The Common Good

Abstinence-Only Sex Ed is Over

As a teen, I was taught abstinence-only sex education. I pledged purity, and I made it known to all the boys around me. In my freshman year of high school, I was even voted “Most Likely to Wait Until Marriage” by my peers. The very next year, at age 15, I became pregnant.

Heart illustration, winui / Shutterstock.com
Heart illustration, winui / Shutterstock.com

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Today, nearly half of American high schoolers, aged 14 to 18, are sexually active, according to a Centers for Disease Control survey. Even Christians aren’t waiting until marriage. Among unmarried adult evangelicals under 30, 8 in 10 have had sex.

Somebody has to say it: Our approach isn’t working, and it’s time to rethink “the talk.” It’s time to expand the conversation into territory where many evangelical parents dare not go.

The familiar Christian parenting mantra of Proverbs 22:6 tells us that if we “start children off on the way they should go, when they are old they will not turn from it.” For sex education, many evangelical moms and dads hold to this verse, teaching their kids to “just say no” and trusting they’ll stick to it.

Parents set on abstinence often worry if they say, “Don’t have sex, but if you do here’s how to be safe,” children will take it as permission. This implicit go-ahead for “safe-sinning,” they say, reduces the moral efficacy of the abstinence-only message and offers teens the tools to engage in premarital sex without fear of consequences.

This theory of “safe sinning,” though, is a myth. An overwhelming majority of teens actually say it would be easier to abstain if parents would address sex in an open and honest way.

Our “just say no, end of conversation” approach leaves kids to their own devices — namely, the media and peers — for understanding the societal presentation and pressures of seemingly gray areas of sex and intimacy. By focusing only on abstinence, parents may inadvertently close off avenues of discourse and downplay the emotional, physical, and spiritual risks of premarital sex. 

In Hosea 4:6, the prophet Hosea writes, “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.” I can’t help but think that if I could have talked to a trusted adult and learned about sex in an honest, non-scare-tactic fashion, I would have reconsidered my decision. Or at least, I would have had the opportunity to ask questions and disclose my muddled teenage thoughts and logic on the topic.

At the time, I knew I was expected to wait until marriage but remained confused about why waiting was important. Certainly, someone with deeper biblical knowledge and life experience could have explained it to me.

As a mother, when I talked to my oldest about sex, I thought of Colossians 4:5-6: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Learning from my own life lessons, I felt like I owed my teenage son a fuller, more informative conversation than I had. I first taught him abstinence, then addressed safe sex — while making clear my expectation that he wait until marriage. In a culture where premarital sex has become the norm, I feel confident I have maintained relevancy, respect, and my convictions as a Christian parent.

God’s message is timeless and never changing. But as society changes, so does the way we spread his word. In 21st-century media, sex is not only accepted, it is expected.  Nearly all kids with a TV and an Internet connection have knowledge of sexual actions and how to “be safe” doing them. This knowledge, though, comes to them without the biblical truths of intimacy, sex, and marriage. When youth are grappling with hormones and peer pressure, trying desperately to find permission to “just say yes,” false knowledge fills the void created by a “just say no” culture.

Parents must realize that a broader sexual education conversation, from a trusted source, does not simply empower teens to properly take a pill or use a condom. It also gives them power to walk away from sex. In realizing the true import of their sexual actions, youth are much more likely to take those actions seriously.

The message of peers and sex-ed brochures is take a pill and don’t get pregnant; use protection and avoid STDs. Parents can take this message further, explaining both the benefits and inevitable risks of various forms of birth control. They can more fully explain how sex affects us emotionally and spiritually. If knowledge is power, it is a parent’s duty to make sure kids are empowered with real knowledge, not the stuff of movies and music videos.

And yes, this can be done without compromising biblical values and implicitly giving permission to have sex.

It is not difficult to make our beliefs clear. We repeat them, live them, and maintain them.  We should not hesitate to look our children in the eye and say, often and emphatically, that they must wait until marriage to have sex, and then explain why, including the “if you do have sex …” clause.

When Christians go silent on these matters, we negatively affect the development of our youth. We should take the responsibility of educating children so they form emotionally healthy relationships, abstain from premarital sex, and prevent unplanned pregnancies and STDs.

Talking both about abstinence and safe sex does not create an ambiguous message. Instead, it first imparts the biblical value of saving sex for marriage, then offers as a clear recognition that children, as beings separate from their parents, ultimately make their own decisions. The reality is that our children will make good choices and bad choices, and in the latter instance, be left with the consequences.

While it may seem that parents protect Christian morals by refraining to educate their kids about safe sex, they may actually make it more likely that youth will enter into high-risk premarital sex if they chose to turn from the way they were taught.

Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer and attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Andy, and their children. Her work can be found in Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and Literary Mama, among others. She is a contributor to Faith Village and a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Jamie blogs weekly at http://jamiecallowayhanauer.com, and you can find her on Facebook or on Twitter @HappyHanauers.

Image: Heart illustration, winui / Shutterstock.com

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