LGBTQ Health Part 4: Abstinence Education and the Myth of “The One”
In Part 3 of our series of LGBTQ health, I said of abstinence-only sex ed programs:
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.
I’ve been thinking about this issue more as I struggle to understand what, exactly, led me to the choices I’ve made about my own sexuality. And I’ve realized that there is another reason, as yet undiscussed, why abstinence-only ed is harmful to LGBTQ teens. Abstinence-only programs, in their purest form, perpetuate the myth of “The One” – the single partner, the one great love, the person for whom each of us has been destined to fall. And in my case (and likely many other cases), the myth of “the one” and the idealization of purity is part of what prevented me from acknowledging my non-heteronormative sexuality.
At my high school the sex ed classes weren’t exactly abstinence-only. But they weren’t much of a variant on the theme. Even if the teachers did not explicitly state that we were to remain abstinent until marriage, they most certainly did tell us that we should wait to have sex until we were “in love.” One of the greatest absurdities of abstinence education is that the abstract and highly individualistic concept of “love” is used as a pseudo-scientific barometer for when sexual activity should begin. Students inevitably ask, “How do I know when I’m in love?” And of course, there’s no way for teachers to answer this. Instead, we tell them that “you’ll know” when you’ve found someone worthy of “giving” your virginity too.
In church, where we were taught to “save ourselves until marriage,” we were promised that one day we would be in love, that one day we would find the one special person to whom we would gift our virginities on the wedding night. We were surrounded by kids who wore “true love waits” rings on their fingers. Over and over again we heard the message that there was a distinct difference between “lust” and “love.” And, more importantly, there was apparently also a difference between plain old regular “love” and “true love.” True love was a love you felt only once – a love you felt for your wife/husband alone.
I’ve mentioned before that my parents are fairly progressive people. They never taught me that abstinence was the only answer. But in a way, they didn’t have to. My parents were high school sweethearts. Neither of them has ever been with anyone else. They began dating when they were 15 and have been married, happily, since they were 22. Although neither of them ever tried to tell me that my life ought to turn out exactly as theirs did, they were nonetheless my primary example of a happy relationship. By the time I hit puberty, I possessed a deeply ingrained sense that I, too, would one day meet “The One,” someone who would make me as happy as my dad made my mom. And, as my teachers had said in sex ed, I believed that I would “just know” when I had found the right person.
I can count the times I’ve enjoyed sex with a man on one hand. But each and every time I ended a relationship, I would tell myself that the sex was bad because the relationship was bad. He wasn’t “The One.” When I had flings with guys and still didn’t enjoy the sex, I’m sure that I subconsciously assumed it was because I wasn’t “in love” with the guy. My sex life became an endless search for “The One,” for the singular (male) person who could turn me on.
The other downside to equating sex with (only) love was that the continuing pattern of bad sex made me feel unlovable. Because I had been taught that good sex comes from “true love,” and because I had not had very much good sex, I presumed that none of my boyfriends had loved me. In hindsight, I’m sure that’s not true. But the strange logic of abstinence ed, combined with the myths of heteronormativity and The One, had convinced me that only true love could create a good sex life.
So when we teach kids about The One, we tie sex together inextricably with love. And we then tell them that love only comes in hetero. So when gay kids have hetero sex and don’t enjoy it, it’s possible that they will convince themselves that they just haven’t found the right person yet.