Part 3: Why Abstinence? • The Pregnancy Network

Part 3: Why Abstinence?

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This is one of four blog posts in a series on abstinence vs. comprehensive sex education.

See the others here: Part 1Part 2Part 4.


In my previous posts (Vote No on Abstinence, and Misunderstanding Abstinence Education) I began laying out the debate revolving around Abstinence Education and Comprehensive Sex Education, especially from an abstinence educator’s point of view.

Let me now attempt to clarify why I believe AE is not only more constructive and helpful than CSE, but also more pedagogical in general. Keep in mind, there are stats supporting both methods, but I think there are certain evaluative characteristics of AE that reveal it as the (qualitatively) better of the two.

Let’s look particularly at the goal of each, and then next week I want to look at some specific ways I think AE is better, as we finish up this blog series.

Goals: Avoidance vs. Reduction

Each method has an underlying goal for students. AE takes a “Sexual Risk Avoidance” approach, while CSE takes a “Sexual Risk Reduction” approach. The goal of Sexual Risk Avoidance programs is to—you guessed it—teach students how to avoid the risks involved with sexual activity. Sexual Risk Reduction, however, only seeks to help students reduce the risks involved with sexual activity. For better or worse, that means students are being (de facto) encouraged to take risks involving their sexual choices.

You might dissent, and say: “No! CSE doesn’t encourage risk-taking; it encourages abstinence, and comprehensive knowledge of all that is available to students should they choose to have sex anyway.”

But my response is a question: Does CSE really push students to see that there is only one healthy sexual lifestyle? Because, if not, then it’s failing to actually teach that abstinence is the only 100% safe choice. It’s simply communicating information about various sexual choices students could potentially make. Is that teaching them any critical thinking skills? Is it clarifying, or confusing them?

Clarifying vs. Confusing

Giving students information to process on their own, without giving them a sense of what is best for them to pursue, is not only confusing, it does de facto encourage them to explore their options. It’s also called poor education.

Education should help them clarify the future path they want to walk, not give them a bunch of paths to potentially walk, and expect them to choose the best one. That might make a cool drawing, but it’s not a helpful teaching method.

Of course, both methods will agree that abstinence is the only 100% safe and effective way to completely avoid the risk that comes with sexual activity. However, only AE methods will actually utilize this truth as the foundational, pedagogical element of their curricula.

CSE programs will vary on this spectrum, but it seems that CSE at best undermines its own goal of keeping students sexually healthy (which would be pushing them to abstain from sex), or at worst pushes students to explore their sexuality without reservation.

We have to remember that we’re actually teaching students how to make healthy choices. Only teaching them to reduce their risk of STIs, or pregnancy, or emotional and relational damage, without teaching them to make the right choice (or what we might also call the healthiest choice, for those of you with an absolutist-phobia) is irresponsible.

From this perspective, CSE seems to leave it up to the student to teach herself, choosing whichever lifestyle she believes is healthiest. This is one reason I see AE as fundamentally more pedagogical. It’s actually attempting to give students the tools to think critically about the information they’ve been given, in order to make the healthiest sexual choices, and pursue the healthiest sexual lifestyle.

The very reason we teach is to empower, and empowerment must include this critical thinking and application. Children don’t have the knowledge or life experience to do this on their own; that’s why we’re teaching them how to apply the information we’re giving them.

What I’m Not Saying

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t teach contraceptive methods; or that we should avoid talking about various kinds of intercourse completely; or that we should compare students with sexual histories to chewed-up pieces of gum.

I am saying we should teach contraceptives in the context that they are not a healthy alternative to abstinence outside of marriage; and, that students should learn more about intercourse when they’re ready to make the commitment that comes with it; and that students with sexual histories (whether consensual or forced) can have hope, because abstinence is contingent on their own choices moving forward, not the choices of others.

Additionally, I am not saying to avoid tough questions. Abstinence educators should always make class a safe atmosphere for students to express their thoughts and questions. But, AE will teach them about sex (always and only) in the context of marriage, because it is the only healthy sexual choice.

Don’t confuse students with information; help them clarify the best sexual choice through the information you give them.

If you’re still not with me on this, I encourage you to read my final post next week. I’ll point out several specific ways in which I think the goal and method of Abstinence Education is ultimately better than Comprehensive Sex Education, and make a final evaluation of the two.


Carter Mundy is the Outreach Director at Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center. He enjoys spending time with his wife, new daughter, and the family dog. He also loves his church family, Mercy Hill Church, and serves as a community group leader.

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