Of Pipe Dreams and Expectations or Why Abstinence Only Education Sucks

This was going to be a comment over here but because I get long winded sometimes it turned into a post instead.

If its one thing I must give my mostly conservative parents credit for, it’s for trying. They weren’t very comfortable discussing sex but my siblings and I had the basics down. We spent Saturday afternoons complaining about being sent for youth seminars that turned out to be sex education talks. Books were bought and handed to us and we were encouraged to ask questions if we needed more information (even though the looks on their faces clearly showed that they were dreading any questions that might pop up). My friends’ parents too were determined to educate the people their children hung out with. I once went for a sleep over and lo and behold, we were taken to a counselor’s office the next afternoon and told all about the horizontal mambo and how, when the time comes, we will get to experience it. Not that we were being given permission to go out there and get busy – we were always reminded how its always good to wait and not be gullible and its always best to wait until marriage.

So by the time I got to high school, a 13 year old who had never been away from home I knew some things. You can still get pregnant even if you have sex standing up, underwater or even if he withdraws at the moment of reckoning. That condoms and heat don’t go well together and that they also have expiration dates. That I was being sent to a girls boarding school so that I could be far far away from boys and all their temptations (also known as focusing on your studies/your future is important). Then, my naïve self was not considering having sex, raging hormones or no. It was an inconceivable to me at the time but I was informed.

Enter the troupe of sex education specialists (I’m not sure what else to call them) who do the rounds at schools. To this day, I sincerely believe they did us a disservice. I was in form 2 I think and we were called to the school hall to receive “the talk”. First, they told us we were all beautiful flowers and special in our own way. Then, we were informed how every time we had sex, we lose a petal and if you keep at it all that will be left is a stem and thorns. As an adult, this is very disturbing imagery – if all my petals are still there when I get married does that mean that my hubby will strip them all away? Anyway, after the flowers story they went on to say how boys and men will say anything to get you into bed (true) and that until you get married sex is bad bad bad news. To show us how bad it is, we were told condoms don’t work, we will get pregnant and ruin our lives and that we will get AIDS and other icky diseases. Then they went on to show us exactly how icky they could be.

Truth be told, after the first few pictures I shut my eyes. The infamous “here are the diseased private bits of folks who had sex out of wedlock” slide show is something that may traumatize many but will not be a deterrent for long. I mean, how many thousands of high school students saw that and still went on to have sex, protected or otherwise? After the slide show, we were told to keep the horrors and the “you are a special flower” portions of the talk to heart and to join True Love Waits. Aaaand … that was it. Basically, the message was, sex diminishes you. If you have it before you are married, you will get pregnant, get an STD, watch your privates deteriorate and maybe get a death sentence via HIV. With this info, we were supposed to go out into the world, confident and knowledgeable in all matters sexual. This whole abstain or suffer/die message is one that will be ignored by the majority and statistics of teen pregnancies, HIV infection rates and pre-marital sex back me up.

I won’t knock any one person who decides that celibacy or abstinence is the path that they want to take. All I can say is, more power to them. It’s not an easy choice and if you manage to stick to your guns to the end then you should be applauded for making a decision as to how to live your life. Fact remains that like 99% of people living on this earth will at one point or another engage in sexual activity. Question is, by teaching abstinence only education aren’t we not being realistic and neglecting to give much needed information that we all need to know? In my experience, abstinence only education is full of guilting, shaming and misinformation. Feel bad about your sexual feelings, even though they might be natural. Those dirty thoughts you are having make you unclean and you must cease them at once! If you have sex, condoms don’t work anyway and you will still get infected. This is my main issue with it – because absent of the required info that comprehensive sex education gives there arise many issues. Like teens engaging in unprotected sex cos they figure they don’t need condoms and thus pregnancy and STD rates going up. And filling in the blanks of what they don’t know with other sources like their friends, television, magazines and the internet. Filling in the blanks isn’t always bad, there is good stuff to be learned out there. But, those myths about sex don’t spread themselves and I’m sure most would rather that if one were to learn about these sorts of things they do it from the experts and folks in the know and not Mills and Boons books and a know it all friend who in the end, knows not much at all. It’s like getting all your news from the forwards that show up in your email inbox instead of reading a reputable newspaper or watching news of maana. We would find anyone who did so ignorant and a bit daft, why should matters pertaining to sex be any different?

Its not like walking down the altar is a magic bullet – married people still get HIV and other diseases cos a lot of people are not faithful. Saying the vows is no shield against the realities of this world so having folks knowledgeable will always be useful even after they say “I do.” I find it frustrating that so many out there act like discussing sex with teenagers once they become of age is going to result in all of them humping like rabbits as soon as all the adults are out of sight. The theory, if you can call it that, goes that if they are “protected” from the more salacious details then they won’t know what they’re missing and wont be tempted to go out there and experiment. I keep having this conversation over and over with different groups of people and I’m fresh out of ways to communicate that infantilizing anyone, young or old will get you nowhere and will yield results opposite of what you want.

Information is not the devil. We all need it, young and old. I understand that there may be some who have moral objections to having frank discussions about sex and want to believe that it should be limited to a special club and anyone outside those boundaries should be excluded until they are ready. Here’s the thing – you can’t decide that for others. You cant turn a blind eye to the way things are and how they always have been (that is, humans like sex, they enjoy it and will have it come what may) and then act shocked when keeping folks in the dark just makes things worse. Give people the facts and then let them decide what to do with them but don’t deny them access to it just because you are uncomfortable – the consequences of that are too horrible to imagine and if you get your head out of the sand long enough you’ll see that its happening all around you already.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Of Pipe Dreams and Expectations or Why Abstinence Only Education Sucks

  1. This is a great post, and I can just feel the passion with which you wrote it. So many things to comment on!

    I do remember that “girls are flowers” talk and the scary pictures. Funny enough, the sex education in American high school wasn’t any different. I finished high school in the US and in my health class, we received the abstinence talk which ended with a video of a teenage girl giving birth (yes, they showed the baby’s head coming out). Many of the girls walked away swearing off sex (but they probably forgot all about it the minute they went to the movies with their boyfriends later that night).

    Parents’ attitudes towards sex make a big difference. And as a parent, why would you not want to give your kids the best and most accurate information and let them make their own decisions? My parents did and I’m forever grateful to them for it. They sat my brother and I down and explained the concept of child support and condoms to us (at age 14 and 16). Did that make us wanna go out and have sex? Of course not. In fact, I lost my virginity 6 years after my first “condom talk”, despite the fact that my parents talked about it at least once a month in one way or another. My parents figured that if other people’s kids were engaging in teen sex, their kids weren’t any different or special, so they wanted us to be well equipped if we had to make that decision. They preached taking responsibility and knowing the consequences of everything we did, and sex was no different. My dad was even willing to buy us alcohol so we could get drunk in the safety of our home if we were that curious to find out what it felt like to be drunk. I believe that this approach is what made me wait so long to have sex, and it’s part of the reason I don’t even drink at all as an adult.

    At the end of the day, information is the best tool we can impart on kids. They are naturally curious, and they will look for that information, be it from their friends, media, etc. As a parent, wouldn’t you rather they learned it from you in a factual way? Rather than ignoring their curiosity, it makes sense to educate them, not only about sex, but how to have the sex responsibly, coupled with the consequences and responsibility that accompanies the act itself.

    Sorry for blogging on your comments section 😀

  2. wow, like a real live birth? i would think that that would make people more vigilant about birth control. militant even.

    even though teenagers are known for their sullen ways and eye rolling (ama that was just me :-D) and general ‘our generation invented sex’ attitude they do listen. i remember losing my virginity way after most of my friends had and that was because it was always stressed to me that there was no rush for sex. i wish people took that to account, because no matter how much i felt that my folks were articles from Parents magazine brought to life i was listening and was happy that they talked to me like a thinking person instead of just leaving me in the dark. the older i get, the more i appreciate that. im pretty sure minus our anecdotal stories, there is a study somewhere that says that children who have frank discussions with their parents actually wait to have sex and when they do have it, take more precautions.

    i wish this was a discussion that was had more often – i tend to feel that kenyans in general tend to be very conservative when it comes to discussing these kind of things. awkward conversations must be had because in the end, we all benefit from it.

  3. I agree with you. And these conversations need not be awkward. There are plenty of studies showing the benefits of comprehensive sex education. I don’t wanna be a geek and start publishing studies on your page 😀

  4. Peter

    I agree with everything in this post. Parents, teachers, churches,schools and so on need to lose the illusions that if they make sex something ugly then it becomes exactly that. I don’t remember having a “sex” talk from my folks but facts were presented at every opportunity so my choice to finally go there was not an ignorant one and i knew where i was going with that choice.
    Thank you for this.

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