Fortunately, I’ve blocked a lot of the mess of hormonal and confusing memories from my clumsy junior high years. But I do remember some things from that chaotic period, like baggy t-shirts, clunky Doc Martins, unreturned crushes, my shy personality, hating school and especially gym class, and wondering about the most fascinating topic ever: sex. In 7th grade, I had a best friend who was already exploring, and I listened curiously to her captivating stories about the hand job in the local movie theatre and a naughty encounter on her family cruise. Although the most I had done at that age was kiss, I often thought and fantasized about sex, and when we had to attend a “sex education” class at school I was instantly interested.
Unfortunately, since I grew up in Texas, this “sex education” class wasn’t actually sex education, but instead an abstinence only course promoting “purity” and waiting for marriage. The speakers were a married, Christian couple, and the man told us about how he had pledged to stay a virgin until he was married. He had even written a letter to his future wife (whom he hadn’t met at the time) listing the reasons why he was waiting for her. When he eventually did get married, he read this letter to his wife and then later to our assembly of impressionable preteens. While some students were touched or moved by this (I guess?), I was irritated. The whole idea was obviously and unapologetically Christian, and even though I was Christian (more specifically- raised Catholic and hadn’t quite rebelled yet), I remember thinking, what if not everyone believes this? What if I do want to have sex before I’m married? The presentation was strictly heterosexual, conservative, and Christian, completely ignoring LGBTQ youth or anyone with opposing religious or moral views. It was so one sided that it seems ridiculous and offensive now that I think back on it.
Besides preaching their “worth the wait” arguments, the speakers also told us that birth control is bad for your health and that STDs are a dangerous and unavoidable threat to anyone who isn’t abstinent. They also told us how “humiliating” it would be for a girl to have meaningless sex with a guy and later see him at school. They focused on the possibly damaging emotional aspects of teen sex, mainly discussing negative female emotions. They used scare tactics, and they didn’t give us any practical, factual information about safe sex or sexuality. The speakers also explicitly said that anything involving “deep kissing or more” was considered sexual activity and should be saved for marriage. At the end of the presentation, they had students sign abstinence pledges. Although I was undecided at the time, I didn’t sign, because even at that age I knew this wasn’t the kind of program I wanted to support.
After the presentation, I remember wondering what my friend sitting next to me was thinking, since she already had sexual encounters, and the whole talk was about how sexual exploration before marriage was dangerous and impure. I remember wanting to say something comforting to her but not knowing what to say. I felt confused, annoyed, and intimidated by the guilt tactics they used on us. While the program didn’t scare me enough to keep me (or anyone I knew) from eventually having sex before marriage, it definitely left me with some feelings of alienation and discomfort surrounding sex for awhile, something that was unnecessary and emotionally harmful.
Looking back, it seems so obvious how unhealthy and one sided our “sex education” class in junior high actually was. While abstinence is a legitimate option for some teens, the fact is that many teenagers and preteens do have sex before marriage, and they need to know how to do so safely. Not only did our abstinence only education deprive us of any useful knowledge about how to have safe sex, prevent pregnancy and STDs, or deal with emotional issues and questions, but it also depicted sex as dirty and demeaning, proclaimed religious beliefs as “facts” and “education,” and condemned anything outside of the Christian, heterosexual norm as unsafe, impure, and unacceptable.
Although my junior high experience was more than a decade ago, Texas still pushes abstinence only sex education in schools and refuses federal funding for comprehensive sex education programs. Texas also has the 4th highest pregnancy rate in the US. Although I could argue the ineffectiveness of abstinence only education with more statistics, I won’t. My point here isn’t whether or not abstinence education works, it’s that abstinence only “sex education” is a narrow, overtly prejudice view of sexuality that was and is still presented as fact to many students, including myself. And what does this abstinence only “sex education” really teach us? Sexual shame and intolerance.