Abstinence-Only Education Doesn't Work -- I Know From Personal Experience

I recently shared a snapshot of my life here on the Huffington Post for the Working Poor series "All Work, No Pay." I shared, as I have always shared openly, that I got pregnant the first time I had sex, at the age of 18. Some commenters found it ludicrous that I would blame this on the abstinence-only education that I received during my years of attending Christian schools (K-12), and found it difficult to believe that I had no understanding of my cycle or how to obtain or use birth control. I would have to agree that it is ludicrous I did not know these things, yet it is absolutely true. The multitude of statistics surrounding abstinence only education substantiate my experience.

I wore a purity ring and had committed to not having sex until marriage, having been constantly taught at both school and church that my virginity was a gift for my future husband, and that sex was like "a secret between you and your spouse" that was very special and only for the two of you. The consequences of premarital sex were presented as big, bad, scary outcomes that could taint one's life forever, if not with a child to raise or a sexually transmitted infection, the never-ending specter of sin. Both emotional and physical purity were seen as the gold standard, and presented as totally attainable and absolutely necessary to be in good standing with God. I was completely sincere in my belief at that time and bought it all: hook, line and sinker.

Among youth participating in "virginity pledge" programs, researchers found that among sexually experienced youth, 88 percent broke the pledge and had sex before marriage. Further, among all participants, once pledgers began to have sex, they had more partners in a shorter period of time and were less likely to use contraception or condoms than were their non-pledging peers. (Source: Advocates for Youth)

It's somewhat comforting to know that I am not the only one who found the pledge impossible to keep. That incredibly high percentage should be an indicator that perhaps things aren't working as desired. As all humans are wont to do, I found myself in a romantic relationship that became more and more physical over time. My boyfriend and I were dating for a year before we allowed things to get too hot and heavy one day. I'm just the exception in that I experienced immediate and severe consequences, which I am fully aware many conservatives will say I fully deserved. I know people within the school culture I had been in certainly believed so, and it was an all too familiar story. There were so many young women who got pregnant either during or shortly after high school, and most got married and eventually divorced, as I now have too.

The people who question my sincerity greatly underestimate the damage and indoctrination of a repressive religious upbringing. Did I feel incredibly stupid when I learned I was pregnant? In the words of Sarah Palin, who taught daughter and teen mom Bristol abstinence-only as well: You betcha! I felt like the dumbest person on earth. In the couple of weeks where I wondered if I might be pregnant, I called Planned Parenthood even though it had been deeply ingrained in my brain that it was an organization straight from the mouth of hell, because there was no other resource available to me to try to get some factual and straightforward information. I remember listening to their prerecorded bits on various subjects, and paling as I did so, wondering why no one had ever taught me how my cycle worked. I glanced at a calendar on the wall nearby, counting the days since my last period and noting the day I'd had sex, and my heart sank. A couple of friends I'd confided in told me not to worry, that it would be extremely rare to get pregnant after having sex only once, but a few days later a pregnancy test confirmed that I was indeed a rare exception.

I would like to greatly emphasize that I do not and will not ever regret having and raising my eldest child. To any who would dare to comment that I should have had an abortion, know that I am completely pro-choice, having been able to disentangle myself from the snares of indoctrination in that regard as well. But pro-choice means that I respect every woman's right to make her own choice, whatever that may be, and I have no right to judge that choice. Given the environment I was raised in and education I received, abortion did not even cross my mind. Abortion was taught to be the worst sin one could commit, even worse than being gay, and pregnancy was seen as a consequence of sin to which one had to buck up and accept. So that's what I did, and I do not regret it. My child is the best thing that ever happened to me and I wouldn't trade these last 15 years with her and her younger sister for anything. Mom is my most important and treasured title.

Abstinence only education, purity culture, and the "Modest is Hottest" campaign are dangerous and damaging. Speaking out about it is not an attempt to shirk responsibility for my life choices. It is calling out a system of oppression which is a deliberate means of withholding information that young people have a right to know, and the statistics have shown that it does not work and in fact leads to higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, as kids who are only taught abstinence are less likely to use contraception and condoms when they begin having sex. My own daughters have received not just a public school sex education, but constant and comprehensive conversations with me about sex, how their bodies work, consent, rape culture, slut shaming, victim blaming, body acceptance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and more, from a straightforward and factual stance.

The idea that a shame based campaign that shrouds sex in mystery would result in teens having less sex is both misinformed and mind boggling. Some may think I'm over sharing, or that I should be ashamed of my experience, but if in sharing my story I help parents rethink their commitment to abstinence only education, or give teenagers who are currently being taught it access to a different perspective that leads them down the path to factual information, then I am glad to do so.

I have believed deeply for years, even before becoming aware of Brené Brown's excellent work on the subject, that authenticity and vulnerability are at the heart of courage and connection, and this is my story and my truth, and I have been able to work through and let go of any shame attached to getting pregnant my first time, having realized that the vast majority of that shame was not my own, but foisted upon me by others. My story is not so "out there" as some would like to believe. Jessica Ciencin Henriquez shared her story at Salon, saying, "It took me five years of therapy, a failed first marriage and dozens of embarrassing questions along the way, to erase the 'benefits' that abstinence-only education gave me."

Abstaining from sex is the best way possible to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection, and young people should definitely know that abstinence is an option. It simply cannot be presented as the only one, and young people should be armed with the necessary information should hormones and perfectly natural urges prevail, as they almost always do.