Written by Meghan, RSEI Educator | Published March 28th, 2019

Time and again, we see health teachers in search of comprehensive sex ed get duped by abstinence-only curricula and organizations that contribute to the shame and stigma surrounding sexual health, keeping our young people in the dark and in danger. To help, we thought we could provide a quick rundown of ways to spot abstinence-only curricula and rhetoric.

By Name:

Many abstinence-only programs find creative ways to market their content. Some programs focus heavily on values- naming their programs Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) with emphasis on the ONLY. More recently, however, abstinence-only programs have been trying to rebrand as Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) or Risk Reduction programs. Many programs also mirror the language of comprehensive sex education programs by stating that they are “medically accurate and complete”, “evidence based” and teach “healthy relationships” and “youth empowerment”. Because these terms are also used by comprehensive programs, they are not enough of an indicator to know whether a program or curriculum is comprehensive or not. It is important to dig a bit deeper to avoid implementing an abstinence-only program.

By Sponsor:

Typically abstinence-only programs are supported by anti-choice and/or religiously affiliated organizations, like crisis pregnancy centers. Additionally, there are also state and federal government grants that fund abstinence only education programs throughout the country, like Title V federal funds.

By Emphasis:

Common themes in abstinence only education are virginity (as an important and medical part of a person’s identity), purity, marriage, waiting, cleanliness/ dirtiness, masculine aggression, and feminine passivity. These lessons often have a clear link to certain religious beliefs, promote heteronormativity and deepen potentially harmful gender roles and are not medically accurate or necessary.

Many abstinence-only curricula will mention birth control methods but focus on how often they fail, rather than skills to make them more effective. If your curriculum outlines steps for effective condom use, it’s probably comprehensive.

By Lens:

Shame, fear and morality are some of the major themes in abstinence-only education. They often feature lessons where having multiple sexual partners or experiences are compared to chewing gum becoming more “chewed up” or tape being “used” and no longer sticky (which is neither accurate nor trauma-informed). The full range of a person’s options are often left out of lessons, leaving participants to believe that there aren’t other options. When educators do talk about options they highlight the failure rates for birth control methods to emphasize that not engaging in sexual activities is the only way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. This message, however, completely omits that sexually transmitted infections can still pass through some non-sexual activities and offers no options for married partners who still want to avoid pregnancy, let alone partners who do not intend to marry. These messages are so limited because of their direct affiliation to certain religious beliefs.

If you’re ever unsure, you can also reach out to us anytime via text by sending SexEd to 57890.

Want more info about Sexual Risk Avoidance and other abstinence-only curricula?