Abstinence Education: Sexy or Scary?

“Sex is great!” chants the crowd at the sexual abstinence rally. The point is not to encourage the teenagers attending to have sex, but rather to encourage them to wait to have sex until they are married.

My colleague at Wheaton, Dr. Christine Gardner, has just published her new book, “Making Chastity Sexy: the Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns.” She studies, as an expert in communication, the messages of the many teen-oriented abstinence programs that attempt to help encourage teenagers to wait for marriage to have sex.

The evidence is that these programs work, sort of. The formal scientific studies suggest that kids that go through abstinence programs and make “pledges” to remain abstinent, on average, delay first intercourse by about 18 months. Any reasonable person would have to agree that this is a good thing. The bad news is that those kids who go through abstinence programs and then decide to have sex outside of marriage are less likely to use birth control when they have sex. The studies are complex and paint a somewhat confusing portrait of the outcomes of these programs.

Teenagers and young adults need all the support they can get as they aspire to remain chaste. The biggest problem we see is that programs in the public sphere that are aimed at abstinence, such as those in public schools, have to mute the religious dimension of the choices kids must make about sexual morality. This leaves two big weapons in their arsenal: You can try to “scare the kids chaste” by elaborating all the dangers of sex outside of marriage (which are considerable). Or you can try to “entice the kids chaste” by promoting how good sex will be in marriage if they choose to wait. Many programs, of course, do both.

Both realities – that sex in marriage can be and is great (and faithfulness before and during marriage enhances this), and sex outside of marriage is risky and dangerous – have a place in a fully orbed approach to sex education. But it is in the family, and secondarily in the church, that you can place those two realities in their proper perspective, namely, that both the joys of sex in marriage and the dangers of sex outside of marriage are secondary to living a good life submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

We encourage parents to be honest about both of these realities – the benefits of abstinence in laying the groundwork for satisfying marital sexual relations and protecting your child and their future spouse from the dangers of illicit sex – but do this as a secondary emphasis. Give your primary emphasis to teaching your child how God looks at sexuality as a gift to be handled with love and care, with our bodies offered back to Christ in love and gratitude.