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My Experience with Abstinence-based Sex Ed

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November 5, 2019

All people should have access to comprehensive, inclusive, evidence-based sex education. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. Abstinence-based sex education is the culturally normative, federally funded status quo. 

The harms that arise from abstinence-based sex education, which largely relies on shaming young people, are very real and persistent. These harms are even greater for marginalized populations, such as the LGBTQ+ community.  

However, I’ve observed abstinence-based sex education becoming a society-wide punchline. We tend to lightly talk about experiences with abstinence-based sex education in jest, treating them more as an inconvenience than anything. We think of Coach Carr from Mean Girls and his culturally pervasive quote: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die…. OK, now everybody take some rubbers.” 

His incompetence as a sex education instructor was intended to be the butt of a shared joke with movie audiences, but nonetheless, abstinence-based sex education has life-long consequences.
My personal experience with abstinence-based sex education is still imprinted in my mind years later.

We addressed her as Miss Renee. The actual spelling of her name eludes me, as she never wrote it down, but she was widely known as Miss Renee the sex lady. Several high schools in the area of Alabama that I’m from used her as a sex educator, so I know of at least two other school districts with students that had similar experiences as mine. At the end of our sex-ed lessons with her, Miss Renee gave us her phone number and made us promise to call her if something happened, especially if we became pregnant. Looking back on it, she most likely also worked at a Crisis Pregnancy Center, as she also gave us the name of a clinic that wasn’t affiliated with any institutions, hospitals, or organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Most of what she taught us was “standard” for abstinence-based sex education. It included painful-looking pictures of late-stage sexually transmitted infections, verbal warnings of the permanency of contracting some infections, and general fear-mongering of sex and its consequences. She utilized shame and narrow morality to frame different outcomes of sex as a punitive measure against having sex.

There were no distinctions made between unsafe sex and protected sex or the various kinds of sex. There was no mention of sex outside of (implied heterosexual) penis-in-vagina penetration or how to prepare and practice different types of sex safely.
Consent wasn’t even within the tiny scope of sex education that we were a captive audience to. In fact, Miss Renee warned boys against going into rooms alone with girls because “you never know what they can say” and utilized pseudoscience for why (loosely paraphrasing here) girls got more emotionally attached during sex than boys did, which is why girls shouldn’t have so much sex and for boys to be cautious of this “fact.”

Via GIPHY

Perhaps most infamous was her tape exercise. It consisted of a piece of tape, which was used to represent a body, and sticking it on her arm. That represented sex. She would then remove it. Of course, the tape would take the debris of her arm with it when torn off, which would make the tape less sticky, since the adhesive was becoming gradually covered by dead skin cells, hair, and whatever else was on Miss Renee’s arm. The tape slowly losing its ability to stick was supposed to be some metaphor for our purity, I believe. Regardless of what it was meant to represent, the inference was clear: You are not worth as much as before, your value is lesser after sex and so are you as a person.

It’s a message that didn’t begin or end with the tape exercise. People, especially womxn, have long been vilified and punished for sex. They still are and with devastating cultural and political implications. 

For me, the tape exercise has stuck in my mind for much longer than I realized. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how horrible the activity was and how traumatic it was and is.

I can definitively say that my experience with abstinence-based sex education has made it harder to value myself and be okay with what I choose to do with my body. My experience altered the course of my encounters, as key concepts like consent, pleasure, and contraceptives outside of condoms were glaringly and irresponsibly absent. 

For anyone else who has had similar experiences, I want you to know that you matter and you are just as valued and worthy of respect and autonomy regardless of your sexual encounters. The act of sex, in all its forms, should not bring you shame. 

We are human. We have sex. And we are not lesser for it. 

Learn more about comprehensive sex ed and how to get involved in advocating for comprehensive sex ed in your community.

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