Abstinence-Only Sex Education: A Caution
Being a 65-year-old curmudgeon, I sometimes have to be reminded that social media has its uses, despite the fact that CatholicCulture.org maintains two different Facebook pages (see www.facebook.com/catholicculture and www.facebook.com/liturgicalyear). Heck, I even tweet the appearance of most of the things I write here (or at least I have twooted them in the past). But do I follow the tweets of others or “friend” people on Facebook? Do I respond to Facebook and LinkedIn invitations? Well no, no I don’t.
And yet one of my lovely, intelligent, blessed and very Catholic daughters-in-law posted a reference on her Facebook page to a critique of abstinence-only sex education. This was noticed almost instantly by one of my unmarried sons. He then sent me an email containing a link to the article in question. Now I grasp the significance and the ease of email, since it was invented when I still had a nimble mind, and this essay by Calah Alexander is an eye-opener. There are, it seems, grave problems with abstinence-only sex education.
Do I sense an uncomfortable stirring in the pews? Surely CatholicCulture.org gratefully accepts the Church’s teaching on the proper use of our sexuality? Yes, surely. And for this reason, all of us here believe that the proper way to avoid pregnancy, when necessary, is to abstain from sexual intercourse. Moreover, artificial contraception should never—repeat, never—be used to facilitate sexual pleasure by eliminating “risk”.
For this reason, in fact, I had never thought much about abstinence-only sex education. The problem with “normal” sex education in our culture, I reasoned, is that it (a) assumes either the goodness or at least the inevitability of promiscuity; and (b) teaches that the way to deal with the unwanted results of promiscuity is through contraception, sterilization and abortion. Armed with this understanding, I have always naturally assumed that any program is good which (a) assumes that sexual promiscuity is bad; and (b) teaches that the way to deal with its unwanted results is simply to avoid it.
The Right and the Wrong Way
Now according to the article I’ve referenced, my reasoning has been defective. There is, after all, a right and a wrong way to impart the values that lead people to want to restrict sexual intercourse to marriage. The right way is to explain how our Creator has designed us, including the nuptial meaning of our bodies; to emphasize the intrinsic relationship between authentic marital love and the deep commitment of lifelong fidelity; to explore the spiritual dimensions of the marital act, including God’s participation in the procreation of a child; to teach about the ends of marriage and the importance of each marital act being open to both life and love; to examine the very real virtues of chastity and purity; and only then, finally, to discuss the deleterious personal and social consequences of failing to live according to this positive and precious vision of our sexual powers—and of what it really means to be human.
And the wrong way, as Calah Alexander so deftly demonstrates, is to tell girls that nobody likes dirty, soiled, second-hand women. So if they don’t want to be dirty, soiled and second-hand, they had better abstain. And if they don’t abstain, they are doomed to being dirty, soiled hand-me-downs whose worth has already been used up. According to Alexander, this is the road taken by many, if not all, abstinence-only programs.
I am not, of course, referring to programs in thoroughly Catholic settings. I am talking about the programs that have been developed for use in public schools to counter the evil effects of standard sex education programs in that environment. Even if we assume that the architects and teachers of these abstinence-only programs have a deep understanding of human sexuality and wish to communicate it, we must ask what chance they have of doing so in a totally secular environment, an environment in which relating things to God is forbidden, and in which chastity and purity as virtues are seldom recognized and more often expressly denied. It is like being asked to win a fight with both feet and nine fingers tied behind your back.
What options remain open in such an environment? There are, I think, only two sorts of pragmatic arguments. One can do a sociological, psychological and physiological analysis of all the problems that wanton use of our sexuality causes (if one can get away with such an analysis). And one can play (as Alexander puts it) the “sloppy seconds” card. Nobody likes to chew second-hand gum, to drink water somebody else has spat in, or to eat an Oreo cookie that has already been in somebody else’s mouth. These are, apparently, real analogies that have been used. Alexander’s article was occasioned by the negative reaction of sexually righteous souls to a rape victim who complained that these images made her feel absolutely worthless. But one cannot help but wonder also about the woman who, in a fit of unfortunate passion, does something she wishes afterwards that she had not done. (Men apparently don’t have this problem; nobody ever talks about them as “sloppy seconds”.)
Precious in the Eyes of God
Women are physically and psychologically designed with what we might call a greater interiority to their sexuality, but the more aggressive self-giving of the man carries similar, if often less intensely-felt, concerns. And the plain fact is that it is impossible to understand our sexuality properly apart from God, apart from the spiritual context in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Perhaps most to the point here is that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:17).
We may not be pleasing to God when we sin, but He rejoices in our repentance, and He never ceases to value our virtuous acts, no matter how late in the day we may turn to His mercy and love. It is true that Our Lord desires “reverent and chaste behavior”, as St. Peter says. He admonishes us: “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing.” But he also says: “Let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious” (1 Pet 3:3-4). God certainly does not desire wantonness now, but that does not stop Him from valuing the “imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit” later.
Some shattered women learn this from strong and loving men (and I suppose vice versa at times), but we should all learn this from God. It ought to become our pattern of life to imitate God in this, to rejoice in the goodness of the person which remains even in sin, and which is fully restored with repentance and conversion. Catholics are fortunate to have concrete assurance of this in the Sacraments, but even without them it is a model for human interaction. Sexual dalliance before marriage has many unfortunate psychological and emotional consequences, but we are still constantly called to newness of life. And as far as rape goes, such a physical and psychological attack will inevitably result in confusion about being “sullied”, but Our Lord tells us plainly: We are defiled only by what comes from our own hearts (Mt 15:18). Healing for what is involuntary may be needed, but it does not involve penance.
How easily does our sexuality become a source of contempt and even self-contempt! It is as if something has gone cosmically wrong with all that is good and beautiful, so that what should be an act of joy is reduced to mere pleasure, and then even the pleasure is twisted into pain. What aboriginal calamity (to use Newman’s fine phrase) has befallen us, that it reaches even the deepest recesses of our being? The answer, of course, is Original Sin, which deprives us of that state of original justice we were supposed to have with God.
But the solution is grace, and where sin abounds, grace abounds the more (Rom 5:20). We must also notice what grace does not do. It does not cover over or replace our contemptible human nature, as Luther taught. No, it perfects nature. Grace brings us slowly to the full stature of the Incarnate Christ (Eph 4:13). If it has not been at the heart of our sexual acts in the past, grace can nonetheless be part of them in the future. We can still truly enjoy this most intimate sharing of life and love. There is nothing “second-hand” here; there is no intrinsic sloppiness or grounds for disgust. “For behold,” says He who sits on the throne, “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5).
Trustworthy and True
If we must really choose between programs which destroy morality and programs which deny grace, we have come to a sorry pass indeed. I have not studied the abstinence-only sex education programs offered in various places; it is very likely that Calah Alexander passes over some positive aspects of such programs. But if it is true that the attitude discussed here often lies at their core, then it should surprise nobody if (as is commonly alleged) such programs are ineffective.
In fact there is no solution to this problem within the context of the public schools today. But there is a solution in a Catholic setting, a solution drawn not only from the Church’s timeless teachings about sin and redemption but from the profound yet easily-integrated insights of Pope John Paul II in his theology of the body. Catholics who have thus far believed they could tolerate public education with a few tweaks, like abstinence-only sex education, should reflect deeply on the impossibility of getting workable results in any sphere from a system bound by law to either obscure or deny the very nature and destiny of the human person.
This becomes, then, another call to renew Catholic education, and to settle for nothing less, regardless of the sacrifices involved. This is perhaps the very first area of social concern in which, if we truly want what is best for both our children and society as a whole, we will have to pay twice. But it is also a call for parents to do for their children what schools simply cannot do well. We must provide our children, in the intimacy of the home and using words and examples suitable to each child’s readiness, a vision of what it means to be a man or a woman and how we are to live our sexuality. And we must emphasize that the antidote to sin is always as near as the Confessional. Only then may we safely send them to schools which reinforce this vision and this understanding—but never to schools that undermine or deny it.
If, like me, you have always assumed that abstinence-only sex education must be a good thing, I would say it is time to examine both the question and the context more deeply. In matters of sex, there is ample room for struggle, and tremendous need for healing and restoration. Remember that not only does Jesus Christ make all things new, but Jesus Christ alone. “Write this,” He said, “for these words are trustworthy and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev 21:5-6).
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Posted by: jamesbell431857 -
May. 21, 2013 2:40 PM ET USA
I agree with Matthew Buckley 1558.
Posted by: matthew.buckley1558 -
May. 19, 2013 8:52 PM ET USA
What about the fact that any sex education program is a violation of subsidiarity? According to Pius XI encyclical on Christian education sex education is the role of the parents.
Posted by: Cornelius -
May. 17, 2013 2:58 PM ET USA
Any adult educator teaching anything sex-related to teenagers must assume that most, if not all, of them are already sexually active. Tread carefully. What's done is done. Do you really want to tell them that they're now "used goods"? How would that help them?
Posted by: dover beachcomber -
May. 17, 2013 1:45 AM ET USA
Calah Alexander's post did carry a fine conclusion: that all the shaming in the world will never be more than an ugly substitute for the splendor of the Catholic Church's authentic teaching about sexuality. Sadly, she buried that conclusion 1,500 words into her essay. Her lengthy and needless effort to show that shaming is typical of all current abstinence-only sex ed programs cited only anecdotal evidence. If Catholic truth is to prevail, it needs more skillful championing.
Posted by: jimgrum697380 -
May. 16, 2013 6:23 PM ET USA
"We must provide our children, in the intimacy of the home and using words and examples suitable to each child’s readiness, a vision of what it means to be a man or a woman and how we are to live our sexuality." The beauty of the Church is that she provides this cohesive, right-ordered framework for living life transcendently. She does not dictate the details, but she provides the structure and means for ordered thoughts and actions animated by grace. She teaches us how to BELIEVE.