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Here's What My Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Actually Taught Me

Like that when you have sex with someone, you're having sex with everyone they've ever had sex with.

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My young adult sex education consisted of an abstinence-only curriculum at my Texas middle school in 2003.

It was held in a special unit of our 7th grade health class when I was 13. Parents had the option to pull their kids from that unit, but my parents wouldn't have. Besides, I was very emphatic about wanting to take that class so I could learn about sex.

I'm sure my school district and its teachers, parents, and administrators were doing the best they could within the Texas state laws, and still are. Maybe the curriculum, which is chosen by a council of mostly parents, is the best option that fits the laws. (FWIW, the county that my district primarily covers was one of the few in Texas that went blue in the 2016 presidential elections.)

I fully bought the abstinence-is-the-only-way message from ages 12 to about 15. I didn't ask many questions, because I assumed I was learning everything I needed to know. But now, 14 years later, it's painfully obvious that there were some glaring gaps in my sex education. These are some of the lessons that curriculum actually taught me — and what it didn't.

1. Abstinence is the only way to 100% protect yourself from pregnancy.

Paramount Pictures

Sure, this is true. And it's Texas state law that all public schools hammer that point home.

But as a 13-year-old, it would have been helpful to know about other birth control options and how effective they are, where you can get them, how to use them, and how they work.

2. Condoms have an 18% "typical-use" failure rate.

safeinthecity.org / Via youtube.com

Also technically true. And also a requirement per state law: "If included in the content of the curriculum, teach contraception and condom use in terms of human use reality rates instead of theoretical laboratory rates."

Sounds kind of reasonable, right? But it really meant that we heard condoms were unreliable. Think with your teenager logic. Why use a condom if it barely works anyway?

Turns out, condoms are actually up to 98% effective when used consistently and correctly, which includes checking for holes, avoiding oil-based lubes, and wearing them for the entire time. (You could also read the fine print in the condom box, but remember, teenager logic.)

Like I said, I bought the abstinence-only line — I wanted an A in Health class, and I hadn't kissed anyone yet, so condoms seemed irrelevant. A few years later, when I should have used protection, I wasn't comfortable telling any adults that I was experimenting with non-abstinence. And (seriously) I didn't think condoms were going to be effective, anyway.

3. A heterosexual, married family life is obviously what everyone wants.

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I LOL at the idea that a Texas middle school circa 2003 (the year of Lawrence v. Texas) might acknowledge the existence of anyone who wasn't cisgender and straight, especially in a sex ed unit. And obviously everyone's going to get married one day. Why else would the handbook emphasize that they teach "the skills, character, and commitment to remain abstinent until marriage"? (Oh, right, state law.)

On a related note, this recent worksheet from a high school sex ed class (in my school district) asks students to "list your top 5 qualities in the opposite sex" and to "guess what the opposite sex top 5 desires in you."

4. Oral sex is sex.

We had to repeat "oral sex is sex," out loud in class, to make sure it stuck. And sure, it is 100% true that you can transmit STIs through unprotected oral.But I learned this from an abstinence-only perspective, which implied that you might as well be having intercourse if you have oral sex. STIs transmitted by oral sex are one of the "risks and consequences of sex before marriage," according to the curriculum my former middle school uses — so oral sex is ~just as bad~ as sex, and you shouldn't be having it. What my sex ed class missed here, of course, is that it's possible to prevent the spread of STIs through oral sex by using condoms and dental dams. We never talked about barrier methods when it came to oral sex at all. Which meant that in high school, nobody I knew who talked to me about their experiences with oral sex ever used protection, and neither did I. (There was no mention of anal sex, at all — probably partly because of Lawrence v. Texas, but also because Texas, to this day, has a lot of problems with anything that's not heteronormative.)
Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed / Via buzzfeed.com

We had to repeat "oral sex is sex," out loud in class, to make sure it stuck. And sure, it is 100% true that you can transmit STIs through unprotected oral.

But I learned this from an abstinence-only perspective, which implied that you might as well be having intercourse if you have oral sex. STIs transmitted by oral sex are one of the "risks and consequences of sex before marriage," according to the curriculum my former middle school uses — so oral sex is ~just as bad~ as sex, and you shouldn't be having it.

What my sex ed class missed here, of course, is that it's possible to prevent the spread of STIs through oral sex by using condoms and dental dams. We never talked about barrier methods when it came to oral sex at all. Which meant that in high school, nobody I knew who talked to me about their experiences with oral sex ever used protection, and neither did I.

(There was no mention of anal sex, at all — probably partly because of Lawrence v. Texas, but also because Texas, to this day, has a lot of problems with anything that's not heteronormative.)

5. How to say "NO" to sex.

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This was an incredibly important skill to learn. Everyone should practice saying "no" so they can clearly communicate when they don't want to have sex.

But saying "no" to intercourse and everything sexual is NOT the same thing as understanding real consent. And it's all that my abstinence-only education was concerned about.

When I had my first sexual experiences, no one told me that I could decide I wasn't okay with something at any time, even if I was okay with it before. I only knew that I was supposed to say "no", and that if I said "yes", I was a ~bad person~ taking a huge risk.

One year, I told a boyfriend I gave up everything sexual for Lent, because I didn't know how to tell him that I was tired of him touching my boobs without hurting his feelings. It's a funny story now, but when you really think about it, 16-year-olds shouldn't lack the scripts for this. I didn't talk to adults about it, even when they gently asked, because I was too embarrassed about and ashamed of the fact that I'd been sexual at all.

6. When you have sex with someone, you're also having sex with everyone they've had sex with.

After watching a slideshow of close-up photos of infected genitals (an "optional" part of the curriculum that we watched, but were told we could put our heads down for, if we wanted), we did some role playing (h/t to my friend Joe for reminding me it was called "Marriage Bed"). It went like this: I volunteered as the girl, and a male classmate volunteered as the dude (I didn't realize where this was going). We stood next to each other in the front of the classroom. Theoretically, we were married. I picked one other guy, and he stood behind me. The dude picked one other girl, and she stood behind him. The guy I picked chose two girls, who stood behind him. And the girl the dude picked chose two dudes, who stood behind her. Those two people each picked three people, and so on, until most of the class was crowded in two pyramid-scheme-like lines, one behind the dude, and one behind me. That's when the teacher read the story. The dude's character and my character were married, and this was our wedding night. When we slept together, since we'd each had sex with one other person before getting married, it would be as if we'd slept with all of the people standing behind us. That's because if one person in each of our crowds had a secret STI or an STI they didn't know about, we could have caught it. And now, we were going to give that STI to each other. That last part about the STIs is not wrong, but this was the first time in my life I felt slut-shamed, even though I had no concept of slut-shaming at the time. As a 13-year-old who was going to commit to abstinence for that A on my report card, I was incredibly embarrassed to play a character who was, in my mind at the time, a danger to anyone she might want to marry. And more importantly — WHERE WERE THE POSITIVE LESSONS ON CONDOMS AND ROUTINE STI SCREENING???
Loryn Brantz for BuzzFeed / Via buzzfeed.com

After watching a slideshow of close-up photos of infected genitals (an "optional" part of the curriculum that we watched, but were told we could put our heads down for, if we wanted), we did some role playing (h/t to my friend Joe for reminding me it was called "Marriage Bed"). It went like this:

I volunteered as the girl, and a male classmate volunteered as the dude (I didn't realize where this was going). We stood next to each other in the front of the classroom. Theoretically, we were married.

I picked one other guy, and he stood behind me.

The dude picked one other girl, and she stood behind him.

The guy I picked chose two girls, who stood behind him.

And the girl the dude picked chose two dudes, who stood behind her.

Those two people each picked three people, and so on, until most of the class was crowded in two pyramid-scheme-like lines, one behind the dude, and one behind me. That's when the teacher read the story.

The dude's character and my character were married, and this was our wedding night. When we slept together, since we'd each had sex with one other person before getting married, it would be as if we'd slept with all of the people standing behind us. That's because if one person in each of our crowds had a secret STI or an STI they didn't know about, we could have caught it. And now, we were going to give that STI to each other.

That last part about the STIs is not wrong, but this was the first time in my life I felt slut-shamed, even though I had no concept of slut-shaming at the time. As a 13-year-old who was going to commit to abstinence for that A on my report card, I was incredibly embarrassed to play a character who was, in my mind at the time, a danger to anyone she might want to marry. And more importantly — WHERE WERE THE POSITIVE LESSONS ON CONDOMS AND ROUTINE STI SCREENING???

7. Don't worry, you can ~renew your virginity~ if you've had sex already but want to be abstinent again.

We learned this as a part of the middle school curriculum where "teens are encouraged to make their own commitment to the healthy choice: abstinence until marriage." (No word yet on what's allowed if you *gasp* decide you don't want to be married.) It seems to be intended to lessen some (but definitely not all) of the shame that the abstinence hardline might cause for any students who had already been sexually active. And (in a well-intentioned but unbelievably tone-deaf way) to help students who might have been victims of sexual assault feel somehow better. Interestingly, it was almost like they were saying that virginity is a social construct — even though their intention was still to encourage "virginity" as the ideal. This whole idea of re-virginizing yourself was notably contradicted by a girl-power program at my church, which I attended around the same time as my secular sex-ed classes. In a role-play scenario with an actual wrapped box, we were told that we're all born with a perfectly wrapped gift. That the first person you give that gift away to (like a high school boyfriend) unwraps it. That when you break up, he gives your gift back. Try to put that gift back together so it's perfectly wrapped again. You can't, can you? If you give your gift away to anyone before your wedding night, you will have no choice but to give your future husband a torn up, damaged gift. Do you want to do that to your future husband?
Thomasvogel / Getty Images

We learned this as a part of the middle school curriculum where "teens are encouraged to make their own commitment to the healthy choice: abstinence until marriage." (No word yet on what's allowed if you *gasp* decide you don't want to be married.)

It seems to be intended to lessen some (but definitely not all) of the shame that the abstinence hardline might cause for any students who had already been sexually active. And (in a well-intentioned but unbelievably tone-deaf way) to help students who might have been victims of sexual assault feel somehow better. Interestingly, it was almost like they were saying that virginity is a social construct — even though their intention was still to encourage "virginity" as the ideal.

This whole idea of re-virginizing yourself was notably contradicted by a girl-power program at my church, which I attended around the same time as my secular sex-ed classes. In a role-play scenario with an actual wrapped box, we were told that we're all born with a perfectly wrapped gift. That the first person you give that gift away to (like a high school boyfriend) unwraps it. That when you break up, he gives your gift back. Try to put that gift back together so it's perfectly wrapped again. You can't, can you? If you give your gift away to anyone before your wedding night, you will have no choice but to give your future husband a torn up, damaged gift. Do you want to do that to your future husband?

8. Getting pregnant in your teens will crush all your hopes and dreams.

Obviously false. Lots of teen- and college-aged people have babies AND successful and happy lives — here are just 15 of the many experiences out there. That said, if my sex ed class was so concerned with helping prevent pregnancy ~for the students' own good~, maybe they should have taught us how to use birth control, too. It turns out that when people know how to use birth control and have access to it, they use it, even if they're teens. The teen birth rate in Colorado dropped 48% between 2009 and 2014, because they had a program (that now lacks funding) that offered free contraception to teens. On the national level, increased access to contraception (especially long-term methods) is thought to be the main reason why the abortion rate in the US is at an all-time low.
Bedsider / instagram.com

Obviously false. Lots of teen- and college-aged people have babies AND successful and happy lives — here are just 15 of the many experiences out there.

That said, if my sex ed class was so concerned with helping prevent pregnancy ~for the students' own good~, maybe they should have taught us how to use birth control, too.

It turns out that when people know how to use birth control and have access to it, they use it, even if they're teens. The teen birth rate in Colorado dropped 48% between 2009 and 2014, because they had a program (that now lacks funding) that offered free contraception to teens. On the national level, increased access to contraception (especially long-term methods) is thought to be the main reason why the abortion rate in the US is at an all-time low.

9. Sex outside of marriage is emotionally traumatizing, so just don't do it.

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Part of the state's justification for requiring that sex ed be heavily focused on abstinence is that they want to prevent the "emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity."

Okay, sure. The thing is, all sex can be emotionally traumatizing, including sex within marriage, if you're not emotionally prepared for it. Just because you're married doesn't mean there won't be any emotional consequences related to your sex life. Similarly, your sex life before marriage isn't automatically going to be traumatizing. It might be, but it also might be awesome.

As I've gotten to know the nuances in my own sex and sexuality, and talked to friends and partners about theirs, it's been extremely clear to me that, in general, the people I've met whose early sex education explored the nuances of emotions and sex (instead of hammering in the idea that sex = trauma and tears, unless you're married, so just don't do it) have had healthier and happier sex lives. Of course there's a lot of learning along the way, and no one has a ~perfect~ sex life, but it's helpful to have this realistic and inclusive foundation.

Scarleteen, the site I wish I'd known about as a 13-year-old, has a pretty great primer on safe, emotional sex that continues to help me in relationships (casual, serious, and to some extent even non-sexual friendships).

And here are all the things my abstinence-only sex ed DIDN'T teach me:

That sex can be pleasurable and fun and light; it's okay if sometimes sex is not that great; that it's okay to not like sex; that masturbation is normal and fun; that the g-spot exists, even for people with penises; anything about the clitoris besides that it exists; anything about penises except their anatomical parts; how to actually use a condom so it's most effective; what your options are if you get pregnant; that you should consider what you want and enjoy sexually and how to communicate those desires to your partner during sex and not during sex; what most STIs are besides scary monsters that motivate abstinence; that some STIs can be curable; that wearing a condom can make a HUGE difference in STI prevention (and you should wear one even if you're on birth control); that dental dams exist; that sometimes you should use rubber gloves; anything about STI testing and how to get tested and what to expect (and that people with penises have stuff to know about getting tested, too); that hymens don't matter and that some people don't have one; that sexuality is complicated and can take time to discover; that gender isn't always binary; anything about any kind of sex that wasn't oral sex or heteronormative intercourse; what to know when you have sex for the first time; any real way to understand your emotions when you're having sex; what to expect when you go in to get an IUD; that other contraceptive methods besides condoms and the pill exist; how to ask for consent at all; what consent actually is and what consent definitely isn't; what you should say if you want to try something but don't want to ruin the mood; how bodies actually work during sex; LUBE ALL THE LUBE AND CONDOMS... and I'm sure so many other things that I will discover over time and wish I'd known from the beginning.

Special <3: Joe, who helped me remember even more, and confirmed what I remembered already; and to my parents, who were helpful when I finally did start asking questions.

Was your sex education abstinence-only? Did you have a better or worse experience than I did? What did your sex ed miss — or get right?

Lixia Guo / BuzzFeed News
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