Abstinence-Only Is a Failure to Educate

Editor’s Note: The following post was written by Julie, one of Planned Parenthood Arizona’s interns. Julie is an Arizona State University student majoring in biological anthropology and women and gender studies. She has a passion for women’s reproductive health, and hopes one day to pursue medical school and become a provider for an organization like Planned Parenthood.

college studentsHow well do college students feel their sex education prepared them for navigating relationships in college and coming into their sexuality?

Though many young people begin dating in high school, college is the time when a lot of relationships flourish and students begin to explore their own sexuality. The experience can be exhilarating, like navigating a battlefield of hookups and breakups without the threat of a curfew.


Abstinence-only programs fail students, who need accurate information to make informed decisions to protect their health.


Facing the dating scene in college can be scary as well, especially for those who didn’t have the chance to learn about sexuality or how to form healthy relationships while still at home. Many schools across the country teach only abstinence to students, and this can leave them ill-prepared to make healthy decisions when they face real-world situations.

Bailey W., an ASU women and gender studies student, describes her experience with sex ed in primary school as anything but comprehensive. Her school provided the abstinence-only education common in schools across Arizona and many other areas of the country. These programs advocate for heterosexual, monogamous marriages as the only appropriate settings for sexual interaction.

For Bailey, this created an unhealthy mental perception of sex that followed her into college. “I felt guilty about my sexuality because I was always taught that there are only two options: Don’t be sexual and stay safe, or be sexual and put yourself at extreme risk of ruining your whole life.” She admitted she didn’t know much about birth control until she came to college, and her first boyfriend basically taught her about her own anatomy.

Unfortunately, for students like Bailey, abstinence-only programs fail to teach young people how to form a healthy conception of their sexuality and protect themselves from harm if they do choose to engage in sexual activity before marriage (which included 60.9 percent of Arizona teens in 2013). Additionally, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs fail entirely to acknowledge the LGBTQ community. This can be extremely marginalizing and damaging for young people just beginning to question their sexuality, who may not be able to find support at home or in school.

For these exact reasons, organizations like Advocates for Youth, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and Planned Parenthood advocate for the implementation of comprehensive sex education programs in schools. These programs teach students skills they need to achieve personal health and wellness, which includes sexual health. The National Sexuality Education Standards, published in the Journal of School Health, identifies seven key areas considered essential to comprehensive sex education programs:

  • anatomy and physiology
  • puberty and adolescent development
  • identity
  • pregnancy and reproduction
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV
  • healthy relationships
  • personal safety

Comprehensive sex education programs also include segments concentrating on identity, personal safety, and forming healthy relationships. In programs like this, students learn not only the technicalities of putting on a condom, but the equally valuable skills of ensuring consent, respecting their own bodies, and making healthy sexual decisions. Students who receive this type of sex education in school are able to form a more positive view of their own bodies and feel better prepared to make well-informed decisions.

Yvana T., an ASU sophomore originally from Seattle, says her sex education began in 5th grade with lessons on respect for others and body-positive messages about puberty, and she learned details of STD prevention and contraceptive methods as she got older. She had some questions that were unanswered at school, but says, “I’ve always been comfortable asking my friends and my parents about sex, because it was never presented to me as dangerous or something to be embarrassed about. I was taught to respect myself enough to be prepared.”

The experiences of these two young women show that receiving comprehensive sex education in school helps students build a positive perception of their sexuality, and better prepares them to make healthy decisions. The numbers don’t lie — the three states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, all require their students to receive comprehensive sex education. Transitioning away from abstinence-only sex ed programs could be a major way for Arizona to invest in the health of future generations.

For more information on Planned Parenthood Arizona’s SHARE initiative to provide clear, consistent, age-appropriate, and straightforward comprehensive sex education, visit our website.

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