Sex education curricula that focus on promoting abstinence rather than providing accurate information have been widely demonstrated not only to be ineffective in achieving their goal of preventing teens from engaging in sexual activity, but have also been shown to be harmful in a variety of ways. Such “abstinence-only-until-marriage” (AOUM) curricula actually lead to riskier sexual behaviors, such as engaging in unprotected sex, and are more likely to lead to sexual victimization of young women.
Part of the reason behind the higher level of victimization is that there is little discussion of “healthy relationships” and “consent” in these curricula, so teens are poorly prepared to navigate these territories as they enter into sexual relationships.
But there is much more to the story than the many lacunae in AOUM curricula: these curricula also include harmful constructions of young women, often depicting them as without sexual agency and merely as potential victims of sexuality. AOUM curricula typically construct young women as almost exclusively heterosexual, and ideally “pure.” Such constructions of young women not only limit the space for women’s sexuality, but also leave young women dangerously unprepared to negotiate the various types of relationships they might enter into.
This roundtable will examine such constructions of the “pure” young woman in AOUM curricula, as well as the statistics that speak to the dangerous effects of such constructions, and suggests alternative approaches to sex education that expand space for women’s sexuality and ascribe sexual agency to young women.
Cate Smith is in the final stages of completing her PhD in Education from Monash University in Australia. She began her graduate studies in Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, but switched to Education when she became aware of a much greater need for work in educating teens about sex and sexuality. For her graduate thesis, Cate designed a qualitative study that examined, among other things, the deleterious effects of abstinence-only curricula on America’s teens. She has delivered several papers on sex education at conferences in Australia and Singapore, and is currently working on publications concerning feminist concerns about sex education and young women’s sexual agency.