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The Harm of Abstinence-Only Sex Education

February 10, 2021

Access to high-quality, comprehensive sex education is a fundamental human right. It’s a right that empowers us to make choices about our bodies, pleasure, relationships, safety, and futures. Abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) education is neither high-quality nor comprehensive in approach. As decades of studies show, including this one by the Guttmacher Institute, it’s deeply ineffective and profoundly harmful. In recent years, AOUM has been rebranded as “sexual risk avoidance” (SRA), but its “just say no” and “just wait” approach remains. 

To quote Zach Eisenstein of SIECUS, SRA is “merely a public-health-sounding term for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.” As Eisenstein writes, just like AOUM programs (just like them, as they are the same), SRA programs “often feature misinformation based in fear, gender stereotypes, and shaming tactics that negatively impact students.” Moreover, SRA generally presumes sex to be heterosexual and penetrative, ignoring the vast spectrum of sexual orientations and the countless other ways to be intimate. Put simply, SRA directs such stereotypes and shame at students’ identities and desires. 

We shouldn’t be afraid of sex and sexual pleasure; we should be fearful of the very programming that sustains itself on instilling panic in its students. What is truly shameful is that instead of providing these students with the information they need, SRA gives them a propaganda campaign designed to limit their freedom. I can’t overstate the danger this poses. 

In SRA’s eyes, students’ agency when making complex, intimate decisions about their sexuality is seen as wholly unimportant. SRA instead argues that there’s only one decision to be made: the decision to abstain from sex. If a student chooses differently, they’re on their own. SRA deprives them of knowledge and resources about STIs, contraception, abortion, healthy relationships, and more. 

Steph Auteri notes in her article for Rewire News Group that SRA also fails to teach students about consent. Auteri posits that in so doing, SRA promotes rape culture and cites a 2020 study to support her argument. While some students who attend college might learn about consent, Auteri asks, “What good is it to learn those lessons after graduating high school, when students have already been shaped in such a way that unhealthy and damaging sexual experiences seem inevitable?” Building on Auteri’s point, consent education isn’t just imperative in college: it’s essential for all people of all ages. 

Some students may abstain from sex; many others won’t. Under SRA, all of them suffer. SRA is more than unrealistic: it is unethical. The Woodhull Freedom Foundation is firmly opposed to SRA and any abstinence-only sexual education approach, and we recognize that comprehensive sexual education is a crucial element to sexual freedom. 


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