Young Adults Testify Against Abstinence-Only Sex Education

In the last week, a congressional committee began -- finally! -- taking a real look at government-funded abstinence-only sex "education" programs which all of us who pay taxes in the U.S. have watched billions of our collective dollars be wasted on. For those of us who work we in comprehensive sex ed (many of whom work for a pittance because we can't get funding due to the ab-only mandates), some of which often includes cleaning up after the mess of abstinence-only problems, that waste is often felt even more profoundly. This week, this committee called on public health experts and some awesome young adults to testify and inform the issue with real experience, sound data and a clearer understanding of why abstinence-only education programs are not just not helpful, but can do some real harm. A couple of your peers have been doing excellent work in these House hearings to speak against abstinence-only sex education and make the need clear for accurate, comprehensive and inclusive sex education.

Shelby Knox, whose name may be familiar from the documentary The Education of Shelby Knox, is blogging on it at the ALCU's Reproductive Rights wing here. From that entry:

What did the secularized abstinence-only program for students in my school district look like? Well, it was taught by the same pastor who officiated at my religious purity pledge ceremony. Many of the students were already having sex and needed information to protect their health. But our teacher only mentioned condoms to talk lengthily, and inaccurately, about their alleged "ineffectiveness," explaining in graphic detail, and with even more graphic pictures, the sexually transmitted diseases students could get if we trusted our health to a “flimsy piece of latex.”

...But back in my high school class, where we were all too intimidated or embarrassed to ask for clarification, it seemed as if sex with a condom was equivalent to sex without one. Our teacher also touched on the ills of masturbation and warned against the dangers of homosexual sex.

One demonstration our teacher used left little doubt as to our worth as a future spouse or partner if we were to engage in sex before marriage. He would routinely pull an often squirming and reluctant, and always female, volunteer onto the stage, take out a toothbrush that looked like it had been used to scrub toilets and ask if she would brush her teeth with it. When she predictably refused, he pulled out another toothbrush, this one pristine in its original box, and asked her if she would brush her teeth with that one. When she answered in the affirmative, he turned to the assembly and said, “If you have sex before marriage, you are a dirty toothbrush.”

Max Siegel, an HIV-positive 23-year-old who acquired the virus from his first sexual experience, and who now works with the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families, blogged about it at Reproductive Health Reality Check here. From that blog:

More individuals have this virus now than ever before in history. Most children born with HIV no longer die; they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Within and outside of marriage, these young people must know how to prevent transmission of HIV to their sexual partners and how to protect themselves. Instead, abstinence-only disparages HIV-positive youth by suggesting they are dirty, dying, and unfit for love.

While most abstinence-only programs are more extensive than the class I experienced, they rely on similarly exclusive and stigmatizing messages that lack basic information about sexual health. What I experienced is a routine example of the messages of abstinence-only that children across still experience today. These programs ignore lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who are at high risk for HIV, and use government dollars to condemn them. They also compromise young women's safety by portraying sexually active females as scarred and untrustworthy. From a healthcare perspective, it's essential that scrutiny of these programs focuses on the consequences of abstinence-only's condemnation of young people.

Some of you voice to us the frustration and anger you feel about these programs, both in the purposeful misinformation found in them and in the way they privilege certain types of people and certain types of sex, while disenfranchising and demeaning others. When you do that, we've heard some of you say sometimes that for all of your upset, you don't feel like your particular voice could be meaningful or effective.

So, I wanted to be sure that you got a look at two young people who have made clear this week that that's just rubbish, and that your voices, especially on this particular issue, are not only exceptionally meaningful but deeply important to have heard. You may not have the opportunity to speak at a hearing like this, but you can certainly write letters to your school boards, your congresspeople, your communities, organize peer outreach boards to talk to adults about this, actively challenge teachers and classmates in schools where you are getting inaccurate or discriminatory sex education or find other original ways to provide the perspectives which everyone who has anything to say or do on this topic very much needs to hear.


I don't get how people can support this abstinence thing. My abstinence-only program wasn't nearly as extreme, detailing the methods of contraception, but only vaguely, and the teacher constantly reiterated how the most effective was abstinence. HE didn't even touch on homosexuality, and frankly I am appalled. These programs have been proven not to work, yet the US continues to use them when in Europe, which uses actual sex-ed, pregnancy and STD rates are significantly lower than here.

I'm so glad people are finally making a stand.

How do you document real life when real life's getting more like fiction each day?

So we have way higher STD rates and pregnancy rates. Abstinence only programs are so few, and way less dominant. So how does the blame of these things fall upon these programs? You used an example of an HIV infected man, did you know HIV although it may be at a higher rate than ever, it is one of the least common STD's? In a study which estimated the yearly cases of different types of STD's they found that every year there are only 30,000 new HIV infections, where as there are an estimated 6,200,000 new cases of HPV every year, and as we all know HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills more women every year than HIV does. Condoms do not protect a person very well from HPV, and whether you want to admit it or not, you know it. So please explain how abstinence only is the cause of all of this?

first off, ur grasping at straws. i hate that. dont use hpv, an entirely unrelated issue, to compare with hiv. i know heart disease kills more women than hiv and hpv, but its not the fact that hiv is not the main killer, but it is an issue that it does kill in the first place. anywho. any and all sex ed should be started at home with parents having frank and open discussions with their children. Period. school programs are there for when parents are too lazy, or in some cases not the best role models. unfortunately itis these same parents who want comprehensive sex ed but do not make sure their tax dollars are being spent for that purpose. they also forget that schools still have to answer to state, local, and sometimes federal governments who never get it right. Prime example, John McCain has had problems getting the conservative, evangelistic vote, these same people want comprehensive sex ed, but politicians assume they don't. McCain and Palin both support abstinence only education. Palin's 17 yr old daughter is pregnant. you figure it out.

Abstinence-only programs are hardly few in the United Sates, Anonymous. They remain the ONLY programs which federal funds will cover for public schools, and over a billion dollars in taxpayer funds have been spent on those "few" programs during the last administration. Mind, some states have finally been wising up and have started to have state mandates that public schools must bring back factually accurate programs which are comprehensive, discuss birth control and safer sex and are more inclusive. And most of those programs still emphasize abstinence first and as a best choice from a standpoint of STI and pregnancy prevention, anyway.

As a sexuality educator, as well as the child of an epidemiologist, I'm well aware that HIV is a smaller risk to most youth in the states than HPV, Chlamydia or Trich. However, the protective behaviors and negotiation skills for avoiding those infections as well as HIV are the same, and are things people need their whole lives, behaviors with not discussed in ab-only, or where vast misinformation about them is a big part of those curricula. Ab-only programs also don't discuss pap smears and STI testing with young women, or basic sexual health: cervical cancer is usually very easily treated and resolved in the earliest stages when found though those screenings. Too, condoms do substantially reduce risks of HPV, by around 70%. The reason it's killing women at all has more to do with women not getting that healthcare, and knowing they need it and that it is not shameful, than it does with the virus itself. That's not the same level of protection they provide against most other infections, but telling youth they don't help at all or have holes in them -- which many ab-only programs do -- isn't allowing them that 70% level of protection: it's throwing teens and adults who are sexually active to the wolves.

Max Siegel is just one example of a young person who wasn't given any help in protecting himself. As a gay man, he wasn't included at all in his sex education, and as he stated, having been disallowed any discussion on how to negotiate safer sex was something he felt endangered him needlessly and carelessly, and I overwhelmingly agree.

Director & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Most think that your parents should be teaching you all this but if they're anything like my parents then they act like sex isn't a part of normal life or they flip the channel quick when it comes to something about pregnancy. I've had to find what I can about STD's and potential problems from the Internet and other probably non-reliable sources. I've never seen the point in how abstinence only programs help. 'Don't have sex' is the only message you recieve when you are forced to go to a program. Never about what you should do if the condom breaks, or if you end up pregnant what you're options are. Religion will always play a part being as how my parents are Christian and it would be the 'best for me' if I waited till marriage to have sex but the unfortant truth is that probably will not hold true. I'm a still a virgin and don't have any STDs and it's definitely not thanks to abstinence-only programs. If I chose to have sex I'd want to be informed so I don't wind up being a mother at 16.

This article is great, and I'm so glad that people are taking a stand on this issue! So much of abstinence education relies on being so condescending to teens, it's ridiculous. Have you guys seen this?

It's ridiculous when even so called 'liberal' states like NY teach abstinence-only sex ed. I posted the results of a consumer panel poll where 23 brands of condoms were tested on strength and the strongest and weakest condoms were listed in numerical order from weakest to strongest in my sex ed class, and was told to take it down because the class was abstinence-only. What a crock! That is valuable info that kids need, and you're saying not to show them? I call BS on this whole abstinence-only sex ed!

I think it's horrible that some education programs present abstinence as the only "good" option, when it most definitey is not. However, I do believe that it is important to present abstinece as a choice to young people. It is the only 100% effective method of preventing pregnancy, and even though condoms are close to that, I think it is important that young people have ALL the facts, about ALL their options.

Telling someone, "You are a dirty toothbrush," is emotionally abusive and cruel. No conscientious or caring person would ever say that to anyone else.

i had a similar experience to the "toothbrush" during my abstenence-only sex ed. class. the spokesperson passed around a rose and asked everyone to take a petal. at the end, the rose was bare, and he told us that everytime you have sex out of marraige, your SOUL looses a petal until you don't have one anymore. pretty harsh, considering that we were in 7th grade. in our class, we saw the gruesome pictures of STDs, and condoms were not mentioned ONCE! we were asked the question, "would you run a cross a football field full of mines just to get a brownie?" and told that it was dangerous to start down the "downward slope towards sex" which progressed from hand-holding, to kissing, which was where we were supposed to draw the line before the SUPER dangerous "deep-kissing" which led to "PASSION" and eventually the "sin" of sex. i am a huge fan of this cite and i would like to encourage the stance you all are taking against our faulty education. if anyone has any organizations that are in need of support, let me know, i would love to help however i can.


I live in the UK and I have had not all that good sex ed in some respects (masturbation was never mentioned and nor was the clitoris) though I have been able to talk openly and unshamed about masturbation, my pansexuality, my dislike of porn, and any other topic with my mentors and advisors in college and secondary school. I am appalled by a student being referred to as a dirty toothbrush, or a petal-less dead flower, that is not acceptable. There should be accurate information provided about STI transmission and prevention, and about contraceptive methods and how to use them safely, how effective different methods are. Everyone should know that they never have to engage in any kind of sexual activity, that masturbation is good and an option (and is safe), and have accurate information about how their bodies work. There should not be an emphasis on the superiority of penis in vagina sex over any other sexual activity, with the emphasis being on mutual consent always being present before two or more person sexual activity takes place and on safety, from unwanted pregnancy, from STIs and from any kind of bodily injury (such as vaginal or anal tearing from lack of lubrication). It should also be made clear that homosexuality is totally OK and on how the ideas of what is moral or pleasurable sex and how people treat each other with regards to consent are affected by and influence dislike of LGBT individuals. There should also be discussion of the way media and other factors affect body image, and of gender roles and their limiting effects. I don't know if some of the stuff I mentioned is technically sex-ed, but it's all important.

I only recently found out about the abstinance-only sex ed. programmes in the US (I'm from the UK) and was totally appalled. I thought that the fact my school nurse couldn't bring herself to say 'flaccid' or 'erection' during our sex ed. classes was bad (we all had to shout them out to save her the embarassment and fill in the mortified gaps in her sentances), but we were never told anything like the petal thing or the toothbrush thing. I think it's completely appalling and psychologically cruel, and has left me feeling a weird kind of mixture of disgust for those who support this scheme and utter admiration for the young people who have spoken out against it. GO THEM! At a guess, I'd say that took some guts. To reiterate's point; is there any way I can help? Any kind of organisations? Or a similar thing in the UK (yeah, it's not quite 'YOU ARE A DIRTY TOOTHBRUSH!', but I'd say there's definate room for improvement)? Thank you so so so much for posting this. It has left me feeling empowered and incredibly proud of young people and our capabilities =).