Abstinence-What?: A Critical Look at the Language of Educational Approaches to Adolescent Sexual Risk Reduction

By Beshers, Sarah | Journal of School Health, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Abstinence-What?: A Critical Look at the Language of Educational Approaches to Adolescent Sexual Risk Reduction


Beshers, Sarah, Journal of School Health


Twenty-six years ago, Ronald Reagan signed the Adolescent Family Life Act, and the abstinence education movement began its rapid ascendancy to political dominance, a process marked by increasingly generous federal funding, which reached a peak of $176 million in FY 2006. (1) Throughout this period, a debate ensued over the appropriate approach to teaching about sexual risk reduction in schools: abstinence or harm reduction. During the intractable quarrels engendered by this conflict, several terms became household words: "abstinence," "abstinence-only education," "abstinence education," "abstinence-only-until-marriage education," "abstinence-based education," "abstinence-plus education," and "comprehensive sex education." Unfortunately, these terms are deficient in 2 ways. One, as other professionals have already noted, (2,3) these words are vague and open to widely differing definitions. Indeed, some are often used interchangeably when they actually have opposite meanings. Two, several of them privilege abstinence over harm reduction, and in so doing misrepresent some key parameters of the debate. It is time for health and sexuality educators who favor harm reduction to remember the power of language and of their need to own the terms of the debate.

Since it is the root of so many other terms, a good place to start is the word "abstinence." It is a nebulous term, lending itself to multiple interpretations by the various stakeholders in adolescent sexual behavior, that is, parents, educators, advocates on both sides, researchers, and the teens themselves. What exactly are young people supposed to abstain from? Adult answers tend to reflect the ideological polarization around this topic. For example, the federal government, currently aligned with social conservatives, defines abstinence as "voluntarily choosing not to engage in sexual activity until marriage. Sexual activity refers to any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse." (4) Answer, a progressive organization that operates a sexuality education Web site for teens called Sex Etc., defines abstinence as "Not engaging in sexual activities. Which sexual activities this refers to are defined by each person." (5) Many young people, in contrast, tend to be more concrete and conventional, defining abstinence as "not having sex" or "not having sexual intercourse." (6) Many also believe that having oral sex is consistent with being sexually abstinent. (7,8)

In Making Sense of Abstinence, a manual of teaching activities intended to facilitate learning about abstinence from a harm reduction perspective, (9) adolescents are encouraged to create their own definitions of abstinence. Unquestionably, this is a step in the right direction. It acknowledges that there are multiple possibilities wrapped up in the term, and that no 1 version is right for everyone in all situations. But rather than just facilitate this process for young people, health and sexuality educators could legitimate and affirm their students' choices by actually naming the various kinds of abstinence. For example, there could be "total abstinence," meaning no participation in any kind of sexual activity, with or without a partner. There could be "abstinence with self-pleasuring," meaning that sexual activity is limited to masturbation. To connote the choice to abstain only from the 3 most risky sexual behaviors (RSB), that is, vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, and oral sex, educators could revive the term "outercourse" or talk about "RSB abstinence" or "RSB abstinence with partner-pleasuring." They could talk about "vaginal intercourse abstinence" to refer to the decision to simply refrain from vaginal-penile intercourse. By diversifying the language around this topic, educators will acknowledge its complexity and create many new avenues for learning. These more explicit and precise terms may also be helpful to parents trying to engage in a supportive dialogue with their children around sexual decision making and to teens trying to set clear limits in their relationships. …

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