Opinion: Sex education should not spread shame and stigma

Andrea Swartzendruber is an assistant professor in the epidemiology and biostatistics department in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on adolescent and women’s sexual and reproductive health.

In this piece, Swartzendruber discusses the risks of abstinence-only sex education programs.

By Andrea Swartzendruber

As school starts again, many districts across Georgia will continue to endanger students in sexual education classrooms. Abstinence-only sex education programs do not prevent high school students from having sex. Instead abstinence-only programs cause harm to students. The programs may have long-term negative effects on students who have experienced sexual assault, due to the stigmatizing and shaming ways they discuss sex.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 10 girls and one in 33 boys reported ever being forced to have sexual intercourse in the most recent national survey of high school students.

Unfortunately, many Georgia school districts turn a blind eye to these statistics and the needs of students who have experienced sexual assault, potentially traumatizing students again through abstinence-only sex education. “Choosing The Best,” a curriculum commonly used in Georgia, teaches that people who have sex before marriage – 95 percent of U.S. adults – are not “pure." Some activities suggest that sex before marriage renders people tainted, worthless, and unwanted. Imagine how these messages are received by students who have experienced sexual assault.

Such damaging messages can prevent individuals from reporting abuse and have lasting consequences. Many abstinence-only programs reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and give females responsibility for male sexual feelings – potentially blaming sexual assault victims and excusing perpetrators. They do not even acknowledge that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth exist, let alone that they experience high levels of violence, trauma, and discrimination.

Former students in Georgia are speaking out about the lasting negative effects their abstinence-only education had on their lives, health, and wellbeing. One former student discussed a lesson comparing virginity to a flower in which students were told “no one wants a flower who has no petals.” She told The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “…I cannot express the amount of damage this did to me…”

An abundance of evidence supports parents’ and students’ calls to stop teaching abstinence-only sex ed. They often contain scientifically inaccurate information and undermine confidence in birth control and condoms. Fear tactics do not work. Abstinence-only programs do not delay initiation of sexual activity or reduce sexual risk behavior. In fact, they may discourage sexually active adolescents from using contraceptives, increasing their risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.

Nationally, about 40 percent of high school students have had sex. Given Georgia’s numerous abortion restrictions, failing to adequately educate students about preventing pregnancy may essentially promote teen childbearing. Withholding complete and accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health violates students’ rights and puts them in danger.

Schools should be safe places for all students. School culture should reflect respect and acceptance. The goal of sex education should be promoting health for all students.

Sex education should recognize that sexual assault and trauma are widespread and actively protect students from being traumatized again by creating physical and emotional safety in the classroom, avoiding shaming and stigmatizing language, creating opportunities for support, striving for collaboration between educators and students, and preparing and empowering students to achieve sexual health over the course of their lives.

To address sexual violence, the CDC recommends promoting healthy sexuality through comprehensive sex education as part of a core set of evidence-based strategies. Comprehensive sex education programs teach that abstinence, contraceptives, and condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. They also help students explore their values and goals and improve communication and interpersonal skills. The evidence is clear: comprehensive sex education works. It effectively reduces sexual risk behaviors and prevents teen pregnancy.

Open and honest discussion, a positive and respectful approach to sexuality, and scientifically accurate information promote sexual health, a fundamental component of overall health. Inclusive sex education acknowledges sexual diversity, that sex isn’t always a choice, and the benefits of respectful intimate relationships. It is humanizing and encourages peacemaking – and better promotes student health.

As the new school year begins, districts should remove judgement, shaming, and misinformation from sex ed curricula and work to protect and promote the health of all students.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.