Colette Browne: What is the point in preaching abstinence to sexually active teens?
Published 19/02/2014 | 02:30
Sexual relationships are a lot like pieces of used Sellotape – if you have too many, your partner no longer sticks.
That's what a Catholic youth group, Pure in Heart, recently taught children in one Dublin secondary school during a two-hour lecture on the evils of sex before marriage. Students were taught that God loves sex but that this love comes with a caveat – coitus must be confined to marriage. Encouraging students to remain abstinent, Pure in Heart embarked on a somewhat bizarre role-playing game.
According to 'The Journal', a male student was bound to a female student by the wrists with sellotape before the adhesive was ripped off and used to shackle him to three other female students in succession.
The lesson was that the Sellotape, used once, gets soiled and is discarded because it no longer serves a useful purpose – exactly like those harlots who have one too many sexual partners.
A similar analogy employed by other abstinence groups compares young women to chewing gum, preaching that nobody wants to use a spat out piece of chewed-up gum.
If these organisations wanted to be a little less obtuse, they could just stick a slut sign on the girls in the class and have them stand in a corner while the other students point, laugh and jeer.
Stripped away of all of the religious ideology, the underlying message is that women are tainted by sex outside of marriage.
The message is pernicious, not just for women who are depicted as naive simpletons who are filled with regret when the frog they fornicated with doesn't turn into a prince, but also for men who are portrayed as cretinous brutes utterly enslaved by their libido.
But what's the problem with any of this? Surely Catholic schools should be allowed to teach Catholic dogma about sexuality, however antiquated and offensive it is. Well, there are a few. With 90pc of schools in this country under the patronage of the Catholic Church, these kinds of abstinence talks by religious groups, invited into schools to address students are common occurrences.
However, a 2007 US study found that not only do abstinence programmes have "no impact" on rates of sexual abstinence; they deter contraceptive use among teenagers.
Why? Because many of them propagate blatant distortions about the effectiveness of contraception, advising students that contraceptives are not reliable and the only way to stay safe is to remain chaste.
The problem with this zero-sum doctrine is that a majority of teenagers ignore it and most are sexually active, and chronically under-informed, by the time they reach 17.
A damning NUI Galway study, 'Young People, Alcohol and Sex', recently found university students were "wholly unprepared for the task of negotiating sexual consent and thus were at risk of sexual violence". Consent, it concluded, was largely deemed to be implicit and there was a huge degree of confusion about what constitutes sexual assault.
WHEN schools persist in pushing a mantra of "just say no", the question of when or in what circumstances you should say yes never arises.
Further evidence of the ignorance that surrounds issues of sexual health can be found in a report published on Monday, which found that one in five women, who are not planning a pregnancy, do not use any form of contraception.
Other research, which routinely finds that young women fear being labelled promiscuous if they carry condoms, perhaps, goes some way to explaining this statistic.
Infantilising young people – by tying them together with pieces of sellotape – not only sends a dubiously moralistic message about sex being 'dirty' but, worse, is just mocked by young people who use it as evidence that adults are totally out of touch with the realities of their lives.
Is it any wonder then that, according to a 2010 UNICEF Ireland study, 57pc of Irish teenagers resort to pornography to find out information about sex and 21pc use it as a source of sex education?
Trying to instil values in teenagers that teach them to think carefully before starting a sexual relationship is a worthy endeavour, but should not be done at the expense of offering comprehensive sex education which deals with difficult subjects like alcohol misuse, peer pressure, consent and contraception. No one is suggesting that teachers march into classrooms brandishing a copy of the 'Kama Sutra', merely that the fact that most students will have sex before they're married is conceded and teenagers are prepared for that.