Guilting Girls: How Abstinence Education Can Have Unintended Effects

Aug 11, 2017

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The future of sex education for some classrooms across the country is up for debate as President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget allocates a majority of funding towards abstinence-centered programs. Abstinence education is already required in Kentucky schools, where many high school students will encounter it in their mandatory health class. There, the classroom experience can end up being very different for female students compared to their male counterparts.

Megan Durbin is a few years removed from her sex education class at Calloway County High School, but she remembers it like it was yesterday. As a freshman she and the other girls were in separate classroom as a guest lecturer passed around a rose, telling each girl to remove a petal.


“As it went on, everybody took a petal and when it got back to her she kind of yanked the rest off and said: does this flower still look pretty?” Durbin said.

Durbin remembers being 14 and feeling the unease of the lecturer’s remarks-- that she and every other female were like that flower.

“If we were going to have sex before marriage we were going to look like an ugly flower, and nobody wants to marry an ugly flower." Durbin said. "And when it came to the day of us getting married, we didn't want to walk down the aisle and have our future husband look at us and be disappointed in the ugly flower that was there."

Durbin said she recalls all of this being said in front of a student who was already pregnant.

More than 10 people from west Kentucky responded to a Facebook inquiry seeking diverse opinions and memories from their sex education classes. If the respondent was female, they usually remembered leaving their class feeling guilted or confused.

Brittany White from Murray remembers moving to Kentucky in middle school. She said she remembers a sex education class with a guest speaker that was too timid to even teach the girls about menstruation.

Alexandra Smith of Benton said she was a freshman in high school when her teacher told her class that having sex before marriage negatively affects your reputation. This was another instance where the teacher made these comments in front of a student who was already pregnant.

Shelby Hagan is a senior at Marshall County High School. In her freshman coed health class, she said her teacher always pointed responsibility back to the girls. 

"She said something that really stuck with me," Hagan said. "She would say 'Now ladies, when I was your age we wouldn't be caught dead losing our virginity before marriage. It really shames the family and I think that's still true today."  

Hudson Deese was in an all male class at his high school in Marshall County and was never told that sex before marriage would damage his reputation.  

“The class was less about education and more about why you shouldn’t have sex.” Deese said.

Not having sex is a cornerstone of abstinence only education, which  Leigh Gideon prefers to teach in her health classes in Western Kentucky. She teaches safe sex and STD education, but wants abstinence to be her primary curriculum. She said as a Christian, faith is always a part of her education process.

“I want to inspire abstinence because of my belief in God, and I can’t teach it without- I might not bring up the Lord or anything in class but to me, God designed it.” Gideon said.

Gideon said she believes sex before marriage can affect a person spiritually and emotionally.

“It’s just going to damage you. And you might not see it now, but you will later." Gideon said. "And you can ask any woman today who has had a past- if they could take it all back they would.” 

Gideon said her goal is to have healthy students and would never want to make anyone feel guilty. Murray State University social psychology professor Jana Hackathorn said studies show that abstinence education can work in some small religious groups where participants don’t feel pressured. But, the reports aren’t all positive.

Articles provided by Jana Hackathorn.

“The more your religion touts these things that it’s your fault and you should feel bad about it, the more guilty you do feel and the more likely you are to be less happy in your marriage and your sex life.” Hackathorn said.

Hackathorn said some sex education teachers don't realize they are fostering any negative psychological outcomes for their students.

"They're just trying to impress upon these young girls how important this is," Hackathorn said. "Because at the end of the day it's everyone's responsibility."

Hackathorn said it's common for women to be taught to bear much of this responsibility.

“Sex is a purely social behavior. When you are going to have sex- what you’re thinking about what are the social rules?" Hackathorn said. "Yes, there’s the thought of ‘I could get pregnant,' but there’s the competing thought of ‘he’s going to think I’m a slut if I pull a condom out of my purse right now.’ So putting it all on the female is where we go wrong.”

Many schools and youth centers use a program that gets closer to what Hackathorn said can help take the pressure off of girls and prevent unplanned pregnancies. The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program offers a more "comprehensive" approach with nearly 40 different programs that tackles issues like contraception, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, sexuality and even goes into raising children and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Those grants could go away if congress enacts President Trump’s proposed budget (page 91.)

Trump’s spending plan increases funding for abstinence education programs like Title V and the Sexual Risk Avoidance Program.

Those abstinence programs do include information on healthy relationships and marriages- and point out that abstaining from sex is the only way to truly avoid unplanned pregnancies and STD’s.

But, schools and other youth programs that receive grants for this type sex education could potentially leave more students feeling like Megan Durbin, who said shame was the only thing she felt after her class.