Setting the Bar - The Problem with Safe Sex Education

Shawna Sparrow
February 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Sex education is a controversial issue in society. Parents want their children to make good choices, but they also want them to be protected from harm. Unfortunately many people believe the safe sex message is the best way to educate teens about sex. However, safe sex education actually puts young people at risk. When we teach safe-sex practices in schools, we are giving students the impression that we expect them to have sex. Why do we do this? We all know that teen sexual activity is not the best-case scenario. It is not advantageous for teens to be sexually active. Teen sexual activity is actually quite dangerous. What causes teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection? Sex. Do we want our young people to get pregnant and infected? Certainly not. So why are we teaching them how to do the very activity that results in these consequences? This is how little we think of our teenagers' self control: we know it's dangerous but they're going to do it anyway so they might as well be sort-of safe. That's the other problem. Safe sex isn't very safe at all. The best thing you can say about contraception is that it reduces the risk of pregnancy and STI's, but there is still plenty of risk there. How can we justify encouraging dangerous behavior to all students because some students are sexually active? Alcohol and drug education programs encourage students to say no. Why is sex education such an exception? Also, why is it necessary for all students to learn about contraception at school?

Consider the hidden message behind safe-sex education: "Sex can completely ruin your life but seeing how we have no confidence in your ability to say no we are going to teach you how to use contraception. Unfortunately that contraception is going to fail for 17% of you. So sorry to those of you who will get pregnant or get infected simply from following our instructions, but it's the best we can do". It's NOT the best we can do. Chastity is the best choice we can offer to teens. Chastity protects them physically and emotionally. Chastity empowers them to have healthy relationships with respectful boundaries and assertive communication. Chastity protects their hopes and goals for the future.

"But chastity doesn't work" people say. This is surely one of the most ridiculous statements I've ever heard. Can you see the logic problem? Actually, chastity works perfectly. No one gets STI's from practicing chastity. Virgin births are pretty rare. In fact, the last time one occurred it was such a big deal we now celebrate it every 25th of December. Chastity is the one solution that actually does work. Of course what people mean is, not everyone follows through with chastity. True, but that doesn't mean chastity in itself is defective. The argument is that chastity doesn't work because people fail at chastity. What does failing at chastity mean? It means deciding to have sex. So how is chastity to blame if someone decides to have sex and gets pregnant? She becomes pregnant because of her decision to have sex, not because of chastity. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say, "The program works if you work it". The same is true of chastity. Chastity works for everyone who follows it. Not following it is having sex. Saying "chastity didn't work for me" is like someone neglecting to use a bike helmet, sustaining an injury and then claiming that the helmet didn't work. The helmet would have worked if the person had used it. Chastity certainly worked for all the people who made it to their wedding day without having sex. So considering chastity is in fact the most effective protection, what is the harm in students hearing about it?

Quite a lot, according to some people. Occasionally I receive hate mail and harassing phone messages about the "harm" I am doing to teenagers by telling them about chastity. Again, I am very confused how chastity in itself is harmful. Once I tried to engage someone in conversation after receiving an angry e-mail. I wanted to know why this individual was losing sleep at night over the thought of kids not having sex. According to him, I am harming students by depriving them of information about contraception. I pointed out that information about contraception is not exactly classified. Condoms are advertised on T.V. and billboards. Even the raunchiest movies are careful to model safe sex. Sure, these movies expose children to coarse language, violence, and illicit drug use, but heaven forefend they be irresponsible enough to show people having sex without condoms! I am sure every teenager knows what condoms are and has a pretty good idea where they could get some. Yet apparently if I'm not handing out condoms in classrooms I am putting these kids in mortal danger. If a teenager decides to have sex and doesn't make a trip to the nearest Shoppers Drug Mart for condoms apparently it's my fault.

I don't mean to be flippant. My heart goes out to the young people who are sexually active. I'm certainly not suggesting we should leave them to the wolves. Sexually active students benefit from hearing about chastity just as much as anyone else. Again, people assume these teens are having sex because they want to, but that is not always the case:

This presentation made me start to think about my relationship, I am very happy but I was happier without the sexual intercourse (Grade 11, female).

People accuse chastity educators of not giving students the whole story, but it's really the safe-sex message that is incomplete. The safe-sex message only equips students to become or continue to be sexually active. It doesn't equip students to evaluate their relationships. It doesn't equip students with the communication skills to say no to sex. Some young people want to say no, but just don't know how. The safe sex message doesn't help young people who are looking for a way out of their sexual activity.

Chastity education is unfairly maligned as forcing an ideology on students, as though it is limiting the choices of young people. All I want to do is let students know that there is another way. They already know about the option of sexual activity just by being alive in today's world. Do they know that they can wait instead? These students aren't always expecting to be sexually active because they want to be. Once students are educated about chastity, they see there is a different path for them to consider:

Before today I was not planning on saving sex for marriage buy now I don't know. I'll at least think about the option of chastity (Grade 12, female).

Another problem with safe-sex education is that it inflates the perception of sexual activity. When you talk to students about any topic, they filter the information through questions:

Why are you telling me this?
Why do I need to know this?

In the case of safe sex education, students are likely to conclude: you are telling me this because you expect me to have sex. They are likely to believe: I need to know this because a lot of teenagers must be having sex. The very fact that safe sex is being discussed in class implies that many students are already having sex. It is assumed the information must be relevant or the instructor wouldn't be talking about it. Yet safe sex information is only relevant if one is sexually active or planning to be. Safe sex education puts the suggestion of sex into their minds. It alerts them to the fact, "This is something I could be doing". Advertising has shown the power of suggestion. Companies pay millions of dollars simply for product placement. If a character in a T.V show or movie is shown drinking a brand of pop that is publicity for the product. The character doesn't even have to say something positive about the product; it is being promoted simply by being visible. So how can we say that safe sex education isn't promoting sex?

One of the results of safe sex education is that students are left with the impression that "everyone is having sex", when in fact there is a lot less then sex happening than people think. In fact, the majority of teenagers haven't had sex yet. When you look at the age group of 15-17, a whopping 72.9% of them haven't had sex.[i] Isn't it strange that we've all heard the phrase "everybody's doing it", when if fact "everybody" turns out to be less than half? Yet the perception becomes more powerful than the reality. If young people see teens having sex on T.V. and then go to school the next day and learn about safe sex, it is only natural for them to conclude that most teenagers have sex. Our world is steering them into sexual activity. When we show them a world where teens have sex, then it is not a big surprise that many of them end up doing it.

If we, as rational adults, can recognize that chastity is the safest sexual lifestyle for teens, shouldn't we be doing something to steer them in that direction? Shouldn't we be capitalizing on the fact that many teens don't feel they are ready for sex? Adults who depict teenagers as a bundle of raging hormones need to shut off the T.V. and remember what it is like to actually be a teenager. I'm not saying teenagers don't have hormones, but it's a distorted perspective. What about the awkwardness? Many teenagers are very nervous around the opposite sex. They are often afraid to even look at each other. They struggle to find words to say to each other. Even though the physical attraction may be present, the intimacy level is still pretty low. Teens are often in the process of learning how to relate to each other. They are learning how to trust and how to feel close to each other. There is something sweet about the image of a boy and girl standing at their lockers, looking down with shy smiles on their faces. That's where a lot of teenagers are at. If two people can't even look at each other, it's a pretty big leap to suddenly take off all their clothes and get into a bed together. For a lot of teenagers, the idea of being that vulnerable and that exposed is terrifying. They are a long way from being comfortable with that level of closeness. Yet instead of celebrating the beauty of that innocence, we talk about what could happen in a bed instead of what is happening at the lockers. Instead of letting teenagers enjoy blossoming friendships with the opposite sex we start by showing them the very end of the line.

The graphic information teens receive in safe sex education desensitizes them to sex, and strips away their natural modesty and reserve. We should be trying to preserve the innate shyness boys and girls have around each other. As they discover romantic attraction, they instinctively feel a barrier of hesitation between them. They are held back and yet enthralled by this mysterious distance. That is why boys and girls stare at each other across the dance floor. They are a mystery to each other. They see each other for the first time and become aware something new and unknown. Graphic sexual information tears down that barrier. It bridges the distance as it destroys the mystery. "Too much information!" people cry when they hear details that should be kept private. In the case of safe sex education, it really is too much information. Yes, teenagers are curious about sex, but they're also scared of it. When I say scared of it, I don't just mean afraid of the consequences, but also frightened of the level of intimacy and vulnerability. They are often self-conscious about their bodies, and unsure of what to do in emotionally intense situations. If teenagers are equally nervous and curious about sex, shouldn't we be capitalizing on their reluctance instead of feeding their curiosity with graphic sexual information?


[i] Centre for Disease Control, "Sexual Experience", 297-301.