My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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on sex education

I think that abstinence education is a crock-o-shit, in part because we’ve pushed off marriage to be something that you do in your mid-20s (or 30s). At the same time, sexual maturation is occurring earlier and earlier (in part due to nutrition and other hormone shifts). Not only is sex seen as a rite of passage to maturity, but it is sold through every form of media out there.

How on earth can we expect people to be virgins through their 20s? (Remember: a century ago, you may have lost your virginity when you got married… but that was at like age 16. Not 25.)

I’m constantly perturbed that we’re teaching abstinence instead of safe sex because we refuse to acknowledge that teens are having sex. Not only is it not working (well, it is resulting in the substitution of oral and anal sex for vaginal penetration), but it’s putting a lot of kids at risk.

Anyhow, amidst my reading this week, i ran across a hysterical quote concerning how to actually motivate abstinence. It had me laughing so hard i had to share:

There’s no evidence that information about contraception – or even distributing condoms in school – gives young people the idea of having sex. The entire culture and their own bodies seems to be doing that quite effectively. Indeed, if there is any one thing that can make sex dull for teenagers, it is to teach it in high school. — Thomas Hine

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20 comments to on sex education

  • Living in Europe, I find the entire abstinence discussion in the US utterly disturbing.

  • Sorry couldn’t resist injecting some humour here. Also coming from europe this does seem weird…

    http://moblog.co.uk/view.php?id=125790

  • kmeelyon

    Abstinence education re: sex makes me feel like my head is going to explode. The other thing about it that makes me angry is that it is so heterosexist. If you wanna see a great, inspiring film about a high school student challenging abstinence education, rent “The Education of Shelby Knox.” Amazing young woman, amazing film. http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2005/shelbyknox/

  • I have been sexually assaulted four times now. The first time was at 16. Given the statistics on assault in the US, this looks increasingly ridiculous.

  • Kim

    Absolutely hilarious! I agree with the previous comments. Coming from Europe (Nl) it sounds really silly and unrealistic.

    One of the things that shocked me most was not only does the Bush administration want to teach abstinence in the US, they have also withdrawn funding for NGO’s working in Africa that hand out condoms or promote safe sex. They should promote abstinence instead. Great idea…that will really help to eliminate the AIDS-epidemic.

  • Brandon Smith

    I believe it depends on the parents, not the government or educational systems, to teach about sex. If a family wants abstinence for their children, that is what they will get.

    I would estimate that 60 to 70% of my graduating high school class (1996) were or are still virgins till marriage. Each family did it their own way. My parents knew what days the sex talks took place and would have a discussion about what I learned that very evening, ensuring that I was taught what they wanted me to learn…that sex before marriage is against God’s will.

    For my family, this is what I grew up believing and remained a virgin till I got married at 25. As did my wife. As did all my 6 siblings and their spouses. As did all my immediate friends and their spouses.

    So their are still pockets of morality in this world. Some families are still succeeding. A study shows that when married couples that both choose abstinence before marriage (i.e. are both virgins) likelihood of divorce drop by 92%. So don’t mock the idea. Mock the educational system all you want.

  • Lindsey

    I totally agree that abstinence education is ridiculous, and I am someone who is still a virgin at 23 and was educated about sex rather than having to deal with this whole insane abstinence stuff. Yay Thomas Hine!

    I also noticed sometimes teens believe that oral sex isn’t sex at all, and that it’s safe from diseases. Not sure if that is a result of abstinence teaching or a general miscommunication among peers.

  • Abstinence education has nothing whatsoever to do with sex education, although it is framed that way. I would say that it is more consistent with the promotion of so-called Intelligent Design in the science curriculum, than it does with anything resembling biology/sociology/anthropology/gender studies, or any other legitimate field of inquiry. When framed in the context of religious education and the promotion of (Evangelical) Christianity as state religion, abstinence education makes perfect sense, and is consistent with other of the current Administration’s policies.

    (However, it does nothing to promote healthy minds or bodies.)

  • Jim

    Here in the north of Sweden we make jokes about the virginity pledges of the USA. But one thing that came to my mind with the perception of marrying young in ‘the old days’ was that here in the impoverished north it was not so. In a recent seminar at HUMlab, ‘Building and using a complex historical population database’, Lotta Vikstrm of the Center for Population studies stated that the median age for marriage in the area under study in the 1800’s was 25 years for women and older for men. The reason for this was that it took ten years of work to be able to afford to set up your own living quarters. Not so much morality as grinding poverty.

  • p@

    “Not so much morality as grinding poverty.” – jim

    i think that’s really onto something. could anyone suggest resources that one could use to compare teen pregnancy rates in High School with income levels per the demographics of particular districts? i wonder if there is any obvious relation…

    does anyone know of any research that has already been done on this? any criticisms or suggestions on how to generate a better picture of this problem rather than using such a broad, analytic-statistical approach?

    in response to: “I’m constantly perturbed that we’re teaching abstinence instead of safe sex because we refuse to acknowledge that teens are having sex.” – above in post

    when i was in school (texas), our sex ed consisted of a basic overview of the mechanics of sexual reproduction. this i believe was in the 5th grade. 9th grade health class i remember being more involved in covering STD’s and various health effects involved with sexual activity. in retrospect, i consider the curriculum to have been a very P.C.-friendly approach to the issue. does today’s curriculum differ greatly from this model?

    does anyone know if abstinence programs are being adopted on a state level curriculum planning, or do they tend to be imposed by the districts?

  • Matthew Purdon

    I think sex education should also include discussions not just about contraception, but intimacy and relationship. There’s a lot of sex activity that is driven by trying to fill the hole of emptiness and alienation instead of arising out of connection and intimacy.

  • B

    Wow: this time, I won’t necessarily agree…

    I don’t know about abstinence education in USA, but if it is promoted by the same people that favour Intelligent Design, I understand there is a problem there.

    My Sex Ed included far more details than teenagers could expect, including some statistics about how long it took on average for each partner to be aroused—and an estimation of how many couples could not be both satisfied without “additional care”. (Yes, that involves comparing two log-normal distributions; we were, like, twelve year-olds; did I mention I was in a demanding and math-oriented high-school? Hey, what reaction do you expect from students of an all-boy environnement? We were fleeing the news and running into something we knew better.)

    Besides from the calculus-obsession of the pupils, the education involved testimonies, most very much into the line of Pope Benedict’s recent book: love, as in fellings, is more important than love, as in making. I mostly remember a bishop telling us about what he heard during wedding preparation:
    ” – I’m here to talk about sex and marriage, but I have no legitimity for that: I never tried either!
    – However, you couldn’t imagine how people are obsessed with sex nowadays, and how often they come to me to look for councelling;
    – Once, a young bride (anonymous, no breach of secrecy there) told me she had sex with another person, prior to meeting her groom; she couldn’t help comparing: I can only hope you will never have to compare.”

    That was not as much a “do as Church tells you to” approach than a “we have been questionned on this matter since the Adulterous Woman (“He who hath not sinned…”) and Saint Paul (check 1Co, an answer to “Why can we go to brothels?”) and we have developped a very careful view on it” message. I like the fact that he insisted on telling us he only met people who wanted to hear a religious voice, a certain bias; he also said he couldn’t tell about those who choose an ecctic life. What I kept —tell me if this was bad advice, there is still time before I marry— was: Love is not always complex, but it can be painful; go plain and simple, and go softly and slowly.

    I don’t kown about publicly claiming abstinence: it is something obvious for most of my friends, and because of the shape of social structure here, most people I meet figure this one out right away. In any case, I would be very concerned to come across frowning in any direction.

    @ p@:
    “could anyone suggest resources that one could use to compare teen pregnancy rates in High School with income levels per the demographics of particular districts?”

    Look for Freakonomics, or the academic work of Steven D. Levitt: a Chicago view on the question. I would say more nuanced than what I was afraid of—but very utilitarian in its interpratations. At least, he has data.

  • Michael

    What’s particularly interesting to me is the recent outcry over relatively safe teenage sexual behaviors like oral sex. Abstinence is promoted as a way to avoid STDs and pregnancy but it’s really a way for parents to either deny or delay their children’s sexual maturity. Thinking about their kids having sex makes parents as queasy and kids thinking about their parents having sex.

    US abstinence pledges occur among Christians outside of urban areas. Obviously, most US teenagers do not take abstinence pledges, even those that are abstaining from sex. European newspapers and television sensationalize US abstinence pledges.

  • For those who aren’t aware, abstinence education is not just a voluntary thing. Most schools these days are NOT allowed to teach safer sex, they’re not allowed to teach about condoms or other prevention issues that assume kids are sexually active. While there are certainly kids who are abstinent, but frankly, the vast majority are not. Even in Christian communities. And the thing is that this is not a new thing. While the age of first sexual encounter has dropped, the percentage of kids engaging in sexual acts before 18 hasn’t really increased in 50 years. The biggest difference is that the age of sexual maturation has also dropped (ah, nutrition and lipids).

    Pledges are one thing; mandatory abstinence education is another. And while i love hearing stories of adults having had candid sex talk at school, it’s important to realize that is now over. Parents are now suing schools for doing that.

  • One of the most popular magazines amongst the German speaking teens when I was young was Bravo. It had pop stars, pop music, and sex education in the form of (mostly fake, I assume) letters sent to magazine. I just checked — they still exist, and they’re online. The part about Dr. Sommer’s sex education might not be workplace safe, depending on your workplace. Anyway, I first heard about Bravo when I was about eight, and I started reading copies of friends at maybe thirteen. Remembering those days, those fake letters set expectations: Some seemed to have sex starting at the age of fifteen or sixteen. I had to wait until I was nineteen and felt left out until then. Maybe that helps to explain the background some of us are coming from.

  • BOTH abstinence and safe sex education are “no brainers” and both are called for in both a moral and a pragmatic sense.

    Yet….as usual the polarization of the debate obscures the obvious solutions.

  • Joe

    I think that phisiology is what gives young people idea about sex.

  • Jake

    I am constantly appalled by the corrosive nature of sexuality as presented by the media to teens. The way that women are completely objectified and degraded by popular music and advertising is an outrage.
    We have nice sterile discussions about the statistics of teenage sexual behavior while completely ignoring the psychological and spiritual ramifications of surrounding girls with the message that their entire worth as humans is based on what they look like in a bikini (or less!) and how “freeeky” they can be in bed. Obviously “it’s a free country” but where are the voices advocating for the freedom of girls and women to live life without the expectation that they will engage in whatever sexual behavior seems appealing to their partner at the time.
    The feminist movement righted a lot of cultural wrongs but watching MTV almost makes one yearn for the days when it was a societal norm to actually respect women enough to open a door for them, or at least refrain from grinding your pubic regions on their bodies.
    All I am saying is that in the midst of the debate about safe sex vs abstinence there has got to be a discussion of the value of traditional sexual norms when it comes to giving women the chance to make real and informed decisions about sexuality.

  • raman

    I think that phisiology is what gives young people idea about sex.

  • Here in the north of Sweden we make jokes about the virginity pledges of the USA. But one thing that came to my mind with the perception of marrying young in ‘the old days’ was that here in the impoverished north it was not so. In a recent seminar at HUMlab, ‘Building and using a complex historical population database’, Lotta Vikstrm of the Center for Population studies stated that the median age for marriage in the area under study in the 1800′s was 25 years for women and older for men. The reason for this was that it took ten years of work to be able to afford to set up your own living quarters. Not so much morality as grinding poverty……