This morning I read the following tweet from Justin Schieber:
“Comprehensive sex education usually includes some promotion of abstinence. The abstinence portion should be replaced with anti-natalism.”
This prompted me to tweet a short question: “What’s wrong with abstinence?”
Justin tweeted back, “Nothing. There’s also nothing wrong with sex.”
Unfortunately, this response made no sense, except (perhaps) as a piece of rhetoric intended to deflect a serious question. In his response Justin concedes that there is nothing wrong with abstinence. By then immediately adding “There’s also nothing wrong with sex” he seems to imply tacitly that there is something wrong with abstinence. So which is it?
I pressed on by asking: “Since there’s nothing wrong with abstinence, why do you want to eliminate it from comprehensive sex ed?”
Justin replied: “I just think teaching it is far too often a method of imposing sex-negative ideas/shame.”
But of course, that is beside the point, as I noted in my response: “Since there’s nothing wrong with abstinence, why not replace bad abstinence ed with better abstinence ed?”
I am certainly not up on sexual abstinence curricula, but in the familiarity I do have, the reason for abstaining from sexual relations is not because sex is inherently a negative, shameful act. Rather, it is because sex is (1) extremely powerful and (2) extremely valuable.
Let’s begin with (1) power. Society restricts access to alcohol to adults: depending on the jurisdiction you’re in, the drinking age may be 18, 19, or 21. If you are not of age, you are taught and encouraged to abstain from the consumption of alcohol. This is very wise instruction: every year the excessive consumption of alcohol exacts a devastating toll on young people from death by alcohol poisoning and drunk driving to physical altercations and other reckless behavior.
Sometimes abstinence from alcohol is taught in a shame-based way. “That alcohol is the devil’s urine!” But of course, it would be absurd to decry teaching alcohol abstinence to young people because of such abuses. Instead, the answer is to teach that alcohol is something good and pleasurable, but it is also proper to restrict its consumption to adults because it is powerful.
That’s the way I see abstinence from sex being taught. It is a recognition that sex, like alcohol, is powerful. If engaged in improperly it can wreak enormous damage. That isn’t to devalue sex. Rather, it is to appreciate the great power it has, and to grant it the proper respect.
Second, sex is also extremely valuable, and the point of something valuable is that you restrict its usage. For example, you only take out your prize Italian convertible on sunny days and you never drive it in the winter.
Similarly, sex is the kind of thing that people recognize to be valuable. It isn’t something you engage in with just anybody. People will disagree over what degree of restrictions are rightly imposed given the value of sex, but the point is that abstinence education is predicated on a general recognition of this principle. Who values sex more? The person who believes it is a beautiful act which should only properly be shared with a loving covenant partner, or the person who thinks it is fine as a perfunctory exchange with a perfect stranger in a bathroom stall?
To sum up, unless you think that sex is not particularly powerful or valuable, you should recognize in principle the value of abstinence as a component of sex education. And that means if you see abstinence education being done poorly, the answer is not to remove abstinence education. Rather, the proper response is to offer your own proposals as to how abstinence education can be done better.