Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
I learned in youth group that HIV is small enough to slip through most condoms, and that girls can contract chlamydia by wearing a too-short skirt sitting on the wrong chair. These lessons followed in the tradition of the other church-based science I had received: from Sunday School, that girls have one fewer rib than boys; from a six-week Creation series, that a shrinking sun and the salt content of the ocean prove an 8,000-year-old earth. Most of these instructors were volunteers. No one monitored their lessons’ accuracy or measured their students’ learning. If a Sunday School teacher or small group leader got the facts wrong, well, at least they had a heart for teaching God’s word. And all of them usually still stuck the landing: love Jesus, believe the Bible, and don’t have sex.
When abstinence education spreads beyond the church and appears in schools, sexual restraint doesn’t catch on among the teenage masses. Abstinence education does, however, succeed in raising rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. A nine-year study overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that abstinence education has no effect on students’ age at first sexual intercourse, their number of sexual partners, or their rates of pregnancy and STIs. A different, state-by-state study revealed that “the more strongly abstinence is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rate.” Other studies found decreased rates of contraceptive use relative to sexual activity in the wake of abstinence-only strategies, which led to greater teen pregnancy and STI transmission. In public schools at least, where data is tracked, abstinence education falls short.
Nevertheless, thirty-seven states require abstinence education as part of any public school’s sex education curriculum. Twenty-six states require sex ed to stress abstinence. On the other hand, only twenty states require sex education to be medically, factually, or technically accurate. Those who drive sex education policies, it would seem, care more about ideology than accuracy—more about ideology, in fact, than effectiveness, teen moms, or lifelong diseases.
The vast majority of Americans support comprehensive sex education, which raises the question: who makes up the vocal opposition that keeps these abstinence-heavy, fact-light curriculums from changing? The church, particularly the Evangelical church. Beyond its general commitment to a proven ineffective message, the Evangelical church also deserves credit for its influence in creating and passing laws like Mississippi’s 2011 ban on condoms for in-class demonstrations. Mississippi, despite urging students to remain chaste, takes second in the nation for rates of teen births, chlamydia and gonorrhea, and students who have had sex.
The Evangelical church’s attempt to educate teenagers out of sexual temptation might carry some legitimacy if education was, indeed, the goal. But instead, abstinence-only and abstinence-plus curriculums often peddle the same STI myths and virginity analogies I heard in youth group. The means: thrusting inaccurate fear-mongering into state-funded classrooms. The end: unaffected rates of sexual activity, increased rates of teen pregnancy, increased rates of STIs. Abstinence education does not work, and Evangelical Christianity is complicit.
Once called “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” by NPR after he hitchhiked 7,000 miles through the United States, Josh deLacy has since found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He is the managing director of Branded Look LLC and communications director at St. Luke’s Church. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.