Cognitive Dissonance & Abstinence-Only Education (The Case for Sex Ed Part 1)

From another campaign for abstinence (from booze…and we all remember how well that went, right?). Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

I’m kicking off a new blog post series called “The Case for Sex Ed.” In it, I’ll devote each post to a facet of the larger argument in favor of comprehensive, evidence-based sex education.

This first post is about the cognitive dissonance inherent in abstinence-only educational programs (not to lose sight of the fact that these programs are filled with lies and religious propaganda but are still somehow federally funded and taught in public schools!).

The cognitive dissonance I want to discuss here arises from the fear-based tactics that abstinence-only-until-marriage (henceforth AOUM) programs employ to “teach” about premarital sex. AOUM educators use biased metaphors about sexual worth, comparing a person’s value to chewing gum or sticky tape (both of which get grosser the more they come into contact with). AOUM educators have tons to say about the social, psychological, and spiritual risks of premarital sex, while withholding factual information about the physical risks or potential ways to prevent specific outcomes like pregnancy and STI transmission.

However, when it comes to marital sex, apparently it’s fine to introduce pleasure as a concept… just not in any great detail. As Nancy Kendall writes in her ethnography of sex education in four American school districts: “All sex before marriage in inherently dangerous and wrong, and the moral risk can never be reduced. In contrast, all talk of sex after marriage was glowing and full of pleasure; no AOUM [education] program presented any information about the risks of STI transmission of unwanted pregnancy after marriage because such discussion would be ideologically flawed.” (The Sex Education Debates 132)

I wonder how young adults (or hell, any adults) are supposed to mentally flip on a switch that says “okay, now that I’m married it’s acceptable to start learning about sex – from anatomically accurate body part names to how desire and arousal work – but not one second earlier!” My mind reels with the cognitive dissonance of this enormous task: suddenly, upon getting married, being faced with the need to learn everything there is to know about how to have a happy, healthy, and successful sex life with your spouse (because even if you learned a little bit in an AOUM program, it was a long time ago, and might be factually suspect).

I mean, that’s a lot of knowledge to catch up on! As sex educators generally acknowledge, adults need more sex education too. Kate McCombs, whose blog post is linked in the previous sentence, asserts: “Adults need sex ed just as much as young people do. Sexual desires, needs, and physical functioning evolve over time and because of this, we humans need information to help us navigate those changes.” She believes that it’s important “to normalize the idea that adults need opportunities to expand their sexuality knowledge too.”

So if people’s experiences of their sexuality are constantly evolving and changing, such that even adults need sex education, what must it be like as a young adult who hasn’t had any substantial or accurate sex ed who’s now married and is expected to know the ropes? What kind of disappointment, guilt, and shame are we setting up our young adults for, when it could be so easily prevented by giving everyone evidence-based comprehensive sex ed?

For what it’s worth, comprehensive sex ed isn’t anti-abstinence; often, abstinence is presented as one more tool in the toolbox of sexual safety and decision-making. But the way AOUM education is done is the U.S. has become a warped mockery of actual sex education: it passes off moral judgments as facts; refuses to take into account peer-reviewed scientific facts about, well, most things (including its own efficacy); and does a poor job of preparing our next generation for making informed decisions about their own sexual lives.

Let’s prepare our next generation for a healthy future, and let’s reframe the debate so that heterosexual monogamous reproductive sex within marriage isn’t seen as the only healthy (or inevitable) outcome. Sure, it’s one that many people will be drawn to, and let’s support them in seeking information to make the best of their married sex lives. But let’s also recognize that human sexuality is vastly diverse and richly varied, and so let’s empower our young and old alike to have access to enough sexual information that they’re not stuck with cognitive dissonance, shame, or any other totally preventable icky effects of living in such a sex-negative culture.

3 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance & Abstinence-Only Education (The Case for Sex Ed Part 1)

  1. I agree, I believe that sex-ed should not be one dimensional and that the many facets of sexual activity should be inclusive for both youth and adults alike, heterosexual, homosexual, etc. For me as a 24 year old, it is still important for me to be educated on sexuality… continuously. As you said, norms are constantly changing. I’m a firm believer that education should start upon teenage years and withholding valuable/relevant sexual information from youth only hurts them in the long run.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, I think you’re totally right that withholding information about sex ultimately does more harm than good. I’d even argue that sex ed can start when kids are younger, because there are ways to keep it age-appropriate. This would help make sex normal, in ways that our culture is failing at thus far.

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