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.

Evolution of the Definition of Sex

Every time I step foot into a classroom I am reminded how much has changed since I graduated high school 20 years ago.

Pagers have been replaced by smart phones.

Desktop computers have been replaced by tablets.

Blackboards have been replaced by an online version called blackboard.

The Simpsons have been replaced by…well, they are still around.

And conversations on sex have been replaced with an ambiguous collage of ‘do what feels right’ sentimentality. 

Specifically, our conversations on sex no longer come with a clear definition. What sex is and how it is practiced is different from one person to the next. Over the last few weeks I have been reminded of this reality as I relive the impact that a President’s fling with an intern had on the definition of sex.

On January 26, 1998, President Bill Clinton took to the microphone and issued a denial that would eventually come to haunt his presidency and his private life.

“I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I am not  going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” declared a remorseless Clinton.

clinton-lewinskyIt was later learned Clinton did in fact have sexual relations with his intern, Monica Lewinsky. After six months of repeatedly denying his innocence he admitted to having a relationship that was “not appropriate.” However, he never spoke of having sex with her. Only that it was not appropriate. Thus, the beginning of what I think was an evolution in the way we talk about sex that has stayed with us to this very day.

Earlier this month, Monica Lewinsky was interviewed by Vanity Fair and the story that so many had forgotten made headlines once again. From what I can tell, it is about how she has moved on from the scandal that paralyzed a presidency. Whatever your thoughts on what happened between President Clinton and Miss Lewinsky it is important to realize that their history has forever impacted the way we talk about and even practice sex in our culture.

sex-educationMost young adults agree that vaginal intercourse is sex, but less than one in five think that oral-genital contact (oral sex) as “having sex,” according to a 2007 survey of undergraduate college students.

This attitude toward oral sex represents a dramatic and sudden shift in thinking since 1991, when a similar survey found that nearly twice as many young adults (about 40%) would classify oral-genital contact as sex.

I would argue, and so do many researchers, this shift has happened in large part because of the statements President Clinton offered on that cold day in January 1998.

When we begin to look at the church we don’t find much difference. The percentage of those whom engage in oral sex are more than individuals choosing to have vaginal sex. Now it might not always be as high in the church (in fact, one study recently suggested that it is 40%-60% lower on Christian college campuses compared to their secular counterparts) it is still important to understand that many of these youth believe that they are not having sex. This especially becomes evident from the ages of 18-22 when they have left the home and are no longer a part of a faith community.

Our need to define and have honest conversation is needed now more than ever before.

We cannot be afraid to speak plainly in church and outside of it. One of the reasons the definition of sex has evolved is because we’ve failed to clearly define what it is.  Some of this is due to fear. We are afraid that speaking the words, “oral, anal, vaginal,” will in some way harm our youth. Not realizing that they have probably already heard these words and that by not defining them we are actually doing more harm, not less. We need to be age appropriate but I would argue our need to be honest with our children is needing to happen earlier and earlier because of the internet.

Also, youth need parents to be more involved in their sex education. That means programs like the one I direct need to do a better job of engaging parents and empowering them to become the authority in their son and/or daughter’s life. This includes educating parents on sex, defining it when needed, and assisting them with best practices for communicating their value when it comes to this topic.

Something worth considering, this is the first generation of parents impacted by this scandal. This means they too may need help with defining sex. They need the tools and encouragement to make this happen in their home but also in their own life. We can’t expect parents to communicate this correctly if they themselves don’t have a clear definition.

Just because the definition of sex has evolved that doesn’t mean that it can’t look different in another 20 years. Let’s learn to speak honestly, candidly, and clearly about sex. It will make a difference.

Please…No More Answers

Always looking for answers

Always looking for answers

We seem to be living in a time where answers are plentiful but not very good. The missing Malaysian flight is proof of that fact. I turn on the news and it seems every single detail is shared, “this just in, a U.S. navy ship is now 400 miles away from a potential wreck site in the Indian Ocean. When we last reported they were 410 miles away. We will track this story as it unfolds along with every other detail.” Now this could be an exaggeration of how news works these days, but not by much. In our 24/7 news cycle we are constantly looking for new answers. However, in our constant search for answers we find that we are unable to be comfortable with the unknown.

Maybe that is why we see fewer and fewer young people who confess a faith in Jesus and even less in God. A solid majority still do – 86% – but only 58% say they are “absolutely certain” that God exists. That is lower than it has ever been according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.

This reality came to life this week like never before. For the first time ever, one of our volunteers was in a school classroom where not one student had been to church or confessed a faith of any sort. That has never happened! But I am sure it will happen more and more in the future.

Faith doesn’t play a part in our lives as much as it once did. But our search for answers only continues to grow.

Remember, faith is a belief in the unseen. That includes a belief in things we just can’t answer. And for this generation, heck, even mine, that is not a comfortable place to sit.

Levi's Ad

Levi’s Ad

That is why I was so intrigued when I saw the ad to the side. It reads, “#equipped to be true.” This is a tribute to the narcissistic world we live in. It says that what I believe is truth, while also pointing to the fact that truth is not found in God but in relationship with others and in material goods.

Recently I asked a professor I deeply respect what the different is between how he used to teach when he was younger and now. His response was powerful. He said, “When I was younger I wanted to teach everything that I knew. Now I only teach the things I think are important and equip my students to find answers to the rest on their own. Thus, allowing them to learn how to learn. I am teaching them that not everything needs an answer. Sometimes they just need to have faith and allow for time to reveal what is needed to be seen.”

Now I know that as we grow older our questions change. And if our past is prologue, these young adults may develop a stronger belief in God over the course of their lives, just as previous generations have. But we have to provide dialogue, not just give in to the temptation to always give answers.

As I speak to youth I am constantly reminded that in my own journey it was when I didn’t have all the answers and had to start living by faith that God became more real, not less. It began to influence decisions I made because He was placed above everything else.

May we not forget this truth so that a new generation can live by faith and not some made up answer to fill the void of the unknown.

Speaking Out Against Slut Shaming

Today I was thinking about a conversation at the end of the the last school year. It surrounded the words “slut shaming.” Then I came across a video from a 20/20 interview that was done this summer. You can check it out by clicking here.

slutSlut shaming is defined as the act of making a woman feel guilty or inferior for engaging in certain sexual behaviors that deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations. Some examples of behaviors which women are “slut-shamed” for include: dressing in sexually provocative ways, requesting access to birth control, or even being raped or sexually assaulted.

I first heard this term late last school year from a female student in one of the high schools we speak in every semester. She approached me as I was cleaning up my materials with a stern look on her face. She began by kindly introducing herself and then went into direct conversation about her thoughts on what we presented. The short version of what was shared was that she was surprised.

When teens hear that someone is going to come discuss abstinence they automatically think that the individual coming to speak is both a prude and cosmic killer of joy. I don’t blame teens or even young adults for this. Most are taking their cues from popular media and what they probably have heard at some point in their past about programs similar to Project Six19. However, most are surprised by our tone and approach, which is caring, honest and direct. When this young girl approached, I placed her in the same category I’ve seen time and time again:  A frustrated student who is unhappy with the way things are talked about when it comes to sex and relationships, and wanting a place to point their frustration and concern. She said that our presentation did a good job of sharing an important message while not shaming anyone in the classroom for other’s past decisions. She briefly talked of her past; a boyfriend she had slept with, regretted that it happened, and wanting to move on. She even mentioned that she considered calling in sick to our presentation because was afraid that we might “slut shame” her in front of her friends. She was thankful just the opposite happened that day. So am I.

There are a few things that I take from both the video and this conversation as they relate to this discussion.

sticks-and-stones1First, I applaud Katelyn (in the video) for her willingness to step up and be a voice for those that were marginalized. Or, at the very least felt marginalized which is very much the same. We need teens and young adults who are willing to make us aware of how words hurt. The old adage that sticks and stones will break your bones but words never will is not correct. Words are THE sticks and stones and although they don’t break bones they can break hearts.

Second, the media will always spin stories like this to make a message of abstinence look silly and wrong. Although I have no idea what was exactly shared during Pam Stenzel’s presentation I can speak to her heart. She wants youth to make a decision that is healthy and safe. Her own story speaks to this reality. Yes, I do think that she can be a bit brash but that is her approach and it has seemed to work well over the years. The number of people that invite her to speak backs this up. I also doubt she incorporated any talk on faith in the school setting. However, this does not negate our responsibility to be aware of how we speak on subjects of sex and relationships. Honoring those that we are speaking to while holding onto the convictions we share is a balancing act that takes great care.

Third, the language we use is important. Yes, we need to be honest and concise with the language we use but that doesn’t give us permission to shame. This is something that Project Six19 holds as one of its key values. Language can either build up and change minds or cause us great pain and become dogmatic. Specifically, I think it is important to realize the power of shame with this generation. It communicates that one person is a mistake. That is wholly different then guilt, which communicates that you made a mistake. Remember we have all been created in the image of God and He does not make invaluable or shameful things.

Let’s talk with honesty, building up those around us, holding onto our convictions while also being aware of how the words we use impact others.