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Why Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Makes Kids Into Bullies

Abstinence-only programs, with their emphasis on purity, marriage, and heterosexuality, create hostile environments.
 
 
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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in this way were more likely to bully and harass because they learned, in ways integral to abstinence provisions, outdated "traditional" ideas about gender and sexuality.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:

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.)

 
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