Both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education programs have failed to seriously change the sexual behavior of adolescents. There is an effective alternative: the sex education of Jesus Christ.
I know what you’re thinking – isn’t abstinence the Christian teaching? Hasn’t this method already failed us? After all, numerous studies have shown that abstinence-only sex education does not actually lead to abstinent behavior. In fact, this abstinence-only education that the Religious Right has insisted upon seems to lead to more teen pregnancy! The Christian philosophy has already been proven wrong!
Abstinence may be Christ’s teaching, but abstinence-only certainly is not. There’s a lot more there than simply saying no to sex. Saying that abstinence is Christ’s teaching on sex is like saying that multiplication is a complete education in math. Yes, multiplication is an important and essential part of math, but to teach multiplication-only is to lose all of the beauty and elegance of calculus and curves, of division and derivatives. To teach abstinence-only is to lose all of the power and grace of chastity and commitment, of purity and patience.
So what would a Christian sex-education focus on?
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:28-29
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery…” – Galatians 5:19
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” – Ephesians 5:3
Essentially, avoid lust, immorality (sex with anyone besides your spouse), and impurity. This teaching is far beyond what is taught in abstinence-only education programs or in comprehensive programs. Teaching these things would require actually teaching children to avoid all sorts of sexual temptation.
But why should we even bother? Couldn’t we just go back to the comprehensive sex education model and be done with it? No. We need to thoroughly consider this option, because, as the Guttmacher Institute reports, seven of every ten teenagers has had sex by age 19. Furthermore, nearly one in five female teens at risk of unintended pregnancy did not use contraceptives at last intercourse. But Christians aren’t the only ones who think talking about temptation might be the way to fix sex-education.
Jonah Lehrer (one of my favorite bloggers, if you haven’t been able to tell by how often I link to him) wrote last year about the ineffectiveness of sex education:
It’s really difficult to change the sexual habits of adolescents. That’s because we’ve been trying to change behavior with facts and information. We’ve assumed that the way to get kids to wear condoms is give them statistics about sexually transmitted disease, or that the way to get students to abstain from sex is to lecture them on morality, or the difficulty of caring for a child while in high school. The problem with such facts is that they don’t help teens deal with their moment of sexual decision, which most likely occurs when they’re half naked and deranged with desire. In other words, we’ve assumed that sexual choices are rational choices, influenced by classroom exhortations and dry information. But that’s wrong.
Lehrer discusses a study from that looks at the effects of arousal on decision making:
Although the undergraduates could all recite the benefits of sexual protection, this rational knowledge was irrelevant. The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong. As Ariely and Loewenstein drolly concluded: “Efforts at self-control that involve raw willpower are likely to be ineffective in the face of the dramatic cognitive and motivational changes caused by arousal.”
I think Lehrer is spot on, and this matches perfectly with the Christian teaching that we must avoid impurity and lust as well as explicit sexual immorality. The Christian worldview maps well onto the discoveries of these behavioral economists. Lehrer concludes with the following:
The point is that we’ve been arming our kids with the wrong mental tools. Instead of giving them statistics, we need to provide them with the cognitive tools to deal with temptation. Instead of urging them to abstain, we need to show them how to abstain.
All I can say is “Amen!”