Just Say Yes…To Sexist Stereotyping?

From the Ms. Editors: Despite doubts about the efficacy of abstinence-only sex education,  U.S. tax dollars are still funding it. Conservatives earmarked $250 million for such programs under the Affordable Care Act, and last month, the Obama administration controversially green-lit the Heritage Keepers abstinence-only curriculum to receive funds reserved for evidence-based sex education. The excerpt below, from Katherine Stewart’s recent book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, takes a detailed look at the problems posed by abstinence-only education.

Abstinence education posits the idea that the proper way to educate adolescents about sex is to instruct them to refrain from sexual activity until marriage. The way to avoid contracting an STD or an unwanted pregnancy, a typical program tells its students, is follow a few simple rules: “Respect yourself. Choose friends who are positive influences. Go out as a group. Get plenty of rest.” Doug Herman, a popular abstinence-until-marriage speaker at public high schools across the United States, sums up the message this way: “If the sun doesn’t touch it, nobody else’s son ought to be touchin’ it either!”

The typical abstinence program, however, is not against sex per se. Abstinence instructors often make a point of telling teenagers that they know how hard it is to refrain from sexual activity. Sex is wonderful, it is incredible, it is mind-blowing—if you are married. The principal goal of most such programs, in fact, is to imbue children with a certain view about the proper relationship between sex and marriage. Sex within marriage is a source of fulfillment and even ecstasy; sex in all other contexts is degrading and shameful.

Abstinence educators frequently promote this view by representing all sex that occurs outside the marital bed as harmful. Premarital sex is dangerous and dirty, they say—a gateway to decadence, depression, broken lives, and an early grave, especially for women. If you have sex outside of marriage, says Pam Stenzel, a nationally recognized “abstinence proponent” who delivers talks to public school students around the country, “then you will pay.”

Not having premarital sex, on the other hand, is always posited as beneficial. GamePlan, an abstinence course developed by A&M Partners (formerly Project Reality) and taught in public schools around the country, offers as evidence the instructive tale of Steve, who resisted his girlfriend Tina’s sexual overtures. Tina, the little tramp, was already pregnant when she asked Steve to have sex with her, and faced a dead-end future as a single teenaged mother. Steve, however, met his future wife, the virginal Karen, six years later at college.

Steve and Karen have now been married for over seventeen years and have four children. Steve is a teacher, and Karen enjoys caring for the children. Steve and Karen never have to worry about sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. Sex is a normal, natural, and exciting part of their lives together.

Of course, Steve wouldn’t have considered using protection when he had sex with Karen or Tina—A&M Partners opposes the idea that discussion about condoms and other methods of contraception belongs in sex education programs.

Many abstinence education programs make cheerful use of gender stereotypes. The Just Say Yes curriculum, used by twelve public school districts including Dallas’s exclusive Highland Park Independent School District, tells teens that abstinence means “you make a conscious decision to avoid turning others on,” and continues to explain that “if a guy is breathing, then he’s probably turned on.” The text continues by advising girls “to think long and hard about the way you dress and the way you come on to guys.” A woman who “shows a lot of skin” is either “ignorant when it comes to guys,” is cruelly “teasing” men, or is “giving her boyfriend an open invitation” to have sex with her. The responsibility for policing the boundaries of sexual behavior, evidently, rests on women alone; men, according to the Just Say Yes way of thinking, can hardly be expected to control themselves.

Abstinence-until-marriage sex education courses are taught by a wide variety of outfits. Some operate on a large scale, serving multiple communities in dozens of states. Others work with a single school district. In almost all cases, however, the sponsoring organizations are religious in nature or have thrown themselves into the business of sex education for transparently religious purposes.

Youth for Christ, which receives federal funds to teach abstinence education in public schools all over the country, makes no effort to disguise its agenda. “YFC goes where kids are,” says a 2010 press release from the West Michigan branch of Youth For Christ. “With programs like Campus Life (reaching public high school and middle school campuses) … YFC carries the Love of Jesus Christ to all different kinds of kids in many different situations.”

Some abstinence education programs do allow for discussion of the role of contraception and safe sex practices in preventing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In many cases, however, these “abstinence-plus” programs, as they are known, spread disinformation rather than information about sex. According to a report by the Texas Freedom Network, factual errors are taught in the health programs of 41 percent of Texas public school districts. The most common errors concern condoms and their efficacy, such as the notion that the HIV virus can pass through latex. In a theatrical exercise from the Brady Independent School District in Brady, Texas, students are told that condoms have a 30 percent failure rate in “preventing most STDs” and that “HPV and Syphilis are so small that they can slip through condoms.” One character in the theatrical production says, “Giving a condom to a teen is just like saying, ‘Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off a bridge, at least wear these elbow pads—they may protect you some?’”

Misinformation about other STDs is also pervasive. Programs such as the Austin LifeGuard Character and Sexuality Education, used in ten school districts, teaches that there is “virtually no evidence” that condoms reduce the risk of the HPV (human papillomavirus) infection and alleges that “about a third” of all in vitro fertilizations can be linked to infertility caused by STD infections —in spite of evidence to the contrary from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. At least one Texas curriculum, Wonderful Days, taught the dangerously false notion that “natural fertility regulation”— the rhythm method —has the “highest user effectiveness rate.” In an attempt to help students understand fertility, Wonderful Days offered an outlandish little rhyme: “If a woman is dry, the sperm will die. If a woman is wet, a baby she may get!”

Abstinence education may not have stopped young people from having nonmarital sex or diminished the rates of unwanted pregnancies or STDs, but it has benefited at least one constituency: evangelical religious organizations.

Take Action: To demand that the U.S. government stop funding abstinence-only programs, sign here.

Excerpted with permission from Katherine Stewart’s The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. All rights reserved.

Photo from Flickr user ewedistrict via Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. What in the world do they have against in vitro fertilization??? Flabbergasted.

    • The man has to masturbate to produce sperm. They only believe in natural means of reproduction.

      • Malcolm says:

        Maybe I’m confused, but the doctors aren’t using synthetic sperm, so what part about this isn’t natural? That a medical instrument is used to inject the sperm instead of a penis? If that’s the belief then it’s just plain silly.

    • Charlotte19 says:

      They don’t have anything against in vitro. they’re saying that the infertility that caused the need for in vitro was caused by STDs.

  2. morgaineofthefairies says:

    And they wonder why the rates of teen pregnancy and STIs keep going up and up and up … I might have been embarrassed by my high school health teacher’s insistence that I read the names of certain body parts aloud in class, but at least they were the right ones!

  3. B-thorne says:

    Notice that Karen has no job or identity other than she likes to care for children.

  4. Felicia says:

    I never understand this take on the sexes. If men can’t control themselves why in the world are they allowed to control anything else? Insisting that women cover themselves to protect men from being hopelessly drawn to sin is ridiculous. It makes much more sense to BLINDFOLD THE MEN. It’s not a woman’s fault if her beauty makes a man incapable of resisting her, it’s the man’s fault. If you can’t control your self first then you certainly shouldn’t be allowed any power over others. Geeze.

  5. Obviously there’s a lot wrong with this… but do they really have to top off all the false information and less-than-helpful “education” by being condescending? What with the catchy little rhymes that really aren’t terribly helpful at all. =P

  6. ok.. the sexist role advocacy is wrong.. but what is wrong with telling young people to not have sex until they become proper adults? I see only good in not engaging sex before like 23

  7. So, how on earth did Steve manage to resist Tina’s advances? Surely he had a complete lack of self control like ALL other men?

  8. BenofSoCal says:

    From the article:
    “A woman who “shows a lot of skin” is either “ignorant when it comes to guys,” is cruelly “teasing” men, or is “giving her boyfriend an open invitation” to have sex with her”

    This must be how burqas got started.

  9. Hi, I am not an American and there is something that I do not get: what does in this post the expression “Just say yes” refer to?

    I mean, when I read it I get the impression I should know something about that expression that I don’t, right?

    Just say yes? Not to sex, obviously. I am really confused about it.

    Thanks in advance for the information.

    • Its just “just say yes to abstinence.” They can’t use “just say no” as that is the “just say no to drugs” slogan of the 90s. It’s stupid.
      To the rest however. Wow. Truly blown away by this crap. I have nephews in the TX school system. Hell I grew up in it myself, graduated ’01. They had REAL sex ed. 2 weeks in health class devoted to.it,oes eithand Mrs. Hammond was amazing. Between her mater of fact explanations of relationships, types of sex, methods of contraceptives, and INTENSE explanations of stdds, we were well educated in the 9th grade. We only had 46 students in our grad class, 700 total, but NO pregnancy

  10. Promoting sexist stereotypes of women as sinners who victimize men by leading them astray with revealing clothing or seductive behaviour is typically one way for conservatives to regain control of progressive America…conquer and divide, and ultimately control the population, by targeting vulnerable and impressionable youth utilizing propaganda that is imbued with messages of guilt and shame for those who don’t practice abstinence.

  11. Religion doesn’t have to be bad, but these religious people are schmucks.

  12. prochoice says:

    When I was still at school, this “abstinence”-craze began.
    The thing that freaked me out about it was THAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO WISH IT!!!

    I come from what is now called abuse family, and back then there was no word for it.
    I did run into trouble when I said that I never ever wanted children.
    It was very clear what would happen to me if I leaked ONE word about why Catholic school and being beaten up regularly was better that home.
    So I did wait until the women´s movement until I described/found words for “the terrible”.
    But I still do not understand what should be desirable with being touched.
    Let alone with a man, and the risk of pregnancy.

    this renewed absurdity of “teaching abstinence” throws me into wordse than flashbacks – I cannot distinguish between this and the “you wished for it” of rapists.
    And this whole campaign is too moderate, it needs stonger words – some people want sex, and should be taught to respect a “No”, and to use something against STD and birth control, (much to be taught!), and other persons´ RIGHT not to have sex for their own reasons.
    Knowing the biological facts is necessary for that, and the religious lies are damaging to each of the young generation!

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