by Deborah L. Tolman, Ed.D.
From the Fall/Winter 2002 Research & Action Report

For many years, I have been frustrated by discussions surrounding abstinence-only sex education. One has little choice but to enter these discussions by taking a for or against stance on abstinence, a term I dislike because it obscures the complexity of sexuality itself and the multidimensional reality of sexuality in adolescence. It limits sexuality to sexual intercourse and reduces decisions about sexual behavior to whether an adolescent will or will not engage in it.

Sexual intercourse is, after all, only one among many ways to express sexual or emotional feelings. And there is a lot more to sexuality than making decisions about sexual behavior. Most of all, the abstinence-for or against framework makes it very difficult to convey my perspective—one that is shared by a majority of parents and professionals dealing with these issues—that sexuality is a normal part of adolescence, and that there are myriad ways of dealing with and understanding this part of growing up. Failing to acknowledge the normative reality and the complexity of sexuality as part of adolescent development is shortsighted and unfair.

I am stunned that so many people in positions of power fail to pay attention to empirical evidence that shows that denying adolescents
accurate information about sexuality does not protect them. Instead, lack of knowledge increases their risk of engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse.

I feel stymied by the unabashed willingness of abstinence-only advocates to report partial statistics. For example, such advocates point to an article by Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Bruckner, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledging and the Transition to First Intercourse,” published recently in the American Journal of Sociology as “proof” that virginity pledging works to keep adolescents abstinent. That, however, is not an accurate picture of what the article says. In the first half of the paper, the authors report that, in their initial analyses, they found that virginity pledging does appear to delay adolescents’ transition to first intercourse. What the abstinence-only advocates neglect to relay is that the second half of the article tells a different story. It turns out that when it comes to pledging, context is everything. If there are no other pledgers around, the pledge effect disappears— and if any single group of pledgers grows too large, it does not work. The authors conclude that “universal pledge-based policies will succeed only if they fail” (my italics). Why are we so reluctant to say what we know: that the laws and funding that, in essence, strong-arm or bribe many communities into delivering abstinence-only sex education do no less than force falsehoods on students who have every right to expect and trust that their teachers are providing them with accurate information? One answer is that, in the current climate, to do so is to open ourselves up to vicious attacks premised on misrepresentations of our work. This was the case in the recent overheated and misguided reaction to Judith Levine’s informative and courageous book, Harmful to Minors. Why was the author, a respected journalist, such a target? Because she said out loud what so many of us understand: that adolescents need and are entitled to correct and complete information about their emerging sexuality, and that not telling adolescents about their sexuality causes more harm than good.

It is striking that adolescents themselves have been left out of most of the national conversations on the usefulness of abstinence only sex education. I was reminded of this recently when I heard a young man call in to a radio talk show on the topic. At 17, he described himself as a virgin by choice and was insulted that adults believed that providing
him with information would be the impetus for him to have sex.

If we ask young people what they think about abstinence, the first response usually is “What does that mean?” Indeed, what does it mean? Over half a billion dollars have been dedicated to educational efforts that are anchored in a concept that lacks any clear meaning. In fact, I believe that the word “abstinence” implies what those who are pushing these programs seem so anxious to impose: the absence of sexuality in adolescence. Those who have any illusions that we can
subtract sexuality from adolescents’ lives to allay our own anxiety, should talk with a few teens about their experiences. The complexity, confusion, excitement, and intensity of becoming a mature adult, in body and soul, that teens do talk about when asked is a collective cry for more, not less, information. Whatever our anxieties may be, adolescent sexuality—which cannot and should not be equated with adolescent sexual intercourse— is part of life. Our obligation is to help
young people learn about their own sexuality in constructive ways. Abstinence-only education, premised on a limited and limiting vision of adolescent sexuality, is destructive and dangerous.

Deborah L. Tolman, Ed.D., is associate director and senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women. Her new book, Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, was published this fall by Harvard University Press.

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