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.

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.