“Sex is evil; sex is sin. Sin's forgiven, so sex is in.” This isn't some far-out cult chant. It's something I heard in high school from other students. I grew up attending a Christian school, and abstinence-based sexual education was all we received. There was no education about what to do if you found yourself in a situation where you wanted to — and likely would — have sex.
Instead, as teenagers, we were supposed to avoid that type of situation entirely. If we found ourselves in any kind of awkward moment, we were supposed to just say no and walk away. When two of my classmates became pregnant, they were kicked out of both the school and the church associated with it. Instead of preventing more of these incidents, the dialogue about the "evil" activity of premarital sex became quite common.
I was given the same message from my parents and their peers. There wasn't a single person in my life who would just sit down and have an honest conversation about sex. Now, as a parent, I've resolved to be more open with my kids, even if it is uncomfortable. Here are three reasons shame-based messages is not how we should be educating our youth:
1. Shame breeds deception.
When teens or others are ashamed of their actions, or they think the people they respect would be ashamed of what they are doing, they have a tendency to hide it. In health care, over 50 percent of patients reveal they have deceived their doctor, which can lead to disastrous consequences. If a teen hides the symptoms of an STD, there is a higher risk for greater complications and others being exposed.
Hiding a pregnancy leads to a lack of early care, which is something vital to fetal health, provided the individual chooses to continue her pregnancy. The later the pregnancy is discovered, the fewer options the couple has going forward. The deception bred by shame is quite dangerous.
2. Shame sidelines prevention.
The best way to fight any disease is not to get it in the first place. Abstinence or shame-based education about sex teaches nothing concrete about the prevention of STDs or pregnancy. Instead, it relies on a “just say no” or avoidance approach.
In an article about comprehensive preventative care primary prevention, the first step in disease prevention is defined as the spread of knowledge. Condoms and abstinence are a part of secondary prevention, which is the attempt to stop the spread of disease by those who have already contracted it or at high risk.
Shame-based education takes away the first step, the provision of knowledge or education. In teens, this leads to a neglect of secondary prevention as well. Without knowledge of what protection is out there, there is a strong possibility teens will not discover it on their own.
3. Shame squashes open discussion.
Mystery, intrigue and "forbidden" topics often make individuals discover what something is all about for themselves. Education and open discussion removes the mystery and the shadows of the unknown. Shame makes it seem like sex is not a part of everyday life, and it is something to be ashamed of and hidden.
This can lead to other issues besides early experimentation. Issues can emerge later in a relationship and even a marriage. I can prevent a healthy sex life when one of the partners feels some kind of guilt about healthy sexual activity. Only open discussion can lead to a true understanding of what that means.
Sex itself is not shameful or sinful, but that is what shame-based messages teach. Those messages can only lead to problems for the next generation. It's time to end the deception and create open conversations that will end in a healthy view of sex.