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Illustration depicting cutout printed letters arranged to form the word abstinence.

Debates about sex education are nothing new and of course most parents and trusted adults would agree that abstinence is best choice for their child/ren.  Over the past few decades, the federal government has sunk millions of taxpayer dollars into abstinence programs and interventions which have yet to be proven effective.  Stopping teen pregnancy, the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among youth takes much more than a pledge, purity ring or a bogus abstinence message that only focuses on delaying sex until marriage.  Now don’t get me wrong, abstinence is a great message and yes we all wish that children were practicing abstinence, however reality and statistics show that’s just not the case. Maybe one of the reasons is that the current abstinence messages are missing the mark! It’s time to get real about abstinence messages and explore the reasons why they continue to fail our children.

  1. The pursuit of pleasure trumps all. We live in a hedonistic society where the pursuit of pleasure supersedes our rationale mind and the desire to orgasm clouds our common sense. Many sex educators promote orgasm without consequence or consent. They brand this sort of pleasure as a necessity for life.  And while these “sexperts” boost the benefits of orgasm, they fail to mention all the intended and unintended repercussions of sexual intercourse.  Focusing only on pleasure presents a very bias viewpoint of sexuality and does not adequately prepare an individual for the aftermath of their sexual decision. The insatiable quest for the gratification received from sexual pleasure tends to weaken the messages of abstinence.
  2. Peer pressure is real.  Peer pressure is a hallmark of the adolescent experience. The desire and pressure to fit in during adolescent years can definitely be overwhelming! No matter how influential you and/or other trusted adults are to children, their friends’ thoughts and opinions will weigh heavily on their decision making, including the decision to have sex. According to research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the majority of children in the U.S. ages 13-18 reported that they get a lot of their information about sexuality from their peers. The report also found that one of the biggest reasons that they engage in sexual activity is because they believe that their peers are also having sex.
  3. Society sells sex and sex sells society! The media perpetuates a number of social scripts and conceptual frameworks about sexuality. The television, magazines, movies, and music continue to shape societies thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes regarding sexuality. You cannot turn on the TV without seeing sex everywhere! TV programs such as The Real Housewives, Love & Hip Hop, The Bachelorette are filled with the same old script: images featuring unhealthy relationships, lack of sisterhood, a false sense of self-esteem, and overt sexual undertones, and are famous for promoting “player” status and “using what you’ve got to get what you want.”  
  4. Social media has opened Pandora’s Box! Children have a natural curiosity when it comes to sexuality. The World Wide Web (www), Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and all the other social media sites on the internet have increasingly become the primary source of sexuality education and information. Children are turning to the internet, instead of parents or trusted adults, to answer their questions about sexuality. Unfortunately, the accuracy and reliability of the internet is, at best, questionable. Searching for sex education websites online can result in websites that are inappropriate. “Meta tags,” “keywords,” “crawlers,” etc. which are designed to help users when searching for websites could possibly redirect a user to a porn, adult chat and/or adult sex & swinger websites, versus an educational sex website with material that is appropriate for adolescents’ usage. In addition, these websites portray an unrealistic, pleasure only view of sexuality which can prove to be detrimental to youth’s understanding and perspective of sexuality.
  5. The church sends mixed messages. Often times, the church, of course not all, preaches one thing – refrain from sex until marriage but from the pulpit to the backdoor, from the pastor to the youth usher board individuals are engaging in some form of “sinful” sexual activity. Additionally, focusing specifically on only female congregants i.e. when the young lady gets pregnant she is expected to come before the congregation and acknowledge her sins of fornication, while the male partner does not, sends the message that only the female is to be held accountable for her unacceptable sinful behavior. FYI, bible beating with scriptures, religious guilt-tripping and sin shaming isn’t very helpful either. It only teaches children to lie about, hide and/or be ashamed of and deal with their sexuality in silence It is this type of learned silence that puts children at risk. When we silence them for speaking about sexuality beyond abstinence, we may miss an opportunity to save their life.   
  6. Fear-laden messages don’t work! Showing pictures of sexually transmitted infections or telling children that they’ll go blind if they have sex are fear-based tactics that often times have adverse effects. When messages regarding sexuality are categories as something that is dirty, nasty, and yucky or something only bad people do, we subconsciously send the message that individuals should not embrace their sexuality. Not only that, it teaches intolerance for sexual diversity among the beautiful spectrum of sexuality. As a result, they carry these unhealthy messages into adulthood and into their relationships. And these unhealthy thoughts play out in the form of unhealthy relationships, low self-esteem and self-efficacy, depression and other mental health challenges, domestic violence, substance abuse and so much more! In addition, just in case you did not know, teens are invincible. Because the teen brain is less developed than adults, they lack the biological mechanism to properly determine the possible negative outcomes of a certain action. So often times they live with a false sense of security and take risks because “it’s not going to happen to me”
  7. The desire to have sex is a natural feeling. We are sexual beings from the time we are born until we die. The desire to explore our sexuality is as natural as the desire to eat or sleep. These desires are embedded deep within our subconscious and it begins much earlier in life than puberty. Curiosity surrounding sexuality is a natural part of development beginning with the exploration of the body. As children grow and develop, they may begin to ask questions about their body and budding curiosity as it pertains to sexuality. These curiosities serve as the foundation for developing sexual thoughts, beliefs, feelings, desires, interests, which will determine what sexual behaviors they will most likely engage in. The quickest way to get someone to do it is to tell them they can’t!
  8. Do as I say and not as I do. The family structure has significantly changed over the past couple of decades. Due to a variety a reason, many children are being raised in single parent homes.  Because of the breakdown in family structures, men and women are having multiple kids with multiple people. This sends a message to kids. 1) sex is ok and 2) unprotected sex with multiple individuals is ok. Kids are very perceptive! They notice their parents’ behaviors-good, bad, ugly, etc. And although parents tell their kids don’t have sex, it sends a mixed message. The unspoken messages from adults regarding sexuality are oftentimes more powerful than their spoken messages in shaping children’s perception of sexuality. The behaviors adults model to children can have a significant impact on the choices they make, how they view things and even how they behave or not behave. Parents it’s time to lead by example! If you want to send the message of abstinence, then perhaps you need to do the same and talk the talk and walk the walk.
  9. Penis play equals notches! Boys are socialized from a very early age  to embrace their penis. They are encourage to sow their royal oats and have as much sex as one man can take. This message has been passed down as some sorts of a rite of passage. “Locker room banter”  is suggestive of negative connotations and references to women. In addition society supports a very unhealthy and sometimes misogynistic view of women, relationship and sexuality. All these things combine create an unhealthy framework of male sexuality that promotes promiscuity and shuns abstinence.
  10. Keep your panties up! This old antiquated way of thinking fails just as much now as it did back then with grandma and them. The message of remaining abstinent until marriage only ended with a lot of girls being sent  on “vacation” down south or up north to Big mama’s house for nine months. It also contributes to a lot of shame, secrecy and empty church confessions from a young women scorned. Or it created resentment from kids who grew up only to find that their “big sister” was really their mother. Finally, this out of date mindset, resulted in damaged wombs, infections and emotionally scarred women who received back alley abortions. So while some young ladies did keep their panties up, they just pulled them to the side or perhaps they didn’t wear any at all! 

So, You want a abstinence message that works!

Now, I’m not blaming or shaming anyone here! I’m simply saying that the current abstinence messages are NOT working. Why do I say that? The proof is in the statistics! Teens are still becoming pregnant and infected with HIV and other STIs.  And to be clear, I am not suggesting that we do away with or disregard abstinence messages. I’m simply saying we need to rethink, reframe and replace current message with one that offers an integrated approach that is developmentally appropriate, medically accurately, gender considerate, culturally competent. The message must be clear, concise and consistent and teach knowledge, tools and skills. In addition, effective abstinence programs must including the following:

  • Teaching what it truly means to abstain, including abstain from substances
  • Teaching how to choose abstinence – even after being sexual
  • Teaching that the body is a temple that needs to be protected in order to function properly
  • Teaching how to live spiritual in the flesh
  • Identifying sexual triggers
  • Understanding peer pressure and establishing healthy friendship
  • Setting personal boundaries
  • Defining the characteristics of a healthy relationship
  • Teaching about informed consent
  • Teaching communication skills
  • Teaching critical thinking skills
  • Teaching decision making skills
  • Teaching negotiation and conflict resolution skills
  • Identifying how morals, values and beliefs influence sexuality
  • Discussing the mental, emotional, social, spiritual, physical, biochemical, energetical, political, institutional, legal, systemic and financial consequences of sexuality

Finally, parents and other trusted adults must continue the abstinence talk.  It is not a onetime discussion. The abstinence talk is an ongoing evolving discussion that changes with the needs of the child.

Yes, I get that you don’t want to teach your child about sexuality because it can be frightening; however, the fact of the matter is that we live in a world where not teaching your child about sexuality can be even more frightening!

At the end of the day, YES, we’d prefer that the first choice for our children is abstinence but that’s not their necessary reality.  Therefore, we must acknowledge that an abstinence only message is not it! We have to create a real abstinence message takes it a step further by preparing them for life by acknowledging the truth that children are indeed having sex!