Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Abstinence shouldn’t be the only thing you learn

A monolithic sexual education is harmful for students
Collegian File Photo

When we were young, we attended school with open minds, prepared to learn math, science, history and English –– sometimes even music and art if your school had funding. All these subjects prepare us for the future and are ones that usually our parents cannot teach us. But there is another important subject: sex education.

Most parents are uncomfortable about discussing sex with their children, meaning that sex education is another subject schools must take up. But whether they do a good job or not is up to the school itself –– and its belief systems.

For fourteen years of my life, I attended Catholic school and underwent abstinence only sex education –– the D.A.R.E. of all sex ed talks. I was taught that sex before marriage would ruin my relationship with God and risk my health and safety. But I was never taught about consent, normal bodily behaviors or safe sex.

I and many of the other Catholic school children were left in the dark about many subjects that would ensure the safety of ourselves and others, while a shroud of fear was placed over our heads. Not only were we lost but women in particular were painted with the rampant misogyny hidden in these courses. Abstinence education and purity culture hurt people, and my story is one of many that back up that fact.

My first run in with purity culture came not while I was in school, but at an overnight Christian summer camp. I was thirteen years old when all the female campers were placed in a separate chapel and told about modest behavior. The older counselors we looked up to told us that girls had self-control, but boys did not, and we had to adjust ourselves to not distract the boys at camp from their journey with God. If we distracted the boys from God, he would be mad at us.

I didn’t know why God would be mad at me for wearing a tank in 90-degree weather, nor did I understand why I had more “self-control” than boys at my camp. But I would understand more as I grew older and encountered more purity culture, like in eighth grade my school decided to have the students attend an abstinence talk.

All of us sat down in an auditorium before a preacher that compelled us to think about our relationship with God before we opened our legs. To ensure that every eighth grader would do so, he instilled fear into us –– telling us horror stories about sexually transmitted infections and damnation to hell, even suggesting that women who moved in with their boyfriends were more likely to suffer abuse. He even compared indulging in sex to his lactose intolerant child sneaking ice cream, reminding us that it would feel good but hurt us in the end.

The abstinence talk was not my only big encounter with purity culture –– another example being when my CCD teacher told us the less we wear, the harder it is to say no. Each of these experiences impacted me, and for a while I had a fear of sex. I was scared that I would lose value or that the bad things described in the talk would happen to me.

Although I broke free from the religious trauma, there are many that don’t. For many women, the fear persists beyond the wedding vows resulting in a condition called vaginismus, which causes the vagina walls to tighten up –– pointed to by many to be a major side effect of abstinence education and purity culture.

Even if abstinence or purity culture doesn’t put this level of fear into you it can still have lasting impacts. Abstinence-only sex education can be damaging for sexual assault victims, as they view themselves as no longer having this perceived purity. And as purity culture puts the responsibility for male desire on women, they only see themselves at fault for acting or dressing a certain way.

We’re the ones responsible for men being unable to control themselves. For our own assault. For our abuse. Abstinence only doesn’t teach about consent –– that no means no and that if someone doesn’t listen it’s not your fault. Even if you follow the script, it can give you long lasting issues with consent and alter the way you view women in general. It filters our brains to view women that dress less than modest as vulgar or asking for it, even if we are also a woman.

Abstinence only sex education silences discussions about consent and those about safe sex, how to prevent UTIs, what is discharge and how do I know if something is wrong and basic hygiene. Not teaching us about our bodies is not preventing us from having sex but is preventing us from being healthy, as many of these topics can still affect us even if we wait for the marriage bed. Abstinence-only education can be a long-term hindrance for those under it, as withholding knowledge can cause us as much pain as eating ice cream while lactose intolerant.

Lily Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected].

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