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity
8. Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery
9. On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”
10. Sex and Spirituality