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Catholic Education Office » Chastity Catholic Education

Why Abstinence Education Does Not Work - And Its Not What You Think

Every few months the abstinence education advocates and the comprehensive sex ed advocates trade studies back and forth. "Comprehensive sex ed works!" "Abstinence education works!" The back-and-forth clubbing of studies may make for good headlines but largely misses the point.

While it can be argued that comprehensive sex ed may increase sexual activity (much like the anti-drug program DARE has increased teen drug use in many cases), the success or failure of abstinence education relies on factors largely outside the classroom. Simplistic one-factor statistical analysis is not useful in dealing with a problem that involves more than one variable.

The fact is, teenage (and childhood) sexual activity is a new historical phenomena. Abstinence education was all that there was for centuries and it works. The spread of sexually transmitted disease, teenage motherhood, single motherhood, and broken homes being the norm has never been seen on this magnitude in the history of mankind. It is naïve to think that a 45 minute lecture will be all that is needed to reverse that tide in any meaningful way.

The problem found its biggest catalyst in the sixties under the guise of the "sexual revolution". It is important to realize that it is the generation of youth in the sixties who are making the policy decision today. That generation steeped themselves in anti-authority rhetoric; it should come as no surprise that they now rail against parental involvement.

For some time, it has only been that generation who has been preaching the sexual liberation message from the rooftops. Those who held to chastity simply remained effectively silent out of a false sense of modesty. It was a "false sense" because modesty strives to put sexuality in its proper place, this reaction however was not modest, it was prudish which seeks to avoid all discussion to begin with. It is this prudishness cloaked in modesty that has led to one of the biggest criticisms of the chastity ideology… that it really is about "sex being a dirty thing." I know of no one who believes in chastity that thinks sex is some dirty chore married people are bound to do from time to time.

It is important to also take into account all the messages children get about sex from sources outside the classroom. One only needs to watch a few sitcoms, listen to a few of the Billboard Top 40 songs, or look at a few magazines, and we see only one ideology of sex presented (i.e. loose and cheap sex). When no other message is conveyed, we should not be surprised that "kids will just have sex." That is also why it is so invidious that organizations would use the hammer of the United States Constitution to drive out any competing ideas (or at least those that treat chastity seriously) out of the public square.

On a personal note, before I was married I had considered the priesthood. I found it quite telling that the most frequent response people had to that (including Catholics) was "but you can't have sex!" It was as if they thought I didn't already know that and the Church was hiding it from me. Hey, thanks for the hot tip guys!

However, the most important implication about those exclamations was that it was about sex. Not that I couldn't have a wife, or a family, or that I could get lonely (and in fact, I never heard those objections). Celibacy, or more crudely not having sex, is viewed not as an acceptable sexual option but an outright heresy. Life without sex is a life not worth living, apparently.

The common social idea, even among adults, is that not having sex is a crime against humanity. Take a look at the number of people who insist that the Catholic Church should allow married priests even though they explicitly reject the Catholic Church and its doctrine outright. People who have no interest in the Church, her ministers or her teaching are passionately and loudly interested in the sexual freedom of her clerics.

Further, the reduction of sex to a "medical issue" has dehumanized it and drained it of its value. The comprehensive sex ed crowd describes their material as "medically accurate". Abstinence education, the last time I checked, doesn't try to rewrite our biological knowledge. When the only consequences considered are disease prevention and pregnancy, is it any wonder that men and women can't relate to each other as well anymore?

This creates a situation where people are less free to choose to be chaste. Or more accurately, they are pressured to not be chaste. It's an unacceptable lifestyle. It's a socially intolerable lifestyle. People who don't have sex are pariahs. Is it any wonder "kids just have sex?" Society insists nothing less. That's why people will argue with a straight face that because X% of people have premarital sex that makes it okay and moral to do so.

Abstinence education will always be handicapped in a society that insists from every quarter that free sex is the only way to live. Until our movies, music, television, and magazines reflect a level of sexual maturity beyond that of a seventh grade boy, this trend will likely continue. Parents will have to display and engender the sexual morality they wish their children to have. In the meantime, those who can speak intelligently, passionately, and openly about chastity must be allowed their say in the public square. A free country requires nothing less.

John Bambenek is a columnist and writer who blogs at Part-Time Pundit and is assistant politics editor at Blogcritics Magazine.

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