Here in jolly ol’ fucked-up-in-our-own-way Blighty when two teens get together it’s not uncommon for someone to make the quip ‘And no sex until after you’re married’ followed by jovial laughter all around. In some of the stricter situations this is a serious order, and parents may not even allow younger individuals to spend a night together or even share a room alone. But very few conventionally ‘British’ families will practice abstinence in the same way that the US does.
What Is Abstinence?
Abstinence as a concept is not inherently harmful. It simply means to intentionally not do something. Lots of individuals, cultures, and religions even have bouts of self-decided abstinence – where they will deprive themselves of something, usually for a certain duration.
These forms of abstinence can have mixed success rates but they’re not typically used in an insidious manner (unless we’re talking about diet culture because, oh boy, do I have some words about that).
But abstinence as a premise has also been imposed en masse in some areas to the notion of physically intimate relationships, in which case things get a lot more problematic.
Abstinence-Only Sex Education
Abstinence-only sex education is solely concerned with the psychological, social, and physical deterrence of sexual activity outside of marriage.
It’s usually taught to vulnerable young individuals, often teenagers, and strictly prohibits any form of contraceptive information, as it believes that giving attention to any method of safer sex practice is essentially condoning sex to the individuals they’re talking to, which it is fundamentally against.
It typically teaches young people the premise of marriage being ‘sacred’ and that sexual activity outside of monogamous, marital relations will cause long-term psychological damage. It also tends to encourage young people not just to abstain from sex but to actively reject notions of sex outside of its framework and to vilify other approaches to sexual relations – treating sexual advances as if they were synonymous to being encouraged to do drugs or engage in binge drinking.
Basically, a whole load of ‘Nope’.
The only silver lining of abstinence (of you can even call it that) is that it encourages individuals to become self-actualized, confident, a complete people before trying to pursue a union between themselves and someone else. Buuut I’m pretty sure this can be taught without all of the downsides that come with abstinence.
The Dark Side Of Abstinence
It’s well-recongised by now that abstinence-only education methods do not work. On the topic of AOUM teaching methods (Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage) the Journal of Adolescent Heath concluded that even if this methods works in theory it has been shown to fail in practice and that ‘Governments in the United States and elsewhere should support medically accurate, evidence-based, and scientifically justified approaches to sexuality education for young people. AOUM as a basis for health policy and programs should be abandoned.’
Beyond this abstinence only programs have caused some pretty fucked up experiences for a lot of people too.
Going in to a sexual relationship is daunting at the best of times. Now imagine that you’ve committed to your sexual partner for the rest of your lives, that neither of you know what you’re doing, and that you’ve now got to figure it out without enough prior knowledge.
Or how about imagining deciding to have sex as a teen in an AOUM area and not having any of the safer sex knowledge that is needed for pregnancy and STI prevention so just kind of winging it and hoping for the best.
Oh, and then there’s the inherent shame and belief system that AOUM imposes. The idea that our bodies are not meant to be explored or shared unless a certain amount of stringent criteria are met and that any other urges or desires (most of which are inevitable and natural) are fundamentally wrong and should be avoided at all costs.
Some studies have even found that those raised with an AOUM program are less likely to trust and use safer sex methods, even when needed, because of the negative association that has been drilled in to them between contraception and the ‘right’ way to engage in sexual activities. I weep for any poor individuals who have found themselves in this situation.
I Was Raised With AOUM. Can I Ever Move On?
People who were raised with AOUM education programs and later begin to question the AOUM belief system (because, yes, it’s a belief system, not a neutral educational framework) might wonder how to break out of the AOUM mindset or what to do to educate themselves?
If this is you then, firstly, I commend you for your bravery in working against what may very well be the norm in your social background, and apologise for the education that you’ve been deprived of.
But, the good thing is, that education is available, and the internet makes it more accessible than ever. Identify sites that represent legitimate health bodies and search through their sex education or safer sex sections. Chances are they will provide a comprehensive breakdown of the contraceptive and sexual healthcare option available to you as well as instructions on how to use them.
If you want to reclaim the youthful approach of adolescent sex education then consider sites such as Scarleteen or similar websites aimed at educating teenagers on sex, intimacy, gender, and sexuality. Don’t be afraid to look around at a few of these sites until you find one that really resonates with you.
If you’re more of a book worm then go to Amazon and find books target at similar audiences. Look for good review ratings and read what others have to say. Preview the book if you can.
Don’t be afraid of buying some safer sex items just for yourself, opening them up and exploring them, much like you would any new object.
Someone learning to play the guitar will often take up a few instruments, consider how their strings feel under their fingers and the weight and size of the object before committing to those first few tentative strums. There’s no shame in a similarly self-indulgent and tactile exploration of what the world of safer sex has to offer. Many of these products will also come with their own instruction manuals too. Bonus research material!
Throughout this research try your best to approach rediscovering sex education with a sense of excitement and joy.
This might be the hardest part.
Abstinence programs have a horrible way of making you feel like shit for even considering taking care of your own body on your own terms and that shame can be deep rooted and complex. Recognising and defying the negative thoughts that may come with your abstinence background is one of the most crucial aspects of moving forward.
When doing so make sure you practice radical self-love, physically, yes, but also mentally. You are not wrong for wanting information on sex. In fact, you deserve this information and don’t let anyone, even so-called ‘authority figures’ tell you otherwise.