Did Abstinence-Only Ideology Create a Bully Generation?

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Analysis Violence

Did Abstinence-Only Ideology Create a Bully Generation?

Soraya Chemaly

Abstinence-only programs, with their emphasis on purity, marriage, and heterosexuality, create hostile environments that perpetuate the growth of rule-enforcing bullies, one slut-shaming, homophobic class at a time.

Abstinence-only education creates a petri dish for bullying in schools. There is always a lot of back and forth about the efficacy of these programs, and I fall on the side that they demonstrably fail to reduce teen pregnancy, the rate of incidence of teen sex, or the transmission of sexutally transmitted infections (STIs) (all you have to do is look at Texas). In addition, however, I believe that the heyday of our federal investment in abstinence-only programs had a terrible collateral effect — namely, kids who were “educated” in this way were more likely to bully and harass because they learned, in ways integral to abstinence provisions, outdated “traditional” ideas about gender and sexuality. Even kids whose parents talked to them at home, about contraception or healthy sex, were taught gendered rules and more and more of them appear to have enforced those rules to great harm.

To be clear, I am not saying teaching abstinence is the problem. But, teaching abstinence in the context of fully comprehensive, age-appropriate sex ed is qualitatively different from teaching abstinence-only. This is the problem. I am saying that there is something inherently harmful about cultures that insist on abstinence-only teaching.

From 1982 until 2010 funding for abstinence-only programs grew exponentially, from $4 million dollars in 1982 to $176 million in 2007. According to The Department of Health and Human Services, during almost the exact same period, 2001-2008, there was a steady rise of bullying at schools. Fourteen percent of students, ages 12 through 18 reported being bullied during school in 2001, a proportion that more than doubled, to 32 percent, in 2007. Some of the bullying increase might be attributable to better recognition and reporting, but I think that the almost straight line correlation in growth trends during that same period is interesting. A correlation is not necessarily a causation, but here is why I think that there is an intimate dynamic between the two trends:

Elizabeth Meyer, author of the excellent book, Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools defines bullying and harassment in the following way:

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Bullying is repeated and intentional hurtful behaviors directed at a specific person, whereas harassment includes unintentional or intentional behaviors that are discriminatory in nature.

When bullying occurs it’s not in isolation from the culture in which it occurs. The idea that bullying is a one-off instance of rule breaking is a misconception. It is, instead, the systematic enforcement of rules, particularly gender rules. And, yes, that includes same-sex bullying–in some ways an even better example of gender-rule enforcing than opposite-sex bullying. The list of children, with which we are now sadly familiar, who have killed themselves as the result of slut-shaming and trans- and homo-phobia is bleak and long. There are serious penalties being paid for not following gender rules.

There are three primary ways that abstinence-only programs, with their emphasis on purity, marriage, and heterosexuality, create hostile environments that perpetuate the growth of rule-enforcing bullies, one slut-shaming, homophobic class at a time:

  1. They rely on offensive, sexist stereotypes about men and women, boys and girls, as a foundational teaching tool and pass it off as “biology.” They portray “real” boys as unable to control themselves, unemotional (particularly about sex), not interested in female desire or sexual satisfaction, not ultimately responsible for their own sexual feelings (which are portrayed as dependent on how girls chose to tempt them) and definitely heterosexual. Girls, on the other hand, are shown as controlling monitors of aggressive male sexuality. In classic Madonna/whore manner, girls, despite being chaste objects of male desire and not “naturally” interested in having sex, are portrayed as temptresses that need to control what they wear and the messages they send. Also heterosexual, they are definitely not capable of managing their own reproductive lives.(*See footnote for examples from texts or click here for some real doozies.)
  2. They marginalize and stigmatize LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) youth by teaching that sex between a woman and a man (obviously within traditional heterosexual marriage) is the only safe, healthy, “normal” behavior. Even if you want to teach your kids abstinence, you don’t have to do it this way. Any other form of sexual activity is a perversion to be avoided. There is a Federal Definition of what constitutes abstinence-only program content (on which we’ve spent $1.5 billion dollars since 1982) and it requires that students be told that heterosexual marriage is the “expected standard.” In addition, these programs regularly represent LGBTQ relationships as a form of disease and provide misleading information about HIV and other STIs. Despite the fact that abstinence-only materials were required to provide “medically accurate” information after a 2004 study revealed the persistence of these misrepresentations, the same materials continued to be used. The messages sent by these curricula not only reinforce a discriminatory environment, but cultivate it. What kind of school environment is produced when teachers are forced to provide materials supporting the idea that non-hetero kids are deviant as a matter of federally-mandated policy? No wonder LGBTQ students are five times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied due to their sexual orientation.
  3. Lastly, abstinence-only programs teach kids to slut-shame and -blame, and send a victim-blaming message. The flip side of this equation for boys is that they aren’t in control of themselves and can’t be blamed if a girl “encourages” them. We sometimes call that as “boys being boys” and it’s how we laughingly wave away a slippery slope of assaultive behaviour. The Legal Matters study concluded that abstinence materials consistently defined women as “socially and sexually submissive” and concluded that “Many girls fear that if they broach the topic of safe sex with their partners, they will be thought of as promiscuous and be rejected and ostracized as a result.” ***

When adults in authority teach stereotypes and hyper-gendered rules as fact, how are children expected to feel and behave? I could not find any longitudinal, granular research studying this relationship, but why would it surprise anyone that bullying would increase greatly in these settings? Marry, no pun intended, these lessons and environments with teens’ unregulated access to new social media and it’s the perfect recipe for cyber-bullying.

The best part of all of this, however, is how our tax dollars pay to implement the pre-modern, fundamentalist social policy agendas of a minority of parents and teach kids to bully at the same time. You can see why I find it particularly rich when people who proudly tout abstinence-only programs are also interested in funding anti-bullying rules and legislation. Abstinence-only was a subtle form of organized hazing and a not-so-subtle form of national policy bullying if you ask me.

I know that during the past two years we’ve significantly increased commitment and funding for science- and evidence-based teen pregnancy, STI, and HIV prevention programs. I would hazard a guess that this shift in sex ed will have just as much, if not more, effect on reducing bulling and increasing tolerance, than anti-bullying rules and legislation will. But, in the meantime, I think it is unconscionable that we continue to pay a lot of money (a total of $250 million was reinstated for 2010-2014) for the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program. Maybe schools that teach abstinence-only should reconsider how much they want to waste on anti-bullying rules.


*Examples from the 2008 Legal Momentum Report: “One curriculum, Why kNOw, teaches that “women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships” while “men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.” Another curriculum, Facts and Reasons, claims that “in deciding to have intercourse, women are more likely than men to be in love, want a mutually satisfying relation-ship, and are interested in what their partner feels and thinks…men are more likely to engage in sex with a warning to the woman that there will be no commitment…One curriculum taught that women need “financial support” while men need “admiration.””

** For example, in 2004 a national study found that abstinence only programs taught kids, among other eggregious nonsense, the following: a 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person,” HIV can be spread via sweat and tears and condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission. Four years later abstinence programs were found to be teaching the following: “Sexual identity is not fully established until the late teens or early twenties. Young persons may sense affection and even infatuation for a member of the same-sex. This is not the same as “being” a homosexual. Any same sex “sexual experimentation” can be confusing to a young person and should be strongly discouraged.”

***Heritage Keepers, a provider of abstinence-curricula materials explained, in case kids missed the Slut-Shaming 101 prerequisite class, “girls have an added responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.” I won’t even get into the representation of abortion.