How Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Is Driving Up STD Rates

Late last month I interviewed a woman who was 19 when she contracted the herpes simplex virus (HSV1) genitally while still identifying as a virgin. “No one ever told me you could contract an STD by [having] oral sex,” she said. “I thought I was being responsible, because I was saving myself for marriage…I come from a very religious background, and that’s what I was taught. Good girls don’t practice safe sex; they don’t have sex until marriage.”

Coming to terms with the realization that there were still risks, despite abstaining from vaginal intercourse, this young woman now knows she was lacking some basic knowledge that she needed to make informed decisions about her sexual health.

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What would have helped her? Comprehensive sex education would have helped. 

“We weren’t told about that stuff,” she told me. “Sex ed was literally a bunch of kids giggling about gross slides and our teacher telling us not to do it. Some of us even signed a paper saying we wouldn’t until we were married. So I only had oral sex, and look where that got me.” Now 23, she wishes she’d been armed with a comprehensive sexual education program, as opposed to the abstinence-only approach she received from her high school in South Carolina.

When I asked her if she thought more thorough sex education in school would have influenced her behavior, she replied enthusiastically. “Yes, definitely! It’s not like I didn’t listen to or respect my teachers. I just didn’t know. I mean, no one told us to use some kind of barrier with oral sex; they didn’t want us to have sex at all. Why would they tell us how to do it safely?”

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As director of The STD Project, I’ve found that the numbers support giving adolescents and young adults a comprehensive approach to sexual education. What does that mean, exactly? It means helping young people delay sexual activity and/or, among those who are sexually active, increasing their use of barriers and contraceptives; educating them about risky sexual behaviors, which include their number of sexual partners and their frequency of intercourse; along with reducing unwanted pregnancy. Evidence-based comprehensive sex ed is in direct contrast to this young woman’s abstinence-only education, which promoted sexual abstinence until marriage and excluded other types of sexual and reproductive health education regarding safer sex, contraceptives, and high-risk behavior avoidance.

A 2012 study from the Guttmacher Institute found that more knowledge about sexual health and contraceptives was directly correlated to a decrease in adolescent and young adult risky sexual behaviors, like having sex without barriers or contraceptives, and increased numbers of sexual partners. The study showed that teens who received comprehensive sex ed not only had lower rates of pregnancy but waited longer to have sex—effectively achieving what abstinence-only educational programs have been trying to encourage for decades: waiting to have sex.

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South Carolina, where this woman was raised and currently lives, is part of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) grouping of states consistently boasting the highest rates of STDs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. The states with the highest STD rates are also those with largely abstinence-only programs. This is not a coincidence: Young people who receive only abstinence-only education tend to engage in riskier sexual health behaviors once becoming sexually active. Southern states report the highest percentage of students having had sexual intercourse prior to age 13; the highest percentage of students who have had intercourse with four or more partners; and the highest incidence of sexual activity without barriers or contraception.

All that translates, not surprisingly, into higher rates of STD infection.

Sexual education programs lacking in comprehensive information prevent young adults from fully educating themselves about their sexual health – knowledge that should include their contraceptive options, risks associated with sexual behaviors, and ways to reduce risk.

According to the CDC, “Abstaining from sex, reducing the number of sexual partners, and consistently and correctly using condoms are all effective [STD] prevention strategies. Safe, effective vaccines are also available to prevent HBV [hepatitis B virus] and some types of HPV that cause disease and cancer.”

Giving young people the tools they need to avoid STDs—not just the tools we personally agree with— ensures that whenever young adults decide to have sex, they don't end up doing it unprotected – with neither a contraceptive nor accurate information about how to reduce their risk of getting an STD.

The young woman from South Carolina told me that, too late, she now sees clearly the impact of not having that crucial knowledge. “Things wouldn’t have been nearly as hard for me even if I would have still gotten herpes,” she says. “I don’t even know if I would have done anything with boys to begin with, if I knew what I do now. But even if I did, I would have understood why and the risks I was taking.”

What do you think abstinence-only sex education? What more do you think could be done to lower rates of STDs?

Related Stories on TakePart:

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• Should Sex Ed Classes Be Mandatory?

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Jenelle Marie is the founder of The STD Project, an award-winning website and progressive movement aimed at eradicating the stigma associated with contracting an STD and living with an STD by facilitating and encouraging awareness, education, and acceptance through storytelling and resource recommendations. You can also find The STD Project on Facebook and Twitter. Look for her e-Book, “The Relationship Survival Guide to Living with an STD” available in 2013.