The Misogyny Inherent in Abstinence-Only Education

Sex education in the United States is a clusterfuck; this is news to no one.  Each state creates its own guidelines, meaning that students in different states receive wildly different variations on sex ed – if they receive any at all.  For example, only thirteen states require their sex ed programs to be medically accurate, and five states dictate that homosexuality must be framed negatively if discussed at all.

Last July, the Department of Health and Human Services told organizations which receive five-year grants through the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program that their funding would be cut off this coming June – two years early.  Several of these organizations sued HHS in federal court in order to keep their grants, and many of them won their cases this spring.

While the FY 2018 budget bill maintained funding for the TPPP, HIV prevention programs, and PREP (the Personal Responsibility Education Program, which also gives grants to organizations providing comprehensive sex ed), it also increased grants for abstinence-only education programs.

There is a ton of research studying the efficacy of abstinence-based programs versus comprehensive sex ed programs; while I encourage you to do a deep dive into those numbers, that’s not what I want to focus on.  I wrote my master’s thesis on the impacts of abstinence-only education and would like to impart two things:

  • States that stress abstinence in their schools have higher teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates, and
  • The explicit and implicit messages to young people in abstinence-only curricula are incredibly harmful.

I’d like to expound on the second point.  These programs don’t just tell students not to have sex; they tell students that people who have sex before marriage are damaged.  For my thesis, I got my hands on the teaching materials for three different abstinence-only curricula*; the words risk, life-threatening, promiscuous, addictive, depression, guilt, and shame are used repeatedly throughout these texts to describe young people who have sex.  They describe sexually young women specifically as feeling cheap, used, empty, and full of self-loathing.  One says that abstinence means “freedom from guilt, disappointment, losing respect, and compromising values.”  The curricula that mention sexual harassment, coercion, and rape are chock-full of victim blaming; one even tells girls that “provocative dress is disrespectful to the man you’re with.”  One doesn’t mention sexual coercion at all.

They frame abstinence as a choice, but having sex as a lack of will power. Gender and orientation spectrums are never addressed.  There is no mention of divorce, adultery, or any family structure that’s non-nuclear (making several student populations invisible).  Don’t even get me started on gender roles: According to abstinence-only education, women are weak, emotional victims who need “hours of mental preparation” for sex, while men are irresponsible, predatory liars who “see intimacy as competition.”  The teacher’s guide for one of these programs directs the teacher to “ask a girl” to read the part of a rape victim and to “ask a guy” to read the part of a porn addict.  They tell young people that women need to be provided for and that male partners shouldn’t be criticized because men need to feel competent in order to feel loved.

These language choices are NOT a mistake; the funding guidelines for receiving Title V grant money for abstinence-only programs state that the materials must teach that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical affects (italics mine).”

AO curricula also frame sex as something to be given and taken, which brings me to one of many reasons why comprehensive sexuality education is so important: Abstinence-only programs are incredibly misogynistic and lack any component regarding communicating about wants, needs, boundaries, and agency within relationships.  AO curricula reinforce a lot of the shit that members of misogynist movements believe – and that’s a big fucking deal.  A lot has been written about these movements in the past few weeks; what I’d like to contribute to that conversation is that abstinence-only education programs back them up by posing sex as transactional, by propping up binary, stereotypical, and dangerous gender roles, and by saying that women provoke men into predatory sexual behavior.  Detrimental messages about gender roles aren’t just propagated by the media and held up by people we know; some of them are directly taught in schools.

Congress funds AO programs at more than $100 million / year.

In order to survive, PREP and TPPP need a lot of public support, especially now; if you live in the United States and write or call your members of Congress on the regular, you might want to mention this the next time a budget bill comes up. If you don’t, please start.  If you are a parent, please, PLEASE tell your school board that you want your child to receive comprehensive sexual health education.  Not just STI and contraception information, but conversations about healthy relationships, gender, sexuality, and media critique.  It is absolutely imperative that young people have access to curricula that validate their families and lived experiences, that humanizes them, that gives them agency, and that gives them tools to critique the world around them and communicate with love, compassion, and clarity.

Want to know what kind of sex education is taught in your state?  You can find out on the SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US) website.




*DM or email me if you want the names of the curricula I read.



Today was an emotionally difficult one.  I woke up like so many others this morning with a heaviness in my heart and gut that’s not likely to disappear for a while.

A lot of folks have written long-form pieces on the misogyny, white supremacy, xenophobia, and entitlement that have fueled the Drumpf campaign; that’s not what I want to write about here because so many people are speaking about it more eloquently than I can.

But I can speak to this: with a vice president coming into office who has done everything possible to roll back Roe vs. Wade in his state, reduce women’s access to contraception and reproductive health, and who has tried to criminalize miscarriage – now in a national position of power with no one to check that power – our reproductive rights are genuinely in a precarious position.

In Indiana, minors must have parental permission to get a prescription for birth control.  Sex education isn’t required and if it is taught, abstinence must be stressed.  Teaching about contraception is NOT required.  There are no anti-discrimination laws or anti-bullying laws in schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and there’s no statewide hate crime law.*  Much has been said about Indiana’s draconian measures to restrict abortion and its attempt to encourage discrimination against same-sex couples; this is the man who will be tasked with helping to choose our next secretaries of health and human services and education.  Who will be partially responsible for nominating the next Supreme Court justice.

Furthermore, knowledge itself is dangerous to Drumpf.  The more educated people are, the less likely they were to vote for him.  As an educator, I’m nervous not only about the future of teachers’ unions and science and history textbooks, but about an administrative attack on higher education and knowledge as a whole.

There are many who joke about leaving the US for greener pastures; I certainly sympathize with that sentiment.  I’m swimming upstream, though.  After seven years of living as a resident alien in another country, I’m coming home.  I was already planning on this well before the election, but after yesterday, my feeling that now is the right time is much stronger.  I can’t make my voice heard from South Korea.  I cannot march, I cannot organize, I cannot be an advocate or active ally for young people and communities who lack access to resources.  There are trying times ahead, and it’s time to jump in with both feet.


*This information comes from Sex, Etc., which I highly recommend you check out for state-by-state information on laws concerned with birth control, abortion, and sex education.


Come As You Are: A Book Review

Image result for come as you are nagoskiIt’s rare that a book about sex makes me cry, but this one did.  It’s not just a book about sexuality and neuroscience, although it is that — it’s a call to action to women everywhere to see themselves and their sexuality as normal.  To understand that they are not broken.  To listen to their own bodies and desires instead of to harmful media messages about what they’re expected to feel and desire.  To connect with themselves and their partners as women who (surprise!) have sexual characteristics of women.  To reject male sexuality as standard sexuality and to claim agency over their pleasure and joy. 

You’d think that it wouldn’t be such a radical idea to accept yourself where you are and practice self-compassion — but it is.  

I’m getting ahead of myself, however. 

The book opens with a chapter on anatomy and explains in great detail the homologous features of male and female genitalia, which is absolutely fascinating.  It also discusses  at great length the variant features of vulvas and how we’re taught to see them and talks about the myths we perpetuate regarding hymens.  

Nagoski goes on in subsequent chapters to introduce the key concepts of her book one by one: the dual control model of sexuality (we all have a sexual inhibition system and a sexual excitation system, and everyone differs in the sensitivity of both); the One Ring in our brains that controls our emotional and motivation systems; sexuality in context and responsive desire (as opposed to spontaneous desire); sexuality as it relates to the stress cycle; sexual non-concordance (when arousal doesn’t match genital response); the brain mechanism that controls goals and expectations, which she calls the little monitor; and how meta-emotions (how we feel about our feelings) affect our sexual lives. 

Even if you’re already familiar with some of these ideas, having them all intertwined and presented with stories from peoples’ actual relationships is effective at making everything sink in.  Throughout the book, Nagoski keeps referring back to previously-discussed concepts in order to link them together and show how they affect each other.  She uses the same central metaphor (a garden) in different contexts to make complex scientific concepts relatable, and continually comes back to examples, analogies, and stories that end up creating a kind of sexy neuroscience schema.  She also uses millennial shorthand (I could have done without it, but I use standard punctuation and whole words in my text messages, so that’s just me…) as a way to draw in a younger audience.    

And there are worksheets!  She provides actual worksheets, available on her website, that you can fill out and use to improve your sex life.  As a teacher, I can’t not love that.

Important Takeaways from Come As You Are

  • Your sexuality and your body are normal.  You are not broken. 
  • Everyone has the same parts, organized differently. 
  • We all have a sexual “accelerator” and sexual “brakes,” and everyone differs in how sensitive theirs are. 
  • How we perceive sensation is dependent on the context in which we experience it; the same experience can feel different in different contexts.
  • Stress has a negative impact on desire and arousal; it reduces sexual interest and pleasure.
  • Self-criticism creates a buttload of stress.
  • Our responses to sexuality are learned, not inherent.
  • There is only a ten percent overlap between women’s self-reported arousal and their genital response!  For men, it’s 50%.  Sexual arousal does not necessarily lead to genital response and genital response does not necessarily indicate arousal. 
  • Sex is not a drive – you won’t die if you can’t get your sexual interests (not needs) met.  Instead, sex is an incentive motivation system. 
  • Only 15% of women have a spontaneous desire style; 30% of women have a responsive desire style, and about half of women experience a combination of both.  As more men experience a spontaneous desire style, spontaneous desire has come to be viewed as standard in sexual narratives.
  • Novelty, a focus on pleasure rather than outcome, and ambiguity can increase sexual desire.
  • 70% of women do not reliably have an orgasm from penetration alone.  Women most commonly orgasm from clitoral stimulation.
  • How we feel about our sexuality has a profound impact on our sexuality.  If we let go of where we think we should be sexually and accept ourselves where we are (which takes a lot of hard work emotionally), we can start to heal.  Better emotional and mental wellbeing leads to a better sex life!  Noticing our feelings instead of judging our feelings is a start to this process.

In the introduction of Come As You Are, Nagoski says that the “purpose of [her] book is to offer a new, science-based way of thinking about women’s sexual wellbeing.”  I feel well.  Read this book, you guys.    

P.S.  Dear Emily Nagoski,
Thank you for the intense orgasm I had last Saturday night.  Focus on sensation indeed.

The Lazywank and Sex Ed in the News

I was watching The Manchurian Candidate the other night (the original version with sexily-baritoned Laurence Harvey and some guy named Sinatra) when my hand absentmindedly wandered into my pants.  If you’ve seen this film, then you know it’s certainly not masturbatory material — in fact, it’s quite serious and (attempts to) elicit(s) profound questions about war and politics.  So it’s not that the movie turned me on or that I was particularly horny – I just started lazily grazing my outer labia with my fingers, not thinking anything of it, kind of like when guys cup their balls just because it feels nice.  Suddenly, I was drawing moisture upward and moving my fingers inward, and before I knew it, I was full-on wanking with my pajama pants around my knees, my back arched, and working with two hands.  I had to rewind [sic] the movie a bit, but it was well worth it.  It got me wondering: what other thematically-inappropriate movies have people lazy-wanked to?  By the way, Laurence Harvey and Leslie Parrish would be a great pair to have a threesome with.

My dreams are coming true!  A California court recently (finally) deemed abstinence-only curricula to be medically-inaccurate.  The article states that 40% of CA public schools still fail to teach about condoms, however, so it looks like the state has a long way to go.  That being said — as goes California, so goes the nation, so I’m hoping that this “Hey!  Look!  Abstinence-only education doesn’t work!” thing will start catching on.

This made me laugh so hard.  I hope they suspended her for not understanding how AIDS works and not for being honest.  I mean, come on — some of these responses are priceless!  When presented with, “Condoms are gross,” she replies with, “So are babies.” Genius!  My favorite by far, however, is “I don’t have a condom with me” / “I don’t have my vagina with me.”  Bwahahahaha!  This brings me back to when I was a ten year-old in the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program; I wrote creative answers on a worksheet and got a C on it because I hadn’t just written the word “No.” Nancy Reagan was one strict woman.

Sex Doll in China. No, not *that* kind of sex doll.

Nanjing has a brand-new sex education tool: a giant inflatable woman geared to teach children about reproduction. 

Several things about this:
1) There’s a ball pit in the chest cavity… is this because kids will need the stress relief after looking at all those reproduction cartoons (gods I wish those cartoons were posted somewhere on the internet… I’m assuming that cameras aren’t allowed inside, just as they’re not allowed inside Mao’s tomb) with mom and dad? 
2) Her name is Ba Di.  No, really.  
3) Check out that skanky top (in Korea, showing one’s shoulders and back is still considered taboo, so I’m wondering if there’s a similar taboo the same in China) and green hair.  Hippie westerners are bringing the sex to China!   
4) You go in through the right foot, learn about sex [sic], and then come out sinister.  Hahaha!  Symbolism.   

If you’re interested in learning something real about the current state of sex education in China (Did you know that jacking it makes you gay?), check out this excellent and recent article from The Nation.    


If you’re not into politics, skip right over this one!  I promise the next post will be about something more saucy.

So in addition to legalizing discrimination against gay couples recently, Indiana is seeing an uptick in the number of new HIV cases in Scott County (in the southern part of the state).  Maybe “uptick” isn’t the right word — more like a surge of new cases; the number jumped 100% in a month.  Indiana health care workers think that this is just the beginning of a growing number of HIV infections across the state, and Governor Mike Pence has announced a public health emergency.  Yes, THAT Governor Mike Pence.  The one who previously opposed needle exchange programs in Indiana, where clean needle programs are illegal (well — he still opposes them in principal, but has decided to override the law for a bit until things get under control).

In neighboring Wisconsin, Governor – slash – King Douche (I’d apologize to douche for comparing it to Walker, but it’s pretty bad for your vag, ladies.  Don’t use it.) defunded the clean needle exchange in Milwaukee in 2002 when he was the Milwaukee County Executive.  Fun fact: Scott Walker is infamous for killing collective bargaining rights and for shipping prisoners to private prisons in other states while simultaneously taking campaign money from those very same private prisons, but did you also know that he repealed Wisconsin’s comprehensive sex education and equal pay laws?   Just something to keep in mind if he runs for President next year.

Image result for the more you know

All I’m sayin’ is prevention over reaction, people.  You’d think fiscal conservatives would get that.

Update:  The Nation just wrote a great piece about this.

Another Ranty Rant About Sex Education

Near the end of this school year in San Marcos, CA (San Diego County), a middle school health teacher did an activity in class from a school board-approved abstinence-plus curriculum which involved papers posted on the wall describing different sexual activities, such as hugging, kissing, “above the waist,” “below the waist,” and “all the way” (whatever that means – not exactly descriptive language).  Students were supposed to stand near the paper that described what level they thought was most appropriate for middle school students.  I wouldn’t necessarily do this activity in my classroom (partially because of the use of antiquated euphemisms and partially because I think the discussion would be better done in small groups), but I don’t see it as particularly harmful.  It opens a dialogue among peers about what they think is right for them, which validates and gives them ownership of their feelings, and hopefully gets them talking to their parents about it. 

However, one student thought that the teacher was asking her to stand under the sign appropriate to what she’d already done; she felt pressured to self-report and told her parents, who then proceeded to vomit a shit storm of sex negativity on the school.

So, first of all, NO MIDDLE SCHOOL SEX ED CURRICULUM — especially one that’s only abstinence-plus and not comprehensive — would ever ask students to publicly, in front of alllll their classmates, discuss what they’d done sexually.  That’s ridiculous.  Furthermore, parents at this particular school have to sign permission slips in order for their children to take the class AND the curriculum is available to parents in this district to pursue at their leisure.

Second of all, until recently, these students followed an abstinence-only program; having done thorough content analysis on a few of these programs, I can say unflinchingly that they are reductive, harmful, glaringly sex negative, objectifying, and shame students if they fall anywhere outside of mainstream sexual or gender norms.  Abstinence-plus is barely a step up. 

The parents said in an interview that  “For the children to get that confused is just another reason why it [sexuality education] shouldn’t even be in the schools.” (ABC10 News, June 4th, 2014)  Wh-wh-whaaaat?  Middle school students were confused about something?  If we removed any curriculum that is remotely confusing to students who are in the middle of a hormonal coup d’etat, there wouldn’t be any curriculum to teach.  

So, parents continue to lose their shit over their children talking about sex.  Not news, but still frustrating.

Here’s something fun that’s totally unrelated to take the edge off!  It’s my favorite weekly feature on a blog.

Grown-up Conversations

Once in a great while, you get a student who stays with you forever.  I don’t mean a student who stays in your mind forever (one you think about all the time but will probably never see again).  I think teachers have a lot of those; you probably have a former teacher who wonders what happened to you and where you are.  I mean a student who stays in your life forever.  I have a couple of these students, and I’m unendingly grateful for our continued friendship and the things they teach me.  

I began teaching H when she was a middle school student; she’s now a freshmen in university and studying to become a teacher!
She came over for dinner last week, and she started telling me about her boyfriend.  I was surprised and delighted as she’d never spoken to me about romantic feelings or relationships before!  She said she’d never really believed in love — that romance was just something created by movies to make money.  She didn’t think it happened in real life, and she certainly didn’t think it was going to happen to her… but then it did.  And now she’s questioning everything.  I find this fascinating because I don’t ever remember feeling this way; I started feeling heart flutters in kindergarten, and it just got worse from then on.*
We ended up having a lengthy conversation about sex, dating, and relationships in which she really opened up to me.  Sex is a super taboo subject in Korea, even among friends, so maybe she felt more comfortable talking to a foreigner.  She said that because they didn’t teach sex education at her school (Korea has an abstinence-only education program), she and her friends had taken it upon themselves to go to an independent sex ed class run by a non-profit, which I think is amazing — I didn’t even know something like that existed here.  Apparently they didn’t do a great job, though, because when I told her that she needs to have a backup birth control method other than condoms, she a) didn’t know that there were contraceptives other than birth control pills, and b) said she didn’t think she needed one because condoms don’t really tear or come off, right?  I told her about the time that the entire top of a condom tore off inside of me and neither my partner nor I felt it happen.  She looked suitably horrified.  
She’s the first girl her boyfriend has kissed and her friends are telling her to have sex, but she’s not sure he’s the right person or that it’s the right time.  Even though I have a totally different experience with navigating my way into being a sexual person, I understand the feeling of trying to figure out what you want versus what you think people expect of you (don’t we all?), and as a teacher who encourages critical thinking, it warms my heart to see that she’s engaging in sincere contemplation AND advocating for her own desires and needs.  
In the midst of all this, she suddenly asks me: “What about you?  You’ve never talked to me about this stuff!”  “That’s because when I was teaching you, I was only dating women,” I said.  “Given the political climate around gay and bisexual people in Korea, I didn’t think I should say anything.”  “Oh,” she said.  “Are you dating anyone now?”  I told her that I had been seeing a guy recently, but he moved.  “Then, are you bisexual?” she asked, TOTALLY UNPHASED by this secret that I thought would be huge.  Thank you, Glee, for normalizing sexual fluidity!  If only everyone had that reaction to coming out.  
So, anyway — she’s bringing her boyfriend over to meet me next week, which kind of makes me feel like a parent.  A proud one.  I may not ever have kids of my own, but as far as I’m concerned, my former students who are in my life for good are family.  
 *I recently found a journal of mine from third grade in which I’d written down the “hunk of the day” (which is SO HILARIOUS in and of itself) for every day over a two-week period; Wil Wheaton showed up.  Twice.  

National Standards for Sex Education

The new SIECUS state profile on sexuality education says that 55% of high school students in my hometown are or have been sexually active.  When I was in middle school, I was in a clique of five girls (kind of ashamed to admit this, but there it is); by the time we graduated from middle school, three of the five had already gone full-on PIV.  I wasn’t one of them, but I certainly wasn’t far behind; I lost my V-card two months into high school.  I wasn’t pressured by the guy I slept with or any of my friends; I wanted to have sex.  I was a teenage girl who recognized my sexual desire and made a conscious decision to act on it  — right after trick or treating, no less (before you tell me I was too old to be trick or treating in high school, I was collecting canned goods for a food bank!).  But that’s another story. 

Anyway, this is why it freaks me out so much that a) abstinence is still being taught in many schools as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STIs and b) when sexuality education is taught, it’s taught in a risk-avoidance framework that only focuses on pregnancy and STIs.  Like these are the only topics that matter when it comes to sexuality.  Teaching using a risk-avoidance model doesn’t allow for students’ voices to be heard or for their desires to be acknowledged.  It doesn’t help them navigate their way through the very murky waters of sexual communication and negotiation; it doesn’t even touch on identifying and talking about sexual harassment and abuse or sexual identity. 

We took a class my freshman year of high school that discussed condoms and birth control, but kind of how a top secret government agent might talk about UFOs — as in, “these things are out there, but that information is classified.”  Obviously, this class came way too late.  Health education in middle school mostly covered ‘our changing bodies’ and issues related to puberty, and that conversation was too late as well, as our bodies were already morphing into unrecognizable and sometimes very smelly alien creatures. 

I mostly dealt with this by a) talking to my one friend* who could confide in her mother about being sexually active and therefore knew where Planned Parenthood was and how to make an appointment, and b) teaching students how to use condoms in the lobby after school as part of an HIV 101 mini-class.  I can just imagine that piece of paperwork coming across the principal’s desk: “HIV education!  That’s a great idea.  They’ll talk about the immune system.  It’s biology!”  

There are a lot of organizations that are working hard on comprehensive sexuality education for middle and high school students: Advocates for Youth, SIECUS, answer, and Scarleteen to name a few.  The first three listed worked together recently with a bunch of health / health education networks and organizations to develop national standards for teaching sex education, which is super exciting!  If core subjects have national standards, health education should have them too, no?  I mean, having to include standards on lesson plans sucks, but having a list of national standards for sex ed not only normalizes the subject but gives teachers guidelines to help them work toward a more inclusive and comprehensive sexuality and relationships education model, rather than the risk-avoidance model that is so commonly taught now. 

*This is the same friend who first took me to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and for that I am forever grateful.

At the end of March, Congress extended PREP (Personal Responsibility Education Program) for one more year; PREP is a program that provides a funding stream for sexual health education.  Unfortunately, it got passed as part of a compromise bill that also extended Title V AOUM (Abstinence Only Until Marriage) funding, AKA the “let’s just tell the kids not to have sex, and they’ll totally listen” program. 

The type of sex education that students receive in the US depends on the state they reside in; most states have a provision allowing parents to opt out of sex education for their children.  My own home state has a statute that says that “abstinence will be presented as the sure way (italics mine) to prevent pregnancy and STIs.”  Is that better or worse than being from the same place as Joe McCarthy and Jeffery Dahmer?  Not sure.

Colorado is the shit, though!  Check this out:
Creates the comprehensive human sexuality education grant program in the department of public health and environment. The purpose of the program is to provide funding to public schools and school districts to create and implement evidence based, medically accurate, culturally sensitive and age appropriate comprehensive human sexuality education programs. Creates the interagency “youth sexual health team,” to function as the oversight entity of the grant program.

Want to learn about your state’s sex education policies?  SIECUS just released its annual state profile report for sexuality education / abstinence education funding for FY 2012!  It is really comprehensive. 

*Wisconsin and Colorado state policy quotes retrieved from the National Conference of State Legislatures at