Sex ed: abstinence only?

Whilst browsing the interweb recently, I stumbled upon a column called “‘Abstinence Only’ Exposed as Subversive of Actual Evangelical Values” by best-selling author Frank Schaeffer.

It’s def worth the read. In it, Schaeffer sums up a book he read, called Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns by Christine J. Gardner, which I really want to read now. In his analysis of the book, Schaeffer – who agrees with what Gardner wrote – makes several points, including these: that abstinence only programs make sketchy promises and, in the long run, don’t achieve what they’re designed to achieve.

Schaeffer says:

“…abstinence only programs like True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, and the Pure Freedom are selling virginity as a sexy choice of personal affirmation using consumerist techniques that are promising ‘better sex,’ in fact ‘great sex’ and perfect marriages if virginity is maintained as a ‘gift’ for the prince or princess …”

I have never been to a legit True Love Waits rally, nor to Silver Ring Thing or Pure Freedom events (although I did play the part of “teen 1” in a radio ad for a Silver Ring Thing rally on Spirit FM, the radio station where I interned in college. Memories!). But from what I’ve heard and gathered, what Schaeffer says is true. The teens who sign the pledge and buy the rings often are told that because they wait, sex for them will be “amazing,” and better, in fact, than the sex their friends have who aren’t waiting.

Amazing in what way?

Better how?

No one defines these terms, so the assumption – and naturally so – is usually that if one saves sex for marriage, sex will (instantly and intuitively) be fabulous, as early as the wedding night.

The problem with this is twofold.

1. When the focus is on how the reward for waiting is sex that’s more gratifying than other peoples’ sex,  it promotes “world sex” (or the phrase I just now made up to describe sex as the world sees it). To quote what I wrote about it in a column for,** “its primary purpose is pleasure, and it is often utilitarian in practice (‘I’ll use you, you’ll use me, and it is good as long as both of us enjoy it.’).” World sex, therefore, does not always require love, and isn’t necessarily selfless, which is the ultimate reason we – and by we, I mean people who worship Jesus Christ and follow his teachings – choose not to participate in it. Anyway, my point is this: If in promoting “saving sex for marriage” our primary focus is on the pleasure (i.e., how much of it, or how much more of it, we’ll experience if we’ve waited), what we imply (even if unintentionally) is that the primary purpose of sex is the pleasure, and that the reward for waiting is maximized pleasure. But a) not necessarily, and b) there is so very much more to this than that.


2. When abstinence only organizations promise people knock-your-socks-off sex (in terms of physical pleasure) at marriage because they waited, there are a lot of people who’ll be pretty disappointed on their wedding nights. Obvs, I don’t know this from personal experience, but there are some fabulous people who have courageously stepped up and said a) sex will not necessarily initially or always be effortlessly gratifying, b) just because you save sex for marriage doesn’t mean sex will be “amazing” right away and c) that it is ok if it isn’t. People need to hear this.***

So this brings us to sex education.

How much information should young people be given about sex? And what kind of information? Is the amount and kind of information given in abstinence only programs enough?

In his column, Schaeffer calls out abstinence only education for falling short of actually teaching about sex, and for not accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. He says:

“The abstinence only program not only fails but sets up young people to fail doubly. First, as the book notes, at best sexual activity is delayed only by a few months or years and then when the young person enters into sexual relationships, they are more exposed to pregnancy and venereal disease, not less.”

His point, and the book’s point I think, is that kids who signed the pledge but had sex anyway are more likely to conceive a child, more likely to acquire an STI because, a person who pledged not to have sex didn’t plan to have sex and as such, isn’t prepared to have sex “safely.” And that’s true. (For the record, I am not for the use of contraception, but that’s for another post.)

And so in my observation, people who aren’t proponents of abstinence only education are often in favor of the kind of sex ed that involves free condoms. But do we only have two choices?

I think there is probably something better in the middle. Something that covers the biology and spirituality and psychology involved. We act like if we talk about sex with young people, young people are going to go have sex right now. But do you think sex is treated the way sex is treated in our culture because too many kids got good sex talks?

Maybe it isn’t because kids know a lot about sex that they decide to have sex. Maybe kids decide to have sex because they don’t know enough about it. And – here’s where else we have to step up – maybe kids decide to have sex because they don’t know enough about love.

– – – –

*Click here to read Frank Schaeffer’s column.

**Click here to read the “erotica in Christianity” column I wrote for

***Click here to read one woman’s story about sex as a challenge.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Okay, here’s hoping this isn’t a long and rambly comment. Great thoughts on the subject by the way! I’m simply adding to the conversation.

    As a married man, I can confirm: Honeymoon sex is not necessarily earth-shattering. My wife and I did not have sex with each other before marriage. But guess what! We have the rest of our lives together to learn each others likes and dislikes, our wants, our needs, it gets better and better. No need for variety.

    Thought number two: Regarding sex, the church shames it and the “world” perverts it (i.e. pornography) rather than us having open and frank discussions about it. I used to work with the youth at my church and I went to the parents telling them “We need to work up a sex education curriculum for our kids, because I’d rather them find out here in the church than out in their schools from other knucklehead kids”. Four parents said “please do!” the rest emphatically said no way, pretend it doesn’t exist. A couple of them got pregnant. and still we can’t talk about it. We need open and frank discussions about sex. It’s a big part of life. That’s why I love this ministry

    • YES. I second that, David (all of it!).

      And the results of the church’s silence and the world’s perversion are awful. How frustrated you must have been with the parents who had no interest in letting the church teach their kids about sex (I would have been!).

      I hadn’t heard of the Moral Revolution, but I explored the site a little and I’m very excited about it. Def gonna order the book. Thanks for sharing it.

  • SVB

    I remember hearing all the “wait until marriage before you have sex” talks in my youth group growing up, and every single adult who shared his/her testimonial about how he/she waited emphatically stated that the sex was “amazing.” Looking back, I’m pretty sure they meant “amazing” as in how they were bonded with their partners–not necessarily amazing physically–but they definitely didn’t clarify it. By doing that, I think they unintentionally set us up for failure and disappointment.

    I definitely think we are in need of sex education that’s more than just “abstinence only” and “here’s how to use a condom/the Pill/the Patch” and “here’s the basics of sex.” I would like to see sex education within the context of a woman’s fertility cycle. It’s not enough to just have the, “Well, when a man and a woman love each other very much…” conversation. I think if sex was taught in conjunction with woman’s fertility, it might hone in that sex is indeed a big thing, with big consequences. I think it would make the pregnancy and STD’s all the more real. Shoot, I’m 28 and I’m STILL learning things about women’s fertility that I didn’t know about.

    • I totally agree, Sarah. Nobody who said “amazing” but meant “the fact that you are bonded solely to your spouse and can learn and grow together and create something unique” ever defined “amazing” for us and I think not defining it is really reckless.

      And re: fertility. I think women AND men ought to learn a lot more about that than we traditionally do. Great point!

  • Anonymous

    Something i find so depressIng is how the world (and even some Christians) find the word “celibacy” so embarrassing.
    I think even married people need to practice celibacy from time to time (so as to avoid artificial contraception, to focus on the soul and spiritual renewal, and so on, and ironically, i think, improving the sex life overall, by taking a break from it at certain times).
    I think this should be part of sex education.
    That celibacy will involve Cross at times, but we can lighten the burden (as God would want us) by taking regular exercise, healthy food etc.
    But at other times celibacy can lead to bliss (literally, to ecstasy of the soul, ie Teresa of Avila, where one’s soul burns with a joyful energy and buzz and bliss more real and sharp than any joy found in sex). This leads to holiness – a joyful union body and soul with the divine, as well as great creative and imaginative energy (for the arts and life in general).
    There can be really something quite magic about celibacy that i hardly hear about (and yes celibacy involves Cross too, but then so does sex, too, in the sense that sex can lead to new life in which parents will so often will have to bear the Cross for their children).
    Ed (UK)

    • I agree, Ed – there is a lot to be gained from celibacy, and from periodic abstinence in a marriage (ask any couple that uses Natural Family Planning!). Thanks for the feedback!

  • I think there’s another potential problem with True Love Waits and their ilk; namely, the fact that they are as much about virginity as about celibacy. Not to lessen virginity in any way, but if you tell kids that what really matters is that they are a virgin for their wedding night, you haven’t given a path to people who have already had sex or who might slip-up along the way. I think we might do well to extol celibacy—a conscious, chosen relationship to sex that one can renew one’s commitment to every day. This would demonstrate that what matters is not just the “amazing” experience of your wedding night, or the preservation and gift of your virginity, but that what also matters is an active, lived relationship to your sexuality as a single, celibate person.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree. I also think that if you tell kids that what really matters is that they are a virgin for their wedding night, all involved really have missed the point of saving sex for marriage. It has a lot more depth than “True Love Waits” and their ilk imply.

  • Arleen, we’ve been discussing this topic a lot lately on the TOB community on G+. Why don’t you post this article to the community? We’d love to read and discuss it.

  • I’m so glad you tweeted a link to this article! I’ve been reading your past blog posts haphazardly, just following links and seeing what happens.

    I LOVE talking about my public school SexEd experience. We followed the “abstinence plus” program. Lots of scientific information on the biology behind reproduction. We learned about the male and female reproductive organs, about puberty, about how reproduction happens, etc. We also learned about various STDs and which ones could be transmitted WITHOUT penetrative intercourse. We learned about the different types of contraceptives, their success rates, and the potential side effects of them.

    It was 10+ years ago for me, so I don’t remember if we discussed consent, but I DO remember talking about not doing something if you’re not ready for it. Oh, and our teacher addressed sexual/pregnancy/etc. “myths” that tend to be spread around teenagers, like “you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.”

    The overall message was that 1) sex should be saved for when you’re an adult in a committed relationship and 2) abstinence is the only 100% guaranteed way not to get pregnant or catch an STD.

    We also talked about personal growth stuff: Where did we see ourselves in 5, 10, 15 years? What did we want in a relationship? In a marriage? In a family? How did this fit in with career goals?

    To reiterate: this was public school. I don’t think parents and churches are equipped to handle all the scientific stuff, which I think is really important for schools to teach. Parents and churches should be focusing on love, intimacy, chastity, celibacy, devotion, marriage, feelings, etc. AND CONSENT.

    Consent is my hot-button topic. When discussing healthy sex within marriage, yes, kids need to be taught that a loving, committed relationship with a healthy sex life includes not having sex if your spouse doesn’t want to have sex. Too often purity messages get mixed in with submission messages and suddenly the Bible is an excuse for husbands to rape their wives.

    I hope you don’t mind the mini-novel…