What Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Does To Parents, Kids And Teen Pregnancy Rates

Less sex among teens? No. Less 'safer sex' among teens? Yes.

woman holding child Pichukova Ekaterina / Shutterstock

In 2015, California Judge Donald Black ruled that abstinence-only sex education isn’t actually sex education, it provides inaccurate information, and it doesn’t meet California’s curriculum guidelines.

This could lead one to wonder: What does abstinence-only education do?

A while back I put forth a theory about some ways I suspect this lack of proper sex education impacts teens and parents alike, especially teen pregnancy rates — and the whole thing started with a doll.


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In the summer of 2013, there was a rush of stories about a baby doll that got some parents all up in arms. The big problem with this doll was that, well... it had a penis. You know, like a human baby boy.


And people were angry. The issue was vented across Facebook posts, with folks declaring that the “company makes me sick” because little girls “don’t need to know about anatomy.” 

Barely one week later, a petition started circulating, demanding that the Fremont Board of Education remove a book called "Your Health Today" from schools.

Parents were outraged (outraged!) that the book “exposes youth to sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices, and additional instruction that is extremely inappropriate for 13-and-14-year-old youths.“

All accounts indicate that while the book did, in fact, say that sex can be enjoyable, none of the information was presented in a salacious or provocative manner.


In fact, the book has been described as “the most boring prose imaginable,” and includes lessons explaining that students should only ever do what “they are comfortable doing” — but that wasn’t enough to keep parents from freaking out.

The best complaint was about one of my favorite parts of the book. A parent fretting that, “There’s a section that tells you how to talk to your prospective partners about your sexual history. How does that relate to a 14-year-old kid? I don’t see it at all.”

I wish these stories were some kind of sex-negative anomalies, but they're not.

There has been a similar wave of discussion around teaching children the proper anatomical terms for their body parts.


People have been getting upset because their children were given factually correct information about their bodies. They were, for example, exposed to words like "vagina."

So, what gives? How did people become convinced that accurate education is heinously inappropriate and something to shield their children from, lest their innocence be destroyed?

I have a theory. I blame abstinence-only education. But not the education of this generation.

Parents who think they can shield their children from their own genitals and that they shouldn’t talk to their teenagers about sex (lest they get ideas) belong to the previous generation — i.e., the first generation presented en masse with abstinence-only education in their schools.


Let’s take a quick history break.

Through the Adolescent Family Life Act, abstinence-only education started receiving limited federal funding in 1982.

After the passing of the Welfare Reform Act in 1996, which included a mandate that 50 million dollars yearly be allocated to abstinence-only education, it spread rapidly as cash-strapped schools decided that receiving the funds was more valuable than teaching kids anything about sex.

Since then, these programs have gone on to teach children that sex is for marriage only, condoms don’t work, there are terrifying made-up diseases, and that people (especially women) who have had sex are the equivalent of chewed-up gum, food that has been passed around, used tape, an emptied tube of toothpaste and other equally nonsensical/disgusting things.


This cartoon uses true examples of actual lessons taught in abstinence-only programs:

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The thing about abstinence-only education is that its entire aim is to tell kids not to have sex — and by sex, they mean penis-in-vagina intercourse because that’s all they want kids to know exists in this world — basically by scaring them out of it.


It’s pretty much this scene from "Mean Girls":

Except without condoms. Because according to them, condoms A) don’t work, and B) would apparently be condoning sex.

That’s right. No information is given in case they do engage in sex.

They are not taught about their bodies. They are taught that condoms are ineffective and they are taught that it is super important to not engage in penis-in-vagina intercourse. Because: purity.


Fun fact: There have been no noted decline in teen sexual activity. However, there have been:

It seems folks are also super-fuzzy on consent.

Cases came to light with alarming frequency involving unconscious girls being violated by classmates who think “not no” is the same as “yes." One study even showed that teen boys don’t think that anal sex is something they need explicit permission for.

It seems that in addition to teaching our children nothing about sex — except, you know, don’t do it — we are teaching them nothing about their bodies and how they work, and finally nothing about how to communicate with partners.


So, here it is, 35 years after abstinence-only education started rearing its ugly head, and 18 years after it began to spread like wildfire.

The kids who were most likely to get it, those who were in junior high and high school from 1996 on, are around 30+ years old now. They are now reproducing.

And I believe they are the parents who can’t handle penises on dolls, the people who can’t deal with their kids learning the proper names for parts of their anatomy, and the people who think understanding healthy sexual communication doesn’t relate to 14-year-olds at all.


By teaching that generation nothing but negatives, the world has set them up to parent as though the existence of sex, and indeed, their own body parts, is something they can and should hide from their children.

So, what’s the answer here? It’s a tricky one. While I constantly lobby for comprehensive sex education for children, we’ve been painted into a corner.

We have a generation of adults treating sexual knowledge like it’s plutonium and fighting tooth and nail to keep it from their children. So, I’m thinking we have to start from the top.

Teach the adults. It’s important that we don’t simply teach adults how to have sex they enjoy. 


We need to help them undo what their prior education has done. We need to help them teach their children, who will likely be exposed to similar nonsense in schools. We need to be the antidote to abstinence-only education.

Right now there is a generation of parents who, when it comes to teaching their kids about sex, are basically like the blind leading the blind. Let’s be their guide.

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JoEllen Notte is a writer, speaker, and researcher. Since 2012 she has been writing about sex, mental health, and vibrators. She is currently working on her first book, "The Monster Under The Bed: Sex, Depression, And The Conversations We Aren't Having."