Friday FREAK OUT! Tweetstorm about abstinence education: CHEERS to Alice Dreger!

This week Alice Dreger did something I’ve been wanting to do for years. She went to a high school class that had outside presenters talking about abstinence, and she LIVE-TWEETED it. And what she heard was outrageous, and unfortunately, for someone who has researched and reviewed abstinence-based curricula, I’m not surprised:

As she highlights during her tweetstorm, programs like these are using fear as a way to discourage sexual activity, and ignore and dismiss pleasure as a key component of a healthy sexual interaction. I’ve seen this over and over again. SIECUS has some thorough and useful reviews of abstinence based programs, and as Alice and her son found, research is showing the negative impact that these programs have on young people.

This story has gone viral this week- shared on nearly every email list, Facebook group and social media platform I participate in! Alice shared a full account of her experience attending her son’s the class on The Stranger, and has already gotten international attention in outlets like Huffpo, buzzfeed, mtvnews, and feministing. (And a bit of push back in her own local paper The Lansing State Journal)

And major kudos go to Alice for modeling healthy communication with her son about not only sex and sexuality, but also educational methods and critically thinking about class content. We want young people to learn how to take in information and then examine its relevance and worth.

And, sure science has a key place in evaluating content quality, but we also want young people to be able to decide for themselves if a message rings true for them and be able to put it aside if it doesn’t jive with their values or beliefs.

And even MORE kudos to Alice for highlighting the role of pleasure in sexual activity. (And it’s not the first time! In May 2014 she wrote an article for Pacific Standard titled, What if We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?)

Let’s keep freaking out about how ‘educational’ programs that are fear-based and that focus on scaring teens are destructive and ill-conceived. Instead let’s support education that helps equip people to make healthy decisions using critical thinking skills based on real life circumstances. Sex is exciting, intriguing, and can in fact be pleasurable!

Thank you, Alice Dreger, for speaking out against fear-based abstinence education and speaking UP for pleasure.


Why be Fearless about sexuality education?

Quick, think of a message about avoiding risky behaviors and making healthy decisions that you received when you were growing up.

Now think about that message…how did it make you feel? did it make you afraid of doing said behavior?  did it prevent you from doing it? if you did it anyways, how did you feel after?

Didn’t think of anything at all?  How about some of these…

Many very well-intentioned educators, policy-makers, and PSA designers resort to the use of fear to try and scare people out of engaging in risky behaviors.  I argue that while it is essential that people understand the potential consequences of any action, using fear is not an effective educational tool for sexuality education, especially when the overall educational goal is for the participant to learn about making healthy sexual decisions and developing a healthy sexual self.

Why? Here are five reasons why I do not use fear in my role as a sexuality educator:

  1. Using fear is a simplistic approach.  It discounts the complexity of sexual decisions, which are enmeshed in relationship dynamics and individual emotions and desires.
  2. Using fear could result in the individual removing themselves from the possibility of risk in their own life, since many people will think that the awful consequence could never happen to them.
  3. Using fear prescribes the same decision to all scenarios and life situations, and assumes that an individual is incapable of making an informed decision.
  4. Using fear eliminates the opportunity for an individual to develop critical thinking skills for themselves.  (The PSA announcer won’t be there when two people are about to have sex!)
  5. Using fear only highlights the negative consequences of sexual activity, ignoring the reality that sexual activity can be a fun and pleasurable experience.

Instead of messages that are fearful and scary, I prefer to use educational approaches that encourage critical thinking, especially in realistic ways.   It is possible to teach about all sorts of things that could result from engaging in sexual activity, such as STIs, unintended pregnancy, HIV, emotional backlash, without using fear– but it is the more difficult route.

So the challenge for sexuality educators is to be very cautious about the messages conveyed, both explicitly and implicitly, in order to ensure that those messages will help the participant feel empowered, not afraid.  And, it might mean examining, and possibly changing activities and approaches that have been long implemented in highly acclaimed comprehensive sexuality education programs.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on how we do this! 🙂