Is Abstinence Only Education To Blame For Parents Who Can’t Say “Penis”?

Earlier this week, California Judge Donald Black ruled that abstinence-only education isn’t actually sex education (preach, sir!), provides inaccurate information and doesn’t meet California’s curriculum guidelines. So, this leaves one to wonder, what does abstinence only education do? Well, a couple months back I put forth a theory and about a couple of ways I suspect it impacts teens and parents alike and the whole thing started with a doll.

The Blind Leading the Blind: Is Abstinence Only Education to Blame For Parents Who Can’t Say “Penis”? originally ran on August 24 2014.

Last summer there was a rash of stories about a baby doll that had some parents all up in arms. Why, you ask? Was it unsafe? No. Racist? No. Prohibitively expensive? Not that I’ve heard. The big problem? It has a penis. You know, like a human. People were PISSED. The ire was vented in the now-common manner- facebook posts- where folks are declaring that the “company makes me sick” because little girls “don’t need to know about anatomy” etc, etc.

Barely a week after that, a petition started circulating demanding that the Fremont Board of Education remove a book called “Your Health Today” from schools. Parents were outraged (outraged!) that the book: “exposes youth to sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes, and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices, and additional instruction that is extremely inappropriate for 13 and 14 year-old youth.”

All accounts indicate that while the book did, in fact, indicate that sex can be enjoyable , none of the information was prevented in a salacious or provocative manner. In fact, Slate describes it as “the most boring prose imaginable” including lessons explaining that students should only ever do what “they are comfortable doing” but that wasn’t enough to keep parents from freaking out. My favorite complaint is the one that is about one of my favorite parts of the book: Parent Asfia Ahmed, fretted to the San Jose Mercury-News “There’s a section that tells you how to talk to your prospective partners about your sexual history, how does that relate to a 14-year-old kid? I don’t see it at all.” *

I wish last August was some kind of sex-negative anomaly, but it’s not. Earlier this year there was a similar wave of discussion in reference to teaching children the proper anatomical terms for their body parts -that’s right people have been getting upset because their children were given factually correct information about their body- they were, for example, exposed to words like vagina.

So, what gives? How did people become convinced that accurate education was heinously inappropriate and something to shield their children from lest their innocence be destroyed.

I have a theory.

I blame abstinence-only education.

But not the education of this generation. I think this generation of parents who thinks they can shield their children from their own genitals and that they shouldn’t talk to their teenagers about sex, lest they get ideas is the result of the previous generation- the first one that was highly likely to be presented with abstinence-only education in their schools.

Let’s take a quick history break: Abstinence-only education started receiving limited federal funding in 1982 through the Adolescent Family Life Act. After the passing of the Welfare Reform Act in 1996 which included a mandate that 50 million dollars yearly be allocated to abstinence-only education, it spread rapidly as cash-strapped schools decided that receiving the funds was more valuable than, you know, teaching kids anything about sex.**

Since then these programs have gone on to teach children that sex is for marriage only, condoms don’t work, there are terrifying made-up diseases, people (especially women) who have had sex are the equivalent of chewed up gum, food that has been passed around, used tape, an emptied tube of toothpaste (here’s a bunch all at once) and other equally nonsensical/disgusting things. Behold:


The thing about abstinence only education is that its entire aim is to tell kids not to have sex -and by sex, they mean penis-in-vagina intercourse because that’s what exists in this world- basically by scaring them out of it, it’s pretty much this:

Except without the condoms because according to them, condoms A. don’t work and B would apparently be condoning sex.

That’s right, no information is given for in case the students do engage in sex (except the chewed up gum thing- whore!).  They are not taught about their bodies. They are taught that condoms are ineffective and they are taught that it is super important to not engage in penis-in-vagina intercourse, because purity.

Fun fact: There has been no noted decline in teen sexual activity, however there has been a noted decline in condom use among teens (because, hey, those things don’t work anyway) and an upswing in anal and oral sex among teens, because, not real sex – loophole!

It seems folks are also super-fuzzy on consent with cases coming out with alarming frequency of unconscious girls being violated by classmates who think “not no” is the same as “yes”. A study recently showed that teen boys don’t think that anal sex is something they need explicit permission for.

It seems that, in addition to teaching our children nothing about sex (except, you know, don’t do it) we are also teaching them nothing about their bodies and how they work and finally nothing about how to communicate with partners.

So, here it is 2014, 32 years after abstinence-only education started rearing its ugly head and 18 years after it spread like wild fire. The kids who were most likely to get it, the ones who were in junior high and high school from 1996 on are around 30 (though it should be noted that since funding has been in place in some places since ’82, counting from ’96 is playing it conservative.). They are reproducing. I think they are the people who can’t handle penises on dolls, the people who can’t deal with their kids learning the proper names for parts of their anatomy, the people who think that healthy sexual communication doesn’t relate to 14 year olds at all. I think that by teaching them noting but negatives (don’t! it’s bad!) the world has set them up to parent their children as if the existence of sex (and indeed their own body parts) is something they can— and should— hide from them.

So, what’s the answer here? It’s a tricky one because I always lobby for comprehensive sex education for children but we’ve been painted into something of a corner here- we have a generation of adults that is treating sexual knowledge like it’s plutonium and fighting tooth and nail to keep it from their children. So, I’m thinking we have to start from the top. Teach the adults. This is one of the reasons I find the Academy of Sex Education so exciting. But it’s important that we don’t simply teach adults how to have sex they enjoy (though that’s awesome) we need to be helping them undo what their prior educations have done. We need to help them teach their children who will likely be exposed to similar nonsense in schools. We need to be the antidote to abstinence only education. Right now there is a generation of parents who, when it comes to teaching their kids about sex are basically like the blind leading the blind and, as educators, let’s be their guide.

 *Asfia’s kid, if you are reading: check this out, you’ll need it. 

** For more on the history of abstinence only education and how we got here, I recommend these books:

Talk About Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States

Harmful To Minors: The Perils Of Protecting Children From Sex 1st (first) Edition by Levine, Judith, Elders, Joycelyn M. (2002)

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