Why You Can’t Teach Just Abstinence

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Why You Can’t Teach Just Abstinence

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Do you remember Elizabeth Smart? Her story certainly broke my heart. In 2002, she was kidnapped from her own bedroom in Utah and held captive for nine months. During that time, Smart, then 14, was repeatedly raped by her captor.


Smart was recently part of a panel at an event on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University where she shared her story. When explaining why she didn’t try to escape, she said it went beyond fear, and shared this experience: 


“I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence. And she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?’

“Well, that’s terrible. No one should ever say that. For me, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m that chewed-up piece of gum. No one re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth.”


She’s right. That is terrible.


The logical conclusion of the “chewed gum” analogy (and all the others like it) is precisely what Smart struggled with. That analogy reduces the why God cares about our sexuality and our bodies to the singular physical act of sex. That’s wrong – and it leaves little room for grace.


If our worth can be boiled down to just this one act, where does that leave the rape victim, or the young man who has endured years of sexual abuse, or the couple that succumbed to temptation? If it’s just about an act, these people would have no worth. We know that’s far from true.


By the same measure, if the only thing that matters is abstaining from sex, does that exonerate the young man who views porn online? Does that mean that the married woman who is flirting with her co-worker honors God because she’s technically not having an affair? No, of course not. These things are still wrong and damaging.


This is why, while the abstinence message is a vital one to communicate to singles, it’s also important to understand and appreciate that message within the larger context of God’s design for sexuality.


As Christian parents, educators and mentors, we have a responsibility to do the hard work of communicating the virtues of chastity and God’s intent for sex in age-appropriate and positive ways.  Give them the gift of a whole-person view of sexuality that includes the body, mind and spirit. Teach them spiritual truths that will help them know both what to think and how to think about sexuality. Help them understand that purity is also a heart-issue.


One last thing – when talking about sexuality, we would be wise to couch the lessons in the Gospel message. We are created in the image of God. We have an intrinsic value because God made us. No one can add to this value, or take away from it. Furthermore, there is forgiveness in Christ for all of us as believers who have fallen short of the mark. This redemption includes those who have sinned sexually, like the woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery, and the members of the church in Corinth. These truths give hope to those who have been sinned against, or who have sinned.


If you want general information on talking to your children about sex, there is a section dedicated to the topic on our website, which you can access by clicking here. For more detailed information on sexuality, visit Focus’ Pure Intimacy website.


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  • --It's quite true, abstinence is not enough. But it also vitally important to realize that teaching abstinence is something a little different from abstinence itself. And while abstinence itself is good and effective, teaching it pretty much doesn't work. The studies have been done. Teaching abstinence only delays sexual activity by a few months but when the students do begin having sex they are much more likely to have high risk sex. Abstinence education leads to more unwanted pregnancies and abortions and more STDs.

    It is interesting to read what the secular world has to say about this. they can't figure it out either. They think that it might be because religion and abstinence teaching are related and because poverty and religion are related (numerically at least) that it's the poverty that is driving the risky sexual behavior.

    Myself, I've observed the teenagers simply do not do what you tell them, doubly so when it comes to sex. Telling them not to have sex makes them want to have sex just to assert their independence. On the other hand, messages about condoms and explicit consent drive home a message that sex is way more trouble than it's worth. If you were to tell them that it's way more trouble than it is worth they wouldn't believe you. But if you load them up with information and gear and tell them to go at if if they really want to then 1) they have lost one of the major motivating factors and 2) they figure out the more trouble than it's worth part for themselves.

  • --Jim, Your points are very well-taken. The Catholic Church, of which I am a member, speaks of "chastity," a larger concept that includes sexual abstinence, but also focuses on human worth and dignity. Some people think that chastity and abstinence are the same, but "chastity" is a wider concept. Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" is becoming a popular study among adolescents and young adults. When I was growing up (in the early 1960s), we used to speak of "purity."

  • --Nemo,  Your solution might appear to be expedient in a world without moral standards, but the fact is that while abstinence alone may not be enough, abdicating moral leadership as a parent is the easy way out.  Handing a child condoms and best wishes is IMHO a form of child abuse because you are setting that child up for serious problems with self-image, reputation, physical disease (condoms do not protect from some STDs regardless of what people claim), emotional trauma, pregnancy (condoms fail all the time), and loss of opportunities that would otherwise present themselves.  These should be enough to discourage your approach.  Children look to their parents to set limits and enforce those limits through their actions as well as their words.  We must "walk the walk" as well as talk the talk.  Threats without consequences result in that child ignoring you.  How often have you done the threat and not followed through?  How often have you said, the next time this happens....?  These failures are yours not your child's.  Believe me, I know from experience where threats without follow-thru can lead and it isn't pretty.  Teach your boys to respect women in every way.  Teach your girls that they deserve that respect and that anyone who doesn't respect them is being selfish, self-centered, and is not worthy of receiving their "gifts" or attention.  It will pay off in real relationships for them later that are built on that mutual respect and love resulting in stability, family, success, and peace.  God Bless.

  • --@TStark, I agree, sex is bad so let's do the things that cause teenagers to have less sex. Abstinence education has been found to not be one of those things so lets find out what things do work and then do them. And let's find that out not by speculation but from studying what actually happens.

    Unless your goal is more pregnancies. That was the old way. Young people would do what young people do and young women became pregnant. And then the young man would marry the young woman and then go to work in the steel mill or the auto factory. Well, in  my country, the US, those jobs are gone. NAFTA and unregulated banking (neo-liberalism) and a decade of war (neo-conservatism) have destroyed our economy. Now a young husband is an economic liability to a young mother. Or do you prefer the Irish solution where those young women were put to work in institutions run by the Church? Those institutions turned out to be rife with psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

  • --Thanks for speaking to the much larger issue of God's design for sexuality rather than just the physical act of sex!  Thanks also for your heart in this as I truly believe your intent was to expand on 'abstinence' as proven abstinence education/healthy relationships (AE/HR) programs do! However, I believe this article will, in our current relativistic climate and culture, do more harm than good.  Please read on...

    Actually, (AE/HR) programs are the only ones that address the 'greater design' of sexuality according to the Designer and that truly work!  To the point of the article, it is not the 'just say no' or 'abstinence only' (a phrase coined by the 'free sex' folks to discredit good AE/HR programs much as this article I'm afraid will be used to do) but truly good, well-developed AE/HR programs!

    If you look at the studies (www.abstinenceworks.org/) you will find proof from well documented studies with excellent methodology that have held up, and continue to hold up, when given the opportunity over time (often they are cut off from any govt. funding for ideological reason and to silence any critics and competition that actually brings healthy results)!  Contrast this to every single 'safe sex' (actually 'free sex') program and ideologically-driven study of which none of them can hold up outside a 3 - 6 month window (obviously not desirable when dealing with the long-term effects of promiscuity and unabated sexual activity regardless of what they call 'safe sex' - condoms and birth control, including abortion!).  BTW - many of these 'free sex' programs began to use an 'abstinence-based' terminology when they started to see the aforementioned results in the early 2000s but they promote any/everything but true abstinence and healthy relationships/sexuality. Ultimately the 'fruit' of their pornographic programs, passed off as education is nothing but destructive (if some/much of their content were placed in a business office or similar setting the company/organization would be sued and convicted for pornography/obscenity and sexual harassment)! They have been given 'free reign' by our govt., media and education system to pass this off as 'education!' What a travesty and what a great deception that even many 'Christians' have fallen for, including many church 'leaders'!!!

    To address this 'fodder for free sex programs,' article, it is clear that it does not convey a grasp of the 'language' and overall contents of both of the above referenced programs/curricula.  Ms. Smart's circumstances are horrific and it is very unfortunate that she was exposed to a 'limited view', so-called abstinence program. However, this article does not reveal a clear study or understanding of the time-tested, well developed AE/HR programs (lumped together or implied in the term 'abstinence' in the article) compared to the 'condom/contraceptive free sex' programs of Planned Parenthood and their 'disciples.' There is a world of difference in the ultimate results of these programs from diametrically opposed worldviews!  

    The bottom line is that you can not get past 'the law of the harvest!' Planned Parenthood and their 'free sex' proponents/cronies in govt., media and education, in particular, have no desire at all to compromise, other than in the occasional use of the term 'abstinence' to make them look good and 'connect' them with the really positive outcomes of true AE/HR programs. They have, and again this really began when they saw the results of good AE/HR programs, added some wording about character development.  However, in most cases, once you go through their programs the end results and their ultimate goal of 'sex without any boundaries' (following their leader, Alfred Kinsey - read Crimes and Consequences by Dr. Judith Reismann) destroys any character facade they claim to be attempting to help people develop (the character 'emphasis' again, and for the most part, found its way into their curriculum only after they saw the results from AE/HR programs)!  Proven AE/HR programs are firmly based on self-respect that comes for self-control, selflessness and love.  'Free sex' programs are rooted in and based on lust and lust always corrupts or destroys character in the end no matter how you 'couch' the terms or the programs.  

    Thank God, in Christ, that He can restore us but as Mr. Truett Cathy has said in the title of his excellent book, It is Better To Build Boys Than Mend Men (obviously applicable to maturity in both genders with regard to character and self-respect/self-control, etc.) and that's what we are called first to do as is the desire and programming of every proven AE/HR program!  However, I repeat, the truth that the end message and desire of 'free sex' programs destroys character as it destroys lives, relationships and our culture! It is a cruel ruse of the most destructive kind just as the 'law of the harvest' says it must be!  

    The wording of this article will most likely do much more to encourage the continuance of the deception of the 'condom/contraceptive promotion free sex' programs and to discourage truly good AE/HR programs. So sad that this emotionally compelling story wasn't more carefully written in a much more productive way for programs that really do work - AE/HR! Any good AE/HR program/curriculum author/provider would agree, as do I, that 'just say no' or 'abstinence only' (again, a phrase coined by the 'free sex' folks to discredit good AE/HR programs much as this article will be used to do) doesn't work.  That has never been the work or curricula of good AE/HR programs.  I strongly encourage further investigation and follow up in order to reveal the truth and restore at least some of the damage that will be done once the 'free sex' folks get a hold of this (if they haven't already)!  

    Thanks for your heart in this as I truly believe your intent was to expand on 'abstinence' just as AE/HR programs do!