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LGBT Health Awareness Week Part 3: Abstinence Til Marriage = Abstinence Til Forever

April 4, 2010

image courtesy of my bad attempts at MS Paint

Feminists talk a lot about abstinence-only education programs – and with good reason.  Time and time again, studies and personal anecdotes and just about every piece of data ever has shown that abstinence-only programs DO NOT DO what they intend to do.  They don’t succeed in their direct mission (keeping teens from having sex outside of wedlock, keeping down teen pregnancies, keeping down teen STD rates).  They also don’t succeed at their subversive mission (turning teens into carbon copies of the moralizing fundamentalists who create the programs).  A ban on abstinence-only sex ed courses in public schools is LONG overdue.  And feminists have been instrumental in many of the attempts to overturn the programs.

But over the course of the past several years, as we’ve fought for change in the way schools teach sex ed, we’ve fallen into a clever rhetorical trap set by the conservative evangelicals who tout abstinence ed.  In fighting to prove that the program doesn’t work, we’ve virtually ignored one of its most fatal flaws: abstinence til marriage is a tenet that only works if it’s possible for you to get married. And right now, as Sady Doyle put it over at Salon:

“there is an entire population of people, some of them high school students, who cannot actually get married unless they happen to be in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, or Washington, DC; something tells me the programs aren’t precisely built with those students in mind.”

This problem isn’t mentioned very frequently in discussions about the failure of abstinence ed.  Even in Sady’s article it’s a small part of her overarching argument.  And that gap in discourse directly benefits the conservative agenda.  The less frequently conservative America is required to defend its anti-queer agenda, the better for them.  It is the responsibility of those who understand and acknowledge the variances of sexuality in our society to stand up for the needs of all students.  Even if abstinence-only ed worked for straight students, it would still be wrong.  Because it would then be an exclusive club, one that would deny (and therefore invalidate) the lives of countless LGBTQ students – something that would greatly benefit conservative America.

Even if abstinence-only education reduced the rate of teen pregnancies to zero, it still wouldn’t be valid.  Because any system of health education that denies the identities of any percentage of the student body is an unworkable system.  For years, conservative arguments against homosexuality have relied on a series of lies about the health risks of queer lifestyles:  Being gay gives you AIDS!  Being trans means you have a mental illness!  Queer teens are more likely to commit suicide!  A sex education system that does not acknowledge LGBTQ students will help to validate these myths by withholding information about sexual health from queer teens.

Conservatives want to erase LGBTQ health issues from discourse on education.  It’s our job, as LGBTQ individuals and allies, as feminists, to see that that erasure doesn’t happen.

I know that we’re technically at the close of LGBT Health Awareness Week, but this is a topic I want to continue discussing.  (I seem to be starting up a lot of series, don’t I?)  Over the course of the next weeks, I’m going to try to get my hands on as many sex ed curriculums as I can.  I want to know how this issue is being discussed, if it’s being discussed at all.  I’ll update as I learn more, starting with a post tomorrow about an interesting document from the CDC that shows what a long way we still have to go to promote sexual health for all orientations and to dismiss the cultural myths surrounding health and LGBTQ identities.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. marybullstonecraft permalink*
    April 4, 2010 10:08 am

    Such an important topic! I’ll be really interested in what you find in this research, since in my experience, there was zero discussion of anything other than PIV sex in high school sex ed. Also: best illustration ever!

  2. April 4, 2010 11:59 am

    Woot! MS Paint love!

    I went into crazy rant mode when I was writing this last night, so I saved talking about what WE learned in school for the upcoming post. But I’m gathering quotes from a bunch of different people about what they were taught about LGBTQ identities in school, and so far the overwhelming answer is either “nothing” or “to be homophobic,” depending on the school.

  3. April 4, 2010 4:36 pm

    What a great point, and one I failed to realize. But the point can be applied to heterosexual people, too. Abstinence until marriage is a great (“great”) concept, if you CAN get married, but also if you WANT TO get married. Not everyone wants to get married, and not everyone does get married. What about those people? Do we just expect them to never have sex, even if they end up in a lifelong relationship?

    • April 4, 2010 6:13 pm

      @Britni: a good point. We definitely shouldn’t create any environment in which teens feel required to get married. That alienates teens who have no intention of entering into wedlock, and it pushes teens who ARE interested to get married earlier – when they aren’t necessarily equipped to make the decision.

      Unfortunately, I think total abstinence IS what the far right expects from the unmarried masses. I actually think it would do some good to call more public attention to the absolute absurdity of this requirement. The more we can paint abstinence-only education as the ridiculous impracticality that it is, the better.

  4. April 5, 2010 9:40 am

    Check out this high school student who made this exact argument to his Board of Ed.

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      April 5, 2010 9:56 am

      Thanks for posting this, JP! The video of Danny’s speech is amazing.

  5. forestfirecity permalink
    June 7, 2010 12:14 am

    I am admittedly unfamiliar with the abstinence only/emphasized sex ed system in the US, being Canadian. However, I was wondering if queer & trans existence/issues are brought up at all? (beyond perhaps reenforcing stereotypes) To me it would seem more important to point to the need for queer & trans positive education rather than the need to address the exclusivity of abstinence-only education. Abstinence-only education is known to be ineffective, thus arguing to make a flawed ‘teaching’ method ‘inclusive’ when it should really just be thrown out altogether seems unnecessary and ignores larger issues. As you mentioned, queer & trans suicide rates are significantly higher.. tackling this problem would be better meet with queer & trans positive education for everyone as this would start to address and break down damaging and hateful attitudes (including those that are enacted by straight people and internalized by (some) queer and trans people). Granted, marriage is something that has never seemed of much/any importance to me, neither when I identified as straight nor now as I identify as queer. What is of greater importance to me is breaking down the informal inequalities here.. I’d give up the right to get married to a woman in Canada for the ability to be out in public with a woman and not be harassed, not have to put up with bullshit heterosexist attitudes.. not witness the hurt of my queer and trans friends that comes from just living our lives. Granted I was not raised in an abstinence-only sex ed system (not that the education system in NS is by any means great or even good), nor was I raised in a home where marriage was of importance (my parents are straight, together and always unmarried), but I did grow up in a home where I was assumed to be straight and being queer was something I never even thought of.. it wasn’t until I was 20, 1700km away from home, in women’s studies and surrounded by queer people that I interrogated my ‘heterosexuality’ (I may have done so sooner had I been surrounded by queer positive attitudes). Anyway, I see your point.. I just really don’t think that same-sex marriage is nor should be the number one priority for the queer community.. I have seen so many people struggle with the shame, self-hate and fear (of violence, of familial rejection) of being queer, that simply being out and living their lives is a struggle – forget marriage.

    Anyway, ha sorry, perhaps this was overly rant-y on a point you weren’t really making.

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      June 7, 2010 1:13 pm

      forestfirecity, I totally agree with you that queer and trans positive education is needed in general, and I personally share your suspicion of the idea that recognizing same-sex marriages in the States should be the most important goal for queer people or our allies. I would guess that QueenGeorge would say something similar, but I’m not going to speak for her here.

      I will say that I don’t think her point in this post is to suggest that abstinence-only ed needs to be reformulated to be more inclusive. I think what she does say in this post is super important, though: that the ostensibly “neutral” teaching of abstinence in fact presumes the primacy of the heterosexual couple. Which, as you note, is a problem. So the point isn’t to say, “hey, let’s rethink the way we go about doing this abstinence education, which doesn’t work anyway”; it’s to say “hey, not only is this crap not working, but it also reinforces heterosexism at the same time, which is bullshit” (and thus contributes to the sort of highly-negative homophobic/transphobic environment that is so damaging to queer people, especially teens).

      • forestfirecity permalink
        June 7, 2010 1:42 pm

        Definitely! And that is an important point. I certainly see that and recognize that my late night ramble got a little off topic..!

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