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.

 

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PrinciPAL

As Livvy did such an ace job writing a doctor parody, I thought I’d take a crack at writing an education parody for EuphOff!  It feels a bit more lilac than purple, but it is full of absolutely terrible puns.  I’m not actually entering the contest because I also have the exact same toys to give away and am still trying to figure out the best way to do that (Satisfyer reviews forthcoming!), but this was SO much fun to write.  Also, trigger warning: This is a piece about an administrator and a high school student.

“I hear you’ve been behaving very badly,” Principal Johnson said, cupping Tina’s chin in his rugged, yet tender, hand.  Tina looked down at her cheeky cleavage and blushed; her button-down white uniform shirt could barely contain her nubile breasts.  “I don’t know what you mean,” she said innocently, her enchanting eyelashes fluttering just so.  “You’re supposed to graduate next week, Tina,” Mr. Johnson said – “but I don’t think that’s going to happen with an F in English.”  “But Mr. Johnson, that teacher doesn’t like me!” Tina protested with a startling urgency.  “I think she’s jealous,” she pouted.

“And what might she be jealous of?” Mr. Johnson asked.  “She keeps making snide remarks about my body,” Tina said, finally looking Mr. Johnson in the eye. “She says that skirt length has an inverse relationship with depth of thought – but I have an A in all my other classes.  Do you think my skirt is too short?”  “I don’t know, Tina,” he replied.  “I’ll have to examine the evidence.”  Tina stood up; he walked languidly around his desk, stepped behind her, and crouched down, her apple bottom teasing his bulging eyes.  “Now,” he said, “You know your skirt isn’t supposed to be shorter than two inches above your knee.”  He ran his animated fingers up the backs of her trembling thighs until they reached the elevated hem of her skirt, far too scant for a schoolgirl.

“I have to graduate, Mr. Johnson,” Tina pleaded with crystalline teardrops threatening to fall from her large, impassioned blue eyes.  “Isn’t there something you can do to help me?”  “Perhaps,” Mr. Johnson said in a composed voice.  “I want to see just how bad you really are – let’s have a look at your best practices.”  “Sir?” Tina asked, her heart thudding in her chest like a timpani drum.  He continued moving his hands upward, under her skirt, until they reached the three-way junction of her thong.  “Tina, Tina, Tina,” he tutted, his fingers hooked into the skimpy strings, “I don’t think this is what a scholar would wear to study hall.”  I’d love to study your hall, he thought, suppressing a smile.

“But sir –” she started.  Mr. Johnson cut her off.  “It’s no use trying to talk your way out this time, Tina.  You’re going to have to show me that you’re willing to work to get me – er, your grade – up.”  He could feel his principal organ doing some higher-order thinking skills under his trousers.  “Yes, sir,” she said in a husky voice, feeling a few participatory flutters herself.  Mr. Johnson placed a piece of paper and a number two pencil on his desk; she loved the smell of his wood.  “Now, Tina,” he said – “You’re failing English, right?”  “Yes, sir,” she confirmed.  “I’m going to give you a few vocabulary words,” he said; “I want you to write them down, along with their definition and their part of speech.  Think you can do that?”  “Oh, yes, sir!” she said, eager to commence.  As she tipped her youthful bosom over the slender paper and took the pencil in her delicate fingers, he lifted her skirt.  “There’s no question about it,” he said.  “I’d like to punctuate your bottom.”

“Mr. Johnson?” she queried, a puzzled look in her eye. “Never you mind,” he said.  “Your first word is turgid.”  T-u-r-g-e-d, she wrote.  Looking so closely over her shoulder that he could smell her rose perfume, he gave her ass a thwack.  “Incorrect spelling,” he said.  Her cheeks flushed; he looked down and noticed his participle was no longer dangling.  Adjective, she wrote next to it.  “Good,” he said.  “And the definition?”  “I- I don’t know, sir,” she admitted.  “You’ll find out soon enough,” he said, adjusting himself.  “I don’t think this written assessment will work, Tina.  But don’t worry – we can do a performance assessment.”  “Oh, thank you, sir!” she said.  “Yesssss,” he drawled.  “We’re going to do some daily oral language.” She turned around to look at him as he unbuckled his belt.

“Now that’s a proper noun,” she said, looking at his pulsing paste-maker.  “I bet you’ve got quite a portfolio, Principal Johnson.”  He chuckled.  “I think you’re getting it, Tina,” he said, knowing his semi-moist treat stick was also about to get it.  “You’re going to make an excellent subordinate clause.  And remember,” he said as she dropped to her knees, her succulent lips parting as she readied for her hot lunch: “Show your work.  If you do well on this assignment, we can move on to conjugation.”

Second Time Around

When I was teaching in Korea, I noticed a large cultural difference in terms of how students would address creative questions.  This became very apparent when I asked my university students the following question:

“If you could travel back in time, when and where would you go?”

In the US, students might answer that they would go see ancient Egypt, dinosaurs in the Jurassic period, or Woodstock.  My Korean students, however, would always – without fail – tell me that they would revisit a time in their own life in order to change it (usually to study more or take a test over!) or return to an age when they had more free time.  It’s because of their answers that this idea popped into my head.

Pocket Watch, Clock, Time, Old

If I could go back in time, where and when would I go, professor?  That’s a hard question.  Maybe you want me to say something about some big historical event or a famous person I might meet, but to be frank, there are moments in my life I want to go back to.  Missed opportunities.  Moments of regret.  No, not the chance to study abroad or take more advanced classes.  The chance to have more lovers.  You’re blushing, professor.  No need; I am just answering your question.

Let me give you an example.  You always ask us to give examples to show our answers, right?  So here’s mine.  Last summer, I took a trip to Europe with Jun to celebrate our last year in university; you remember me talking about this before.  We were at a hof one night in Zurich talking to a small group of Swiss women; Jun wasn’t feeling well and went home early, but I stayed.  I was left with two women, both so beautiful.  They had shiny hair, soft skin, perfect teeth.  They were young like us, and we talked about the difficulties of expressing our thoughts in English.  Well, to make a long story short – we all drank many beers, and these girls started kissing each other.  I had never seen that before; there are gays here, but they hide.  I watched them, so surprised – and so… well, it was exciting.

One of them took my hand and leaned in to my ear; she asked if I would come back to their apartment with them.  I had never done sex with one person, and here were two girls asking me to come with them!  Professor, I was so scared that I couldn’t.  I was afraid that I would be bad at it.  That they would laugh at me.  Now, I regret that.  So to answer your question, professor, if I could go back in time, I would say to those two Swiss women, “Yes.  I will come with you.  But I am inexperienced, and I need guidance.”  They would say to me, “Yes, we will help you.”  They would take me home and teach me everything.

I would give them as much pleasure as they wanted, and I would touch them the way they wanted me to touch them.  I would lie back and let them touch me and kiss me, wondering about my luck.  I would have – what is the expression you taught us? – seized the day.  Professor, I don’t want to say too much, because you seem uncomfortable.  But in my mind, I live that night every night.  If I had a time machine, I would make a girlfriend in my first year instead of getting high test scores.  I would kiss many girls on my trip.  And I would enjoy my time with the two women I dream about every night.

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

The Heart Wants What It Wants

I met up with a former student for lunch a couple weekends ago because she was in the middle of a relationship crisis and wanted to talk about it with someone who wouldn’t judge her.  She’s been with her current boyfriend for two years and is very much in love with him, but she cheated on him with a guy at summer camp this summer (which I found hilarious, because I did exactly the same thing at exactly the same age and remember how gutting it was to try to navigate the situation).  She says she’s still talking to the new guy all the time – that he arouses a kind of passion in her that her boyfriend doesn’t because they have shared goals and interests and she feels comfortable completely being herself around him.  Welcome to NRE, I say.  I tell her to try not to compare them, which she says is impossible.

I ask if she still wants to be with the boyfriend.  Yes, absolutely, she says.  He’s kind, giving, dependable.  He’s a Good Man.  I ask her if consensual non-monogamy is a potential choice for her.  No, she says – she’s monogamous (…).  I tell her, then, that she should probably cut off contact with the new guy.  She says she doesn’t want to do that – he’s intoxicating (quite literally).  And then she says this hilarious thing that I think all of us have thought but few of us actually say out loud:

“Jo,” she says.  “The thing is – like, do I really have to do the right thing?  What if I’m just okay with not being a good person?  Is being a good person really all it’s cracked up to be?  I’m not sure it is.”

Oh, sister.  We’ve all been there.  The NRE has blinded her to the fact that she’s already broken her boyfriend’s heart – he just doesn’t know it yet.  We talk for a long time and go through every possible permutation of potential action that can be taken, and I finally tell her that it doesn’t matter what I say – she’s going to do what in the end feels right for her, even if she knows it isn’t.  The heart wants what it wants.  When I was her age, I wouldn’t have listened to anyone’s advice – I would follow my cunt, because that’s where my heart lives.  I told her to be careful with the hearts of people she cares about and sent her a link to www.morethantwo.com *just* in case.  On my way home, I thought: You couldn’t pay me to be that young again.

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.

Well Played, Grasshopper

I talked to a former student on Skype recently; she was in my tenth grade English class my first year of teaching.  She had been through a really difficult breakup and needed to talk it through.  It was one of those breakups that happen again and again and again, where you keep having the same fight over and over but can’t quite let go.  After she got everything off her chest and got some validation, which it seemed she needed, she asked how I was doing.

“I also have emotional ebola,” I said.  I explained how I’ve recently fallen into an emotional vortex and have been trying in vain to navigate my way out.  How at first I was deliriously happy, but then a month in the pain started.  (By the way, did you know that when you allow yourself to feel things, you have to feel ALL THE THINGS?  Like, you can’t just pick and choose your feelings?)  Understanding this, she said to me:

“Well, you know – there’s a reason the word delirious is there!”

Touché.  That whole cliché about the student becoming the teacher.  We erupted into peals of laughter and I immediately felt better.  She had come to me for emotional relief and had given me relief that I didn’t even know I needed.