Teens who abstain from sexual intercourse are much less likely to engage in risky or unhealthy behavior (e.g. get into a car with a drunk driver, experience physical abuse from someone they are dating, smoke, binge drink, inject illegal drugs, be depressed or suicidal, try tanning beds, etc.) than their sexually active peers, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on teen health and sexuality found.
Over the years, similar studies have consistently pointed to the many physical, psychological, and economic benefits of delaying sexual activity until adulthood. Despite this, the vast majority of sexual education methods implemented in public schools today focus on “safe sex.” But this narrow understanding of “sexual health” ignores the manifold consequences of adolescent sexual activity — “protected” or not — that help explain why teens who abstain from sex altogether tend to fare better in the long run.
In a recent interview with Conservative Review, Valerie Huber, CEO of Ascend, a Washington, D.C.-based sexual education policy association, explained why the type of discipline abstinence requires can yield benefits that extend far beyond one’s teen years.
“When a young person waits for sex, they’re learning skills of self-regulation,” Huber told CR. “And those are habits that can be implemented not just for waiting for sex, but for a lot of other things.”
Huber explained that most public school sex-ed programs today employ sexual risk reduction (SRR), a method that primarily focuses on reducing the risk of teen pregnancy and STDs. And while abstinence offers a 100 percent chance of avoiding these factors, SRR programs often place a greater emphasis on birth control and contraception with the assumption that most teens will have sex. Further, Huber noted that proponents of SRR tend to hold the view that teen sex can be a good, healthy part of human development, so long as it doesn’t result in pregnancy or an STD.
Huber called SRR’s outcome-focused approach “minimalistic” because it ignores a variety of non-biological factors related to adolescent sexual activity. She noted, however, that it is also possible to approach abstinence with an outcome-oriented attitude — that is, simply reducing the prevalence of teen sex. This reduction, she explained, can be just as dangerous. For example, a teen who abstains from physical intercourse yet consumes pornography is not practicing self-regulation or acknowledging the proper context of sex, which is ultimately what makes abstinence effective.
For this reason, Huber and her organization promote an alternative teaching method known as sexual risk avoidance (SRA). SRA teaches that abstinence is not just another form of birth control, but a standalone practice that cultivates the type of discipline required to be a successful, healthy adult. Abstinence is part of an integrated view of sexuality as something that affects every area of one’s life.
“We think that success is waiting for sex and developing the skill to wait, which is not a birth control method — it’s a life skill. It’s a life skill that bleeds over into every decision a person makes,” she said.
Speaking to Conservative Review, research associate for the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, Melanie Israel, said that common misconceptions about abstinence have led to an information gap in the realm of sexual education.
“I think a lot of people think of abstinence education as being purely something that says, ‘Sex: bad! Don’t do it! And we’re not going to tell you anything else about it,’” she said.
Israel referenced the famous scene in the movie “Mean Girls,” where the high school gym teacher tells his students that if they have sex, they will actually die:
“I think abstinence is more about giving a context to everything,” Israel said. “I don’t think we should think of abstinence as something like we’re denying people information about sexuality.”
In fact, if any group can be accused of withholding information, it’s liberals who claim that “everybody’s doing it.” Ascend’s Valerie Huber told CR that despite the fact that abstinence-focused sexual education is rare, the majority of teens are not having sex.
In 1991, the CDC began tracking sexual activity among teens as one among many risky behaviors that affect public health and safety. Since then, the percentage of teens who are sexually active has decreased by 8 percent. Given this, Huber believes that the argument for abstinence is “even more relevant for teens today than it was 25 years ago.”
“This ends the discussion of whether SRA is a relevant and resonating message for today’s teens,” she added.
So why isn’t sexual risk avoidance the message most teens are hearing today? According to Huber, the answer to this question dates back to more than a century ago.
Last year, Huber wrote a research piece for The Public Discourse, tracing the history of sexual education in America. In it, she describes how the idea of “sexual necessity” — the belief that most people are incapable of sexual continence —was exposed as a myth during the public health crisis of World War I:
The result of this epidemic was a nationwide effort to promote abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage. Public health experts at the time deemed sexual restraint vital to protecting American citizens and combatting a decline in the nation’s moral culture.
Unfortunately, the sentiment didn’t last. In the decades that followed World War I, pop psychology and social norms began to shift in favor of sexual liberality, and sexual education programs followed suit, condoning “safe” extramarital sex. Huber notes that not even the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was enough to resurrect the message of sexual restraint. And today, public officials seem to have lost interest in ever bringing it back:
Sexual liberality is often cast as a symbol of freedom, but Valerie Huber and Melanie Israel agree that teens who choose to not engage in sexual relationships are freer to focus on other pursuits, such as sports, music, academics, work, and non-sexual relationships. Teens who don’t abstain are less likely to invest in these subjects, even when sexual activity does not result in an STD or unwanted pregnancy.
“So where are the adults reinforcing the best health messages?” Huber demanded. “Where are other voices in the community and in our culture in general encouraging those healthy choices? They’re curiously absent. Instead, we’re normalizing teen sex by saying, ‘We know you’re going to having sex, so just make sure you use contraception and reduce your risk to get pregnant or get an STD.’ The topline message should be, ‘You don’t have to have sex. Most of your peers aren’t, and it’s healthier if you don’t.’”
Like Huber, Israel believes that abstinence should be explained to teens positively, in the context of freedom, opportunity, and long-term goals (career, marriage, family, etc.). When parents and educators are able to appeal to a “sense of hope” for the future and have young people consider what they want out of life, they will be in a better position to explain that “a pretty good way to accomplish that is to put off having a sexual relationship until later.”
Too many teens today are victims of misinformation. And while, thankfully, most aren’t buying into the false narrative of “sexual freedom,” those who do are likely to pay a hefty price for the negligence of their superiors.
If educators and public officials are really concerned about the sexual health of America’s youth, they need to scrap so-called “sexual education” programs that overlook or ignore the unique, lifelong benefits of teen abstinence.
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Carly Hoilman is a Correspondent for Conservative Review. You can follow her on Twitter @CarlyHoilman.