Tobi Hill-Meyer

Abstinence is not 100% safe

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | February 07, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: abstinence education, Jocelyn Elders, masturbation, sex education, sex-positivity

I taught peer sex ed in high school. It was one of the most progressive sex ed courses in the area, covering queer people, healthy relationships, and setting and asserting boundaries. But despite being a comprehensive (i.e. abstinence-based while still teaching condoms) program, there were several restrictions that made it less than ideal.

For one, every time we said "use a condom," we were required to follow it up with "but abstinence is the only 100% safe method to prevent pregnancy." So I prepped my younger brother's friend to take advantage of the pre-programmed responses.

When he heard such a statement, he would reply, "So if my boyfriend and I had sex, would he get pregnant or would I?"

To which they would answer, "Well, of course you wouldn't get pregnant but you'd be at risk for STI's."

"But we're both virgins," he would exclaim, "So how could either of us have an STI?"

"Some STI's can be transmitted through other means than just sex" would be the standard answer.

"Wait a minute, are you saying that abstinence isn't 100% safe?"

The simple literal approach is pretty clear that abstinence isn't 100% safe. You could be abstinent and still get Hepatitis or Herpes. But I always resented the idea that we needed to be 100% safe - there's no guarantees in life. During my sexually active teenage years, using multiple forms of protection I was able to bring my risk level down to one contraceptive failure every 100,000 years (yes, I am a geek, I did run the numbers). If you can't handle that risk rate, I thought, then what's the point of getting out of bed in the morning? Being nearby an infamous school shooting, I knew of more people who died from going to school than people who died from having sex. Despite responsibly bringing my sex-related risk below the risk of attending school, many people nonetheless saw my behavior as a failure because I was contributing to the teenage sexual activity rates.

When you actually look at the numbers, though, abstinence is a pretty ineffective technique for preventing pregnancy and STIs. That's because failure rates aren't calculated under theoretical circumstances, but under real-life standards. Condom failure rates are calculated by surveying a large number of people who report condom use as their form of protection, and see how many of them had a pregnancy or STI after a year - regardless of whether or not they know how to properly use a condom or even if they forgot the condom now and then.

When abstinence is calculated under a similar scheme, the results look dismal. The number of people who report abstinence as their form of protection yet have a pregnancy or STI a year later is a lot higher than 0%.

Even when wanting to reduce your risk levels to next to nothing, abstinence isn't the only option. No one can tell me that phone sex is higher risk than abstinence (even under "ideal use rates"). For that matter, what's the risk data on mutual masturbation? Or using toys? Or strap-on sex? Health organizations don't even bother to track such things because while STIs can be transmitted if you don't wash your toys, such a precaution makes the risk next to nothing.

So, while I know this is a radical idea, why can't sex education teach phone or cyber sex as a risk reduction technique? Why can't we teach about safe toy use as an alternative to higher risk sexual behavior?

When asked if it made sense for sex education to suggest masturbation as an alternative to sexual activity, then Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders said yes. Conservative politicians demanded and received her resignation, and in the sixteen years since, science-based health advocacy has been too afraid of anti-sex political forces to bring up the idea again.

While our policies have remained stagnant, I would hope that our society has progressed beyond such prudishness by now. Ironically, it's entirely possible, given that the FDA defines sex as oral, vaginal, or anal sex, that a program discussing low-risk sexual activities might even qualify for abstinence-only funding. When looking at what's supposed to drive our policy - the health impact - how can anyone justify ignoring these options?


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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 7, 2009 9:14 PM

Tobi, Puritanism has this country in a death-grip. Until the separation of church and state is enforced, kicking the Religious Right out of their powerful, privileged position, I wouldn't expect such a sensible, reality-based type of sex-ed in America.

Did you know that in Ireland, an awesome government-supported non-profit, BeLonGTo, works with LGBT youth from the ages of 14 to 23? Do you know of any government-sponsored and approved outreach to LGBT youth age 14 in this country? I don't. The standard line here is that 14-year-old "kids" are too young to know if they're LGBT, and adults who reach out to them are "recruiting."

"Tobi, Puritanism has this country in a death-grip."
Ah, but the old farts are slowly dying off. I have hope that one day soon, my 13-year old and his 9-year old brother will be taught something other than abstinence by someone other than ME.

I believe we are exactly one generation away from being released from the Puritan strangle hold. Unfortunately, that generation is living longer because of all the Wonder bread it ate in the 50s. We grow impatient, and will resort to hiding their aluminum walkers on voting days.

I am so glad you said that and not me, FT. ;)

Great post, Tobi!

I don't have much of a problem with puritanism - it was responsible for some of our country's greatest social accomplishments, like getting independent from britain, ending slavery, banning child labor....

Great post, Tobi. I hadn't thought of sex ed in a lot of the ways you mention.

Love this post! In high school, was a Postponing Sexual Involvement tutor for 7th graders back home in Eastern Kentucky. I can't remember the specifics, but my job was to have responses prepared to the inevitable "If I wanna have a baby, then I'm gonna - I ain't gonna listen to you" tirade from about half the girls in each class. The saddest thing was that some of them were (or had been) already pregnant... Go abstinence!