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You can’t practice safe sex if you don’t know what sex is.

Why Abstinence-Only Education Doesn’t Work

The Talk

You can’t practice safe sex if you don’t know what sex is.

By Lindsay Biondy, University of Pittsburgh


I pray to God that my Catholic ex-boyfriend doesn’t see this article, but if you are somehow reading it, ex-boyfriend of mine, hi. We had sex.

You’d think that’d be an obvious statement for two people who willingly and consensually slept together for the last eight months of their high-school relationship, but no. We didn’t realize the act we were engaging in was considered sex. We thought it was just…I don’t know, something else. To put it in baseball terms, we thought it was more than third base, but less than a home run.

I’ve attended Catholic school all my life, and from sixth through twelfth grade, I’ve had the same “sex-ed” presentation every year. If any of you have experienced abstinence-only education, then you can guess where I’m going with this.

The sixth, seventh and eighth graders were separated into two groups, boys and girls. After a brief introduction, the woman giving the presentation asked for a volunteer, and only after a painfully long period of silence did one brave soul raise her hand. In my case, it was a girl who, rumor had it, already lost her v-card, and the irony was not lost on her. I’ll call her Mary.

The presenter ripped off a piece of duct tape and held it up to the crowd.

She said, “This is your virginity. See how it’s clean and sticky. Let’s say Mary meets a boy named Joseph, they date and after a month of dating, they have sex.”

She stuck the duct tape to Mary’s arm.

“This is the bond they make when they have sex. The tape sticks to Mary’s arm really tightly. It’s hard to get off. But, say Mary and Joseph break up…”

She ripped the tape off Mary’s arm and held it up for us all to see.

“It’s dirty now. Look at all the hair and skin that came off. This is your virginity after just one partner. Once you rip it off, it doesn’t stick as well.”

She paused for emphasis.

“Now, say Mary meets Peter. They have sex.”

Once again, she stuck the tape to Mary’s arm, then ripped it off.

“More hair, more skin, but it wasn’t as sticky, was it? I got it off much easier.”

She repeated this process two more times, pointing out how the tape gets less and less sticky, and more and more dirty. She tried to put the fear of God into us, saying we could only obtain a special bond with one other person. We never get another piece of tape.

Why Abstinence-Only Education Doesn’t Work
Image via New York Post

That’s the sex education I received for seven years. My school never showed me how to put a condom on a banana. Anatomy wasn’t mandatory, so I never learned about the reproductive system. No one ever told me what sex was. Up until eighth grade, I literally thought sex was just hugging naked, and I thought protected sex was hugging with your underwear on.

I am not joking.

So, when I tell people I lost my virginity, but didn’t realize it at the time, they don’t understand. They ask if I was drugged or raped, and I say no. Nothing like that. I didn’t realize that what I was doing was sex. It’s amazing that I didn’t get pregnant, because I never learned about contraceptives either.

I take that back. I did learn about contraceptives. I learned that I should never use contraceptives because they’re against the Catholic religion. So is masturbation, if you were wondering.

Everything I now know about sex and contraceptives I learned from Google, YouTube and reading YA fiction novels. Thank you, Sarah Mlynowski’s “Milkrun” for thoroughly scarring me, but teaching me what really happens during sex.

The common argument for abstinence-only education is that it’s the only form of pregnancy prevention that’s 100 percent effective, so you need to teach it to kids. Yes, okay. Tell high schoolers that it’s more effective than the condom and the pill, but tell them about the condom and the pill.

Why Abstinence-Only Education Doesn’t Work
Image via Meld Magazine

In a lot of cases, high schoolers, college students and even adults who have the best intentions will not stay abstinent. Kissing feels good. French kissing feels better. And everything feels better and better after that, so people will keep wanting to go further and further. For example, my Catholic boyfriend was adamant about waiting until marriage, until he wasn’t.

Another argument for abstinence-only education is that it delays teens from having sex. In some demographics, the delay is more than a year, which “gives teens more time to mature.” Personally, I can attest to this delay, but at the same time, I still had sex before marriage, so my abstinence-only education didn’t serve its purpose. And I am not in the minority here. Up to 70 percent of teens who go through an abstinence-only education program have their first sexual encounter before the age of twenty.

A third argument is that it encourages young people to have healthy sexual habits. It teaches the concept of “I’m worth waiting for” (Does anyone remember those big red stickers you’d get after you signed a contract saying you’d save yourself for marriage?). Students learn that a relationship is about more than sex, and they should fall in love with someone’s personality, not their body.

I agree, students should learn that they’re worth more than what they can physically offer. Everyone is worth waiting for, if that’s what they truly want, but it’s irresponsible not to teach young people what sex is and how to have safe sex.

The decrease in teen pregnancy rates hasn’t come from more rigorous, abstinence-only education; it has come from comprehensive sex education and more available resources, thanks to places like Planned Parenthood.

Young people need to know why condoms are important, and why they can’t be replaced with plastic grocery bags. Young people need to know why the pull-out method is and isn’t effective, and they need to know all their options if and when they choose to engage in any sexual activity.

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