“Abstinence Plus”: Soothing to Parents, or Still Lying to Teens?

As expected (or at least Obama promised during the
campaign), the process of zeroing
out funding for abstinence-only programs
has begun, and there’s even an
emphasis in the new appropriations bill on using evidence-based evaluations of
the programs to receive federal funding for sex education, instead of the hope
and tweaking method used by the religious right to evaluate their own
abstinence-only programs.  While this is
all very good news, however, sexual and reproductive health advocates have
every reason in the world to be cautious and skeptical of the new standards. As
Jodi points out in her report on the new bill,
the narrow language of using
teen pregnancy as the sole standard for evaluation leaves out the various other
important aspects of sex education that also need to be considered, such as STD
and violence prevention. 

On top of that concern, I’d like to also argue that the
skittish emphasis on abstinence shown by legislators might cripple the efforts
to even achieve the stated goal of reducing teen pregnancy. With such a narrow
stated goal like "reducing teen pregnancy" instead of something more
comprehensive, there’s a lot of room for programs that, while teaching
contraception, still engage in slut-shaming and other shaming and scaring
tactics.  Could that mean there’s a risk
that abstinence-only programs could make minor changes to their sexist,
retrograde, ineffective programs and continue to get funding to scare and
misinform your kids about sex?

These aren’t idle fears. 
I’ve been fascinated by the evolution of the National Campaign To
Prevent Teen Pregnancy into the newer, shinier, but appallingly conservative  National Campaign To Prevent Teen and
Unplanned Pregnancy, a name change that suggests the very real expansion of
their focus to include young women who are legal adults.  There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this,
except that while the Campaign isn’t anti-contraception like abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs are, they also are not particularly realistic about the likelihood high
school and college aged students will experiment with sex, nor are they willing
to be positive and upbeat about sex, even though most human beings actually
have pretty positive feelings about sex (for themselves, though the popularity
of scare programs shows that people are willing to be negative about sex for
others).  And by being sex negative, the
good information the Campaign has to offer will fail to get through to their
intended audience, which will be turned off by the horror show tactics. 

the podcast,
I’ve been having some fun with the National Campaign-funded
website Sex, Really, which I find representative of some of the major issues I
have with the National Campaign’s tactics. Even
a casual perusal demonstrates
that the site is more about throwing a temper
tantrum that dating styles are different for young people now than they were in
the 1960s, and just generally promoting male dominance over women than it is
about finding realistic strategies for women (who seem to be the only intended
audience, because of course Sex, Really doesn’t seem to know or care that men
can take contraceptive responsibility) to take control over their sexual
health.  Site manager Laura Sessions Stepp’s
real mission is more about persuading young women to date according to a
specific plan Sessions Stepp has than about helping young women make the best
decisions for them.  According to
Sessions Stepp, there is only one real way to date, and that’s what I like to
call the baiting method.  It assumes that
men have no natural ability or desire to spend time with women, and so in order
to extract love from men (which is all that women are supposed to want), women
have to manipulate men using the only thing men think we’re good for, which is
sex.  You’re supposed to give the man
small tastes of what sex might be like, but not have sex with him until you’ve
extracted a commitment from him after a long dating process. 

Sessions Stepp justifies flogging the hell out of this
model–and shaming women who follow their own sexual star by having sex
because it feels good when they want to, and not because they’re trying to
trick a man into being their husband–as a matter of protecting women’s mental
health by shielding them from heartbreak. 
And that would be a legitimate argument, if there wasn’t a honking
logical error in her system, which is that if a man’s interest wanes after he’s
had an orgasm inside your body, then it probably will if you’ve dated him 10
days or 10 months, and that getting dumped after 10 months instead of 10 days
actually hurts more.  Oh yeah, and none of that has anything to do
with pregnancy, because sperm swim just as well on your 50th date as
on your 1st.  Or that not all
women are straight, or that not all straight women are interested in securing a
commitment and getting married as soon as they can.  Or that men actually might like women’s
company, and that’s why people aren’t lying when they say they had sex right
away and ended up together, because they discovered they loved each other for
real, not because they’re manipulating sexual desire to secure
commitments.  Or that women may not all
be needy and easily broken-hearted, but are perfectly capable of having
fulfilling lives regardless of relationship status.

Sex, Really, and the entire National Campaign is what I fear
we might be getting with the new funding guidelines.  Which means that while they may have real
information about contraceptive use, you’re still getting a dose of shaming,
anti-feminism, and just plain old nose-wrinkling fuddy-duddyness that will
cause the students to tune you out at best, or at worst, absorb the ideas that
will erode their own willingness to reason and make decisions for
themselves.  In the latter case, this
will merely continue the long-standing problem of young people not taking basic
safety precautions because they don’t feel they have the right or the power to
demand what they know is right for themselves and their own health.

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  • heather-corinna

    Well spoken, Amanda.


    I think it’s also worth pointing out that there are some pretty serious mixed-messages going on there.  The messages Sessions-Stepp is sending, for instance, seem pretty at odds with the messages their YouTube content is.  I agree, there is a lot of slut-shaming going on, yet at the same time, to watch any of that YouTube content you sit through a long (almost as long as the "show" itself) series of bikini-clad photos of Kicesie, as well as a salacious invitation about wanting a threesome, which turns out to have nothing to do with group sex but is about accidental pregnancy (from "casual" use of contraception, oddly claiming this is a regularly-used term, and that missing, say two pills is "casual" rather than typical use).  It’s a weird mix in some ways, in others quite reflective of exactly the kinds of strongly mixed messages young people get in our culture (i.e., you’d better be sexy, just don’t be sexual).


    I’m concerned too about what we’ll be moving onto with the funding changes.  At the same time, I have to say I have a hard time seeing anything worse on the horizon than what we’ve had, and even a little bit of progress in what curricula are offered, I’ll take. Mind, getting some public funding would sure be swell, too, but I think we are a very, very long way — if we ever get there at all — from federal funding for not only comprehensive sex education, but sex-positive and truly inclusive sex education.

  • invalid-0

    I have to disagree with the notion that sex-ed must be “sex-positive.” I find the term to be a form of framing the issue that treats anyone who is pro-abstinence (even just for themselves) as “sex-negative.” In fact, it is my understanding that the label “sex-positive” is commonly associated with support of prostitution and “sex-workers” rights within feminist discourse. That being said, rather than pushing that term shouldn’t we instead focus on helping people identify their values (celibacy, abstinence, sex within committed relationships, or sex within many types of consenting relationships) and then encourage people to adhere to their own values (by either remaining abstinent or using hormonal and/or barrier contraceptives?) That way, instead of pinning someone as “sex-positive” or “sex-negative” sex-ed programs are truly neutral and simply serve to reinforce people’s existing values without telling them what their values should be?

  • heather-corinna

    Just FYI, I just invited some young people to come on over here and leave their own comments on this topic.


    It’d just be a shame to see yet another tired discussion about what teens want and need had by adults, who simply are not teens and not the experts on this.  The young people themselves are. 


    Not sure if any of them will come by, but am hoping that they will so that folks can hear some of what they have to say for themselves.

    • invalid-0

      If teens were the experts this would not be an issue in the first place. Teens think they know everything, obviously they do not.

  • heather-corinna

    To be clear, whan I use that term, what I am talking about is simply framing sex as something which CAN be positive, rather than something which, at best, will not result in negative or unwanted outcomes OR as something which is scary, sinful or only okay for certain groups of people or when enacted with a limited group of motivations.


    As someone who works with and talks to plenty of teens who are not currently choosing to have sex (some kinds, all kinds, and for any number of reasons), teens do not seem to have a problem with that framing, nor does the fact that saying sex can be a positive suggest that they need to be engaging in it. If you follow the mkinds of sex education they seek out on their own, both for those who are or have been sexually active and those who have not been, you can get a really good idea about what they like and prefer.  Listening to them is also helpful.


    In fact, when talking about what can MAKE it a positive, we’re often talking about many of the kinds of things that are those teens motivations for holding off on sex.  In other words, that postive framework is not usually at odd with teens choosing to wait (especially when choosing to wait for their own reasons, rather than out of manufactured fear or shame), but instead, in direct alignment with many of their motivations for doing so.

  • snowflake

    truly consent to sex.
    Why do these articles NEVER mention teenagers too young to consent?
    "Slut-slamming"??? "Virgin-fetishing"??? (Where do you get these terms?) Get real. The more realistic scenario is the one you saw hundreds of times on Dateline NBC, "To catch a predator."
    45 year old guys going on line to hook up with 13 year old girls while their parents aren’t home, bringing booze and condoms and maybe a nice case of VD if they forgot the condoms after all.
    I wish Amanda would rail as hard about enforcement of the law as she does about the sexual satisfaction of teenagers. She’s being to sound like a pimp for these older men.

  • heather-corinna

    Snowflake, if you’re suggesting the MOST common scenario when it comes to the sex teens have (for those who are having any: let’s remember that the media has done a very good job misreprsenting this generation, who are often having LESS sex then previous generations of teens) is teens meeting men in their forties online and being predated, please know that stands in sharp conflict with what teens themselves report about their sex lives or sexual choices and the data we have about teen sexual activity.  Television is not real life.




    Mind, I agree that working with the youngest women who wind up with the oldest sexual partners is something to pay attention to and work on (and some of us in sex ed have been doing that), but I think we can not only do that without the kinds of attitudes Amanda was talking about, but do better at that without them.


    What we also know is that fear and panic doesn’t tend to result in anyone making good choices about anything: anyone who has taken a Psych 101 course can tell you that.  The kind of sex education Amanda tends to lobby for talks plenty to teens about making sound sexual choices, about how to figure when they are at a right time in their lives for sex that is safe and sound for them, how to identify their own values around sex,  and more PLUS about doing what they can to to protect themselves from sexual abuse, something abstinence-only or abstinence-plus proponents almost NEVER address, for the record.  And if you have seen what Stepp has to say about "gray rape," I’m not sure you’d find her opinions are in alignment with yours when it comes to preventing or identifying sexual abuse, either.


    By the way?  The term VD left the station over 30 years ago.

  • invalid-0

    A truly comprehensive sex-ed program includes the emotional aspects of sex and relationships, which means a focus on not allowing yourself to be pushed into sex if you’re not ready. That doesn’t mean to wait until a certain age–the short version would be ‘if it feels wrong, it is’. All of these kids, unless they become nuns or priests, are going to have sex eventually, so instead of telling them not to do it, how about we help them figure out how to know when they’re ready so that they’re more likely to have HEALTHY sexual relationships when they do become sexually active. If they do avoid sex, it should be out of self-respect, not fear and shame.

  • snowflake

    You say, "A truly comprehensive sex-ed program includes the emotional aspects of
    sex and relationships, which means a focus on not allowing yourself to
    be pushed into sex if you’re not ready. That doesn’t mean to wait until
    a certain age–the short version would be ‘if it feels wrong, it is’."


    Everything you say is right, except for "That doesn’t mean to wait until a certain age"  Yes, in the US, it means waiting until a certain age (age 16 in most states with various stipulations on a per state basis.)  If you don’t like it, then work to change the law in your state.  Planned Parenthood and other groups don’t have the right to flount the law because they are worried that thirteen year olds are feeling sexually fulfilled.


    Reality Check just reported on a Planned Parenthood that agreed to pretend a 21 year old male athletic coach was the father of a fifteen year old female student who was pregnant with his child, so that she could get an abortion.  The minor’s parents are suing Planned Parenthood for not reporting the coach to the police for statuory rape, and not informing them of the situation with their daughter as required by state law.  The Amanda’s of this world think there is no problem with this as long as the 15 year old had a good time.  But the minor’s parents get to pick up the pieces.

  • heather-corinna

    Snowflake, if I recall correctly, this isn’t the first time you’ve posted inaccurate information on age of consent laws here in the states.


    The AOC varies a lot from state to state here.  It’s from 16 to 18 in various states, however, in most states that a) doesn’t apply to all kinds of sex and b) often makes stipulations for sexual partners in the same age group for those under the AOC, which also often includes partners over the AOC.  Of course, that doesn’t mean teens always follow those laws, obviously  Just as food for thought?  You may or may not know that that whole section of law is something we inherited from the UK, and those were laws which were actually in part originally designed to protect children substantially younger (usually younger than 10 or 12) than those most AOC laws address from their PARENTS, who at that time in history, had a fairly substantial problem when it came to prostituting their children out for cash.  Those laws were not originally designed to be about consensual, not-for-profit sex between teens and other teens. They were also child (again, pre-puberty) rape laws before we had other rape law.  In other words, AOC laws were orginally child prostitution laws and rape laws.


    Putting words in Amanda’s mouth in your last paragraph is really ridiculous.  She’s RIGHT here.  I’m sure if you ask her what she thinks of that situation, she’d be glad to tell you.  Suffice it to say, you’re not talking about AOC law when you’re talking about right to privacy laws around abortion and other sexual healthcare services, where a young person’s privacy IS protected, whether you like that or not.  And mandatory reporting laws for healthcare professionals, as I know a few have explained to you the last time you brought this up, vary a lot and aren’t as cut and dried as you seem to think they are.

  • amanda-marcotte

    You’re misunderstanding the term "sex positive".  It’s just approaching the issue from the understanding that sex is something people  do because it’s fun, and believing that fun is a good thing, and pleasure is a positive.  Not just that people are going to do it, and we have to accept that.  But that people will do that and good!  They deserve to feel good and have pleasure.


    It’s not anti-abstinence, unless of course you need other people to be abstinent to feel better about your decision. As for prostitution, my attitude is that prostitutes are people, too, and most attempts to reduce the amount of prostitution dehumanize prostitutes, so I can’t support it, full stop.  

  • amanda-marcotte

    Which is the focus of most of my attention, is aimed at women in their 20s.  Therefore, your strategy of trying to scare people with alarmingly young ages has to be considered nothing but an attempt to scare, distract, and shut down intelligent conversation.


    Determining the "cut-off" age is a fun game to create a panic, but misleading and a red herring.  If we give young people the skills of negotiation and self-respect, they’ll be much better judges of when it’s right for them.  And the story you’re not talking about is the most common one—teenagers waiting until it feels right, having sex, and living their lives without any ill effects, which disappoints conservatives who claim to see ill effects where there aren’t any.

  • invalid-0

    “As for prostitution, my attitude is that prostitutes are people, too, and most attempts to reduce the amount of prostitution dehumanize prostitutes, so I can’t support it, full stop.”

    Amanda, would you mind elaborating on this point? I know it’s not on topic, so I understand if you’d rather be done with it, but I am totally curious.

    I do understand that DerekP is saying about the way the term sex-positive is usually used (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex-positive_feminism), but I don’t thing any of the feminists on this site are of the anti-pornography variety, unless I’m oversimplifying the debate. I personally struggle with the issue.

    Amanda + Heather = heroes for 17 year old females (of which I am one) whether they be sexually active or not (I am of the latter category).

  • invalid-0

    Yes, in the US, it means waiting until a certain age (age 16 in most states with various stipulations on a per state basis.)


    No, this is not how it works. I’ve told you before, but I’ll explain again. Age of consent is when you can legally consent to ADULTS for sex. It is 16-18 in most states. However, I do not know of any states where it is a crime to have sex if you are under 16, so you do NOT have to wait until you are 16 to have sex.

    I’ll ask again for a cite in case you know something I don’t.

  • invalid-0

    Amanda’s pull quote for this post:

    “With a narrow focus on teen pregnancy prevention, will new sex ed programs provide contraceptive info while preserving abstinence-only tactics of slut-shaming and virginity-fetishizing?”

    Awesome (and insightful) phrasing of a question.

    Answer in short: Yes.

    And this will be cited as an example of “common ground”. What better way to satisfy two of the biggest lobbies, one, the pharmaceutical industry, and two, anti-choice/’family values’ social conservatives?

    Not that the pharmaceutical industry is directly lobbying for changes in sex education policy, but they played an enormous role in shaping policy regarding legislation on Plan B’s availablity OTC to adults (first women 18 and over, and to a lesser extent to the change in policy allowing access to 17-year-olds) but not minors. Barr/Duramed/Teva have repeatedly said they have NO interest in either changing government policy or developing marketing materials (aka educational materials) for minors on Plan B. Yes, Plan B is available OTC to minors in several states, but that was achieved without Barr/Duramed (Teva wasn’t involved at that point) helping much, if at all.

    Progress on moving towards minors OTC access in other states seems to have stalled since (1) Plan B was approved for OTC sale to women 18+ in August 2006, and (2) a court ruled, at what dollar cost we can only imagine, in March of this year that 17-year-olds can also get it OTC nationally, and soon after in April this year the FDA responded and agreed to allow marketing to 17-year-olds. And we might someday see a study from the FDA determining if minors younger than 17 can get it OTC safely. Supposedly. Someday. Right.

    But that possible review by the FDA for OTC access to minors younger than 17 will only happen if Teva asks the FDA to review “other issues”, as the Washington Post and numerous other new outlets reported to deafening silence on that point in April:


    Please read the last three sentences/paragraphs of that article.

    And if that study ever does comes–and we feel someday it will–if it comes from the government or Teva, want to bet that it doesn’t strongly argue for OTC access to women under 17? And if it doesn’t, anti-choice groups will use it to try to restrict access or affect funding for other contraceptive services for minors — and without much complaint from the pharmaceutical industry?

    But hey, Barr/Duramed/Teva got what economically they wanted, which was exclusive rights, for a while, to market Plan B to women 18+, which is a much bigger market anyway than minors could be, with less risk of legislative and legal hassles from groups and parties who would oppose or sue them for various reasons related to minor’s access. And what better way to do it than to get what they wanted mostly for business’ sake under a Republican administration, and then affirm access to 17-year-olds in a Democratic administration, and nothing much more?

  • invalid-0

    Bravo! Keep up the good fight.

  • invalid-0

    Very interesting on the AOC laws. I did not know that. I thought those laws were passed for “desperate” parents who wanted to throw their daughters’ boyfriends in jail. Perhaps that’s why the ages were raised?

  • invalid-0

    It’s the teens who get lied to, scare tactics, and guilt trips who have the “ill effects” about sex. Thanks for this post Amanda.

  • heather-corinna

    It’s a really big subject with a long (400-and-some years) and varied history, anf the ages have spun up and down a bit pretty inconsistently over time, but the biggest increase all at once was about prostitution. In time, around the 19th century and into the 20th, when it started to be about policing not-for-profit, consensual (as in, parties involved reported it was mutually wanted) sex, it had a lot to do with controlling the sexuality of working class young women.  But it wasn’t until around the 70’s that we started to see the ages for the AOC we see now (and even then, those laws and policies often did not include boys and young men as those who could be victimized, or same-sex sex, as the AOC laws do now).


    Another interesting tidbit to know is that often the nations/areas with the lowest AOCs actually also have the lowest teen STI and unplanned pregnancy rates.  It’s 12 in the Netherlands, for instance. In other words, a higher AOC has not been shown to reduce those unwanted outcomes.

  • invalid-0

    I’m sorry to say but in NY you must be 17 to consent to having sex with any one! A 15 yea old can not consent to have sex with a 15 year old. There are cases of where parents charge one child then that child’s parent charges the other and the charge is…endangering the welfare of a child!

  • airina

    Planned Parenthood didn’t ‘agree to pretend’ anything.  They were duped by a man who impersonated the girl’s father in order to break even more laws.

  • invalid-0

    There are cases of where parents charge one child then that child’s parent charges the other and the charge is…endangering the welfare of a child!

    Please provide a cite for this claim.

  • invalid-0

    I think it’s you who needs to get real here — I’m a 17 year old girl, and I have never met anyone in my peer group who’ve been hooked up with by some middle aged man on the internet. And neither Amanda nor anyone else here are condoning that type of thing as “satisfying” teenagers’ sexual desires or anything of the like.

    Deciding a set limit on when we are “ready” is unrealistic; everyone is different and has a different time when they’re ready. And telling kids they’re not ready, PARTICULARLY that they’re “not old enough”, doesn’t work. Because in the end, we’re going to make our own decisions. Trying to force a time when teens are “ready” for sex or not only either encourages shame and confusion about oneself and sexuality, or goes completely ignored as we do what feels right for US.

    If you want us to be “old enough to truly consent to sex”, you give us complete, realistic, unbiased, all-encompassing sex ed and discussions about boundaries and our OWN personal values and comfort, and WE will make a perfectly well-informed decision about whether or not we want to have sex. It won’t be at a certain age. It’ll be when we’re really ready, which is what you should want — for us to make decisions about ourselves that we’re comfortable with, that make US happy (NO MATTER THE AGE), not necessarily ones that make YOU happy. That is what it means to be able to TRULY consent to sex.