Free to Be – sex abstinence

On November 5th, an article I wrote about a conversation I had with my daughter regarding abstinence was published.  Since that day, I have received several letters in regards to that article.  The opinions ranged from outrage, believing that encouraging abstinence left kids without vital information – to elation over the topic of abstinence, believing that kids needed the encouragement to just say no.

Today’s article is being included in our Sex Series, written by Sue Bisbee, the Executive Director of Free to Be – a group that teaches about the choice of abstinence. 

Why postponing sex until marriage makes sense to our youth

by Sue Bisbee, Executive Director, Free to Be

On the wall in my office is a small poster a Free to Be youth volunteer peer educator created a few years ago. It says:  “Abstinence IS an option; NOT everyone is doing it; virginity is not deathly, STDs are! I have self respect; I am happy; I am Free to Be.”

When young people receive the facts, are given encouragement and taught relationship and refusal skills, many embrace the choice of living an abstinent life-style until marriage. This is reflected in a study just released by the Centers for Disease Control, showing a downward trend in teen sexual activity that began in the early 1990’s and has continued through 2008. In 2008, 53% of boys and 58% of girls ages 15-17 reported never having had sexual contact.[1] This confirms my experience over the past 20 years of working with youth. Abstinence education empowers many teens to postpone sex.

Beginning in the Clinton administration and continuing through the Bush years, funding gradually increased for a primary health prevention approach to teen sex, encouraging youth to avoid risk. Unlike the stereotype of abstinence education, most of the funded programs were one part of a comprehensive approach, and provided medically accurate information in a secular format.

When Free to Be goes into classrooms and other youth-serving sites, we find that teens are very open to the idea of postponing sex. In fact, many tell us that meeting other youth who have chosen to live an abstinent life-style is important to them. For some, this supports a decision they have already made. For others, it opens a dialogue about a healthy option they may not have thought about.

One of our male peer educators explains: “Our generation is constantly bombarded with messages from the media that sex is love, with few exceptions or consequences. You want it, do it. Free to Be provides peers with the opportunity to hear from the other side of the topic, that you don’t have to have sex to love someone, and it’s not cost-free. Free to Be does not force anything on anybody, merely presents statistics and personal experiences to prepare teens to make their own decisions.”

Why, then, have Free to Be and other abstinence programs around the country become a target for exclusion from our schools? The Obama administration has eliminated the federal funding stream for abstinence education, and the ACLU has launched an aggressive campaign to keep Free to Be out of our local schools. By spreading misinformation and using scare tactics, the opponents of abstinence education have convinced many that abstinence education doesn’t work, and even that it is harmful!

Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual health education, politics trumps truth. Several years ago I went to Washington, D.C. with a group of youth from Free to Be to speak with legislators about the importance of including an abstinence approach in our schools. After a presentation to one senator, his aide pulled me aside. He told me that this was the first time he had heard from proponents of abstinence education, and that “every single day” someone came into his office to inform him that abstinence education “doesn’t work.” Although research is clear on the effectiveness of abstinence education,[2] opponents of abstinence education choose to disregard it.

Abstinence education affirms the positives of sex, shares the “freedoms” of living an abstinent life-style, and encourages teens to wait for the healthiest context for sexual activity. One young woman, after a Free to Be presentation, wrote this response:  “Before today, I didn’t know about abstinence. Now that I do, I not only respect it, but I am going to choose renewed abstinence.”

A long-time abstinence educator, Amy Scheuring, author and adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh said it well, “I believe in young people. Most think that they are just a bundle of raging hormones. But they are capable of making wise healthy choices. They care about their future.”

Omitting abstinence education from our public schools is a mistake we can not afford to make. In order for these positive trends in sexual activity to continue, our youth must hear all their options and be encouraged to make choices that will provide the best outcomes for their future health and well-being.

Free to Be is a non-profit youth leadership organization that uses a peer-to-peer approach to inform and role-model healthy decisions.  

[1] Chandra, Anjani PhD et al.; “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth.” National Health Statistics Reports: Centers for Disease Control. Number 36, March 2011.

[2] Jermott, J. B., Jemmott L. S., Fong G. T. (2010). “Efficacy of a theory-based abstinence-only intervention over 24 months.” Archives of Pediatrics Adolescent Medicine. 2010; 164(2):152-159.


One thought on “Free to Be – sex abstinence

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  1. Worthwhile post. Abstinence education resources‘s standing has been lessening as of late, and it is regrettable. I believe the most healthy, safest action for teens is to stay abstinent until they get married. I know there are a lot of individuals who would adamantly take issue with me, but I have to choose it, based on my own experience.

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