Dirty towels get you pregnant: abstinence-only education

A SYTYCB entry

“Later, hear about the woman who told her daughter that dirty towels could get her pregnant to keep her away from boys!”

This what what I heard on the radio yesterday afternoon, as I drove home from running errands. I was, of course, appalled. How could a mother spread such preposterous lies? I was enraged that a daughter would believe her. I was also annoyed that the daughter’s sex education must have been a complete waste of time and taxpayer money.

I was not, however, surprised. I live in Georgia, one of the 26 states which requires schools’ sex education classes to promote and emphasize abstinence. I have seen and heard peers my age believe ridiculous claims such as this one countless times. I know young women who have gotten pregnant because they did not know the facts.

In school, I heard only that condoms were rarely effective. It took two years of sex ed, which I started in the 5th grade, to realize the penis had to go in the vagina for “sex” to occur. I had previously thought simply being together, naked, in a bed was enough. I only found out the truth through the internet. My classes never taught how sex actually works. Is it any surprise that so many of my peers find condoms unnecessary? Is it any wonder certain universities in the area have reputations of being rife with STDs?

I recently found the sex ed curriculum my cohort and I were subjected to. Here are some fun statistics:

“Abstinence” is mentioned 60 times.

“Condoms” are mentioned five times.

“Pills” and “diaphragms” are each mentioned once.

“Contraception” is mentioned 10 times.

“AIDS” is mentioned 90 times.

“STD is mentioned once. “Sexually transmitted diseases” are mentioned 20 times.

“Pregnancy” is mentioned 82 times. “Pregnant” is mentioned twice.

Thus, all together the guide mentions consequences of sex 195 times. It mentions reliable forms of contraception (I did not include abstinence) 16 times. Even without analyzing what this curriculum is saying, a dangerous pattern is clear.

It becomes even worse when you read what the guide is saying about these topics. For example, the guide says sex ed:

“Shall include  [...] abstinence from sexual activity as an effective method of preventing acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the only sure method of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This instruction shall emphasize abstinence from sexual activity until marriage and fidelity in marriage as important personal goals. Procedures shall be developed that allow parents and legal guardians to exercise the option of excluding their child from sex education and AIDS prevention instructional programs.”
Contraception is not mentioned in the goals of the course. Abstinence is…twice. Moreover, the school gives the parents a chance to opt out. I remember when I was in school, this made sense to me. I had been taught that sex was icky and controversial, so of course parents should be able to opt out! Their children might be exposed to thoughts they did not approve of! Now, however, I look at this and see that the only controversy is the lies being taught to children. Then again, maybe I would opt out, and teach my child the truth myself.
Here are some more instructions for educators and school officials:
“I) No counseling or referral related to abortion or to abortion services. 2) No dispensing of contraceptives (including condoms). 3) No female, internal pelvic examinations. 4) No instruction or prescriptions for contraceptive availability or use, nor referrals for the aforementioned, unless a written parental consent has been received on a form approved by the Clay County School Board.”
Granted, three kind of makes sense. This was clearly aimed at school nurses, who are probably not equipped for “internal pelvic examinations.” 1, 2, and 4, however, are ridiculous. To be clear, this is for a high school. Do we really want pregnant teens to be barred from abortion referrals and counseling? Most teenagers are not equipped to be mothers, and it’s important they know all of their options so that they can make an informed decision. There were students at my high school who thought abortions were illegal. If they had gotten pregnant, they would not have even realized they had a choice. And of course, 2 and 4 ignore the reality: you can tell kids not to have sex, and some won’t for various reasons which is great, but some will, no matter what scare tactics you use. That’s great too, as long as they are being safe and healthy–which this school system is not allowing them to do. I know students who are too embarrassed to go buy condoms at CVS, but they’re still having sex. If their school had condoms on campus, they would be a lot safer.
“Homosexuality is not to be promoted or taught as an accepted alternate lifestyle. In dealing with homosexuality it should be emphasized that homosexual acts are not the result of genetic or hormonal abnormalities, but rather the decision and choice of the individual. While some people may have a stronger tendency toward homosexuality because of their background and environment, it should be emphasized that the act of homosexuality is a choice and experimenting with homosexuality is not a normal part of growing up.”
It was important to the school board, I am sure, to insert some homophobia into their curriculum.
High school is tough for everyone, and my area is not exactly a welcoming place for gay teens. Insults like “you’re so gay!” and “f****t” were thrown around as much as “you suck!” This is no surprise, considering we were being taught in school that gays are lesser humans choosing to live an “alternative lifestyle” that could me “promoted.”
I could continue with analyses of ridiculous quotes (like all 60 references to abstinence, discussions of how ineffective condoms are, etc.), but instead I want to point out something I did not see mentioned once: oral sex. We never once covered it when I was a student, and there were two common thoughts about it among my peers:
1. Oral sex is entirely safe. There are no potential risks involved. You cannot get any STDs from oral sex.
2. Oral sex is just as risky as vaginal sex. You can get pregnant from it.
Both of these trains of thought are completely wrong, of course, but my peers had no way of knowing this.
Abstinence-only education is dangerous. It promotes fear, teen pregnancy, and a complete lack of understanding of sex and sexuality. There is no scientific basis for abstinence-only education. States with abstinence-only education tend to have higher rates of teen pregnancy, so it seems to be less effective that comprehensive sex education.
I was at an AIDS talk a few weeks ago. A speaker said “As we all know, abstinence doesn’t work!” Another speaker stood up and said “I would like to correct that statement. Abstinence works.” There was an awkward pause as everyone thought the speaker was championing ridiculous education programs. “Abstinence-only education does not.”
Any teens who genuinely subscribe to abstinence until marriage will practice it whether or not their schools teach it. Any teens who do not will receive excellent education so that they are prepared for safe sex when they do become sexually active. I have no interest in regulating anyone’s religious or personal choices regarding abstinence. I do have an interest in comprehensive family planning and protecting those with difference decisions, to reduce the incidence of both STIs and unwanted pregnancy.


Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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