One Abstinence Organization’s Response to Alice Dreger

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By now you’ve probably heard of Alice Dreger, or at least heard of the woman who sat in on her son’s abstinence class and live tweeted the entire event. 

Dreger, a writer and professor of medical humanities and bioethics, sat in on her son’s class after learning two guest lecturers would be presenting an abstinence-only curriculum. During the presentation, she became increasingly appalled by what she was hearing and showed her dismay by live-tweeting her impressions.

And while some of Dreger’s outrage was well-founded (for instance, one part of the presentation involved handing out paper babies and essentially informing students that ultimately condoms are not an effective way to prevent pregnancy, which is not true if they are used correctly and consistently as the CDC states) there’s a few things Dreger said that we, ourselves an abstinence-based organization, felt compelled to reply with our two cents.

Before we do, it is important to be clear about our intent with our response. First, we have only read the tweets Dreger shared with the world this week. We do not know who the guest lecturers were or the organization they represent, but we would wager a guess that they hold a genuine concern for the sexual well-being of young people and it was not their initial intention to shame or mislead.

Second, we are grateful for voices like Dreger’s because although we don’t agree with some of the things she said or how she chose to voice her opinion, we recognize the need for people like her to hold programs like ours accountable to a higher standard of medical accuracy and language that clearly articulates a positive message of sexual abstinence.

Here’s just a few of Alice Dreger’s tweets during class:

Dreger’s right, most kids don’t receive their sex education in the classroom. Know where many teens are finding their information about sex? Pornography.

In fact, 9 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls are exposed to pornography before the age of 18. 

So while Dreger may be right about this, is sex education within the classroom something we should just give up on because, well, it just doesn’t matter? Absolutely not. Part of any education on healthy sexuality involves helping young people understand that the information about sex they receive from the media and yes, pornography, can be incredibly damaging and even lead false ideas about sex and intimacy. 

Yes, sex FEELS GOOD! We absolutely, one hundred percent are totally on board with this and how part of enjoying sex is for the simple reason it feels awesome! But is this casual attitude really the one you want to equip young people with?

Part of taking care and having fun means understanding how to honor not only your own emotional and physical well-being, but that of your partner’s as well. While our curriculum is abstinence-based, we choose to focus on what it means for a person to live with sexual integrity, meaning how do the choices you make now as teens affect your well-being five or ten years down the road? We want students to understand they take a risk when engaging in early sexual activity, risks that can (but do not necessarily) include STDs, pregnancy, increased risk of depression and low self-esteem, and the emotional hurt that can occur as a result of social bonding through oxytocin and vasopressin if the relationship is not maintained.

I think we can safely assume the air quotes here allude to Dreger not believing this statement. But here’s the truth: Are there ways to protect yourself from the physical aspects of sex, such as STDs or pregnancy? Absolutely. Are there ways to protect yourself from the emotional aspects of sex, such as the bonding hormones (see oxytocin and vasopressin)? Nope, not really. Something we always communicate is that it is not the condom that typically fails the user rather it is the user that fails to use the condom. But even when they do the condom will never protect against the release of the hormones listed above.

We believe in sex. We believe in its goodness and beauty and value in a committed, married relationship (for a ton more reasons we could get into!), and we’re NOT about scaring young people into believing false information about sex, like the guest lecturers Dreger witnessed. Sex is risky. It just is. And the safest form of sex is in fact not having it; choosing to wait. Period.

Ok, this one is just not cool. It’s not fair to assume that because someone chose to have sex, and then realized that was a choice they didn’t want to make, this means they are unfit to speak about why abstinence is beneficial. We get what Dreger is saying here, which is why is someone who didn’t wait telling young people it’s possible and healthy to wait? But isn’t it possible this person could actually offer a very insightful and truthful perspective on how not waiting for sex impacted his life and well-being?

Dreger goes on to highlight how her son came to class with information about how abstinence-only programs statistically do not have any impact on teens waiting for sex. And you know what? There is a lot of data (sadly) to to back this up.

However, there is also a lot of other research that would refute this data, like this recent article about NYC teens waiting longer! Plus, we have to ask ourselves why the teen pregnancy rate continues to drop if abstinence has nothing to do with it. No one really knows why these rates are dropping as this article points out, but it’s important to note this drop in numbers coincides with the rising presence of abstinence education. Further, there is a ton of research which suggests programs that give a holistic view of sexuality, including a clear conversation on abstinence, do work to delay teen sexual behavior.

One of Dreger’s biggest rants (sorry, concerns) was in response to feeling the guest lecturers used shame as an influence to wait for sex, and this was something that made us want to stand up and rant with her! We wish more abstinence programs operated under the knowledge that when it comes to speaking about sex, shaming is both ineffective and inappropriate and has no place in a conversation that is already a delicate one.

Here’s what we want to say to Mrs. Dreger:

Mrs. Dreger, we’re really, truly sorry that your son and the young people in his class were given shame-based and some misinformation about abstinence.

We need you to know that not all abstinence-based organizations are the same, and we work hard to equip young people with encouragement, factual information, and hope. And just like you, when we feel compelled to set the record straight about our perspective and experience, we’re going to do so.

While we share different opinions on how young people should approach their sex lives, we really aren’t cool with being put in this box that all abstinence organizations are worthless and wasting their time. We applaud your son for doing his research about abstinence organizations and you for encouraging him to challenge misleading information. Seriously. But we’re under the impression (and experience) that if one young person in that classroom hears our message of sexual integrity and takes it into consideration, we have a purpose being in that classroom.

 

*UPDATE:  According to the Lansing State Journal the program who spoke is called SMART (Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens). It’s provided by an independent contractor working with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a group that counsels pregnant women to avoid abortion.

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