Self esteem, health and comprehensive sex education

The content of sex education in schools and communities varies hugely – not only worldwide or by country, but also between states and counties. The prevalence of Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) education is threatening reproductive and human rights by failing to provide adolescents with comprehensive advice on protecting themselves sexually and emotionally.

By contrast, the UN report that comprehensive sex education permits young people to ‘explore their attitudes and values, and to practice their decision-making and other life skills they will need to make informed choices about their sexual lives’. Non-judgemental, comprehensive sex education (CSE) has been linked to higher self-esteem and safer sexual practises among adolescents and young people.

Abstinence-only programmes

Often, non-secular and non fact-based abstinence-only sex education reinforces antiquated gender stereotypes. By encouraging female passivity and male dominance and accepting a sexual double standard of boys wanting sex and ‘good’ girls remaining chaste, AOUM education sends a slut-shaming message that disempowers women.

Traditional gender roles encourage rape culture as ideas that ‘boys will be boys’, and blame male lust and unwanted attention on immodesty. Society’s sexualisation of the female body is not addressed, nor the natural development of sexual urges in adolescence. Girls entering puberty that have received abstinence-only sex education often feel guilt and shame as educators suggest that chastity is conducive to a woman’s worth and marriageability.

Insufficient sex education can lead to depression, risky behaviour, low-self esteem and isolation. As girls tend to start puberty earlier than boys, they often suffer more confusion and frustration about physical, emotional and sexual changes in addition to moral and religious pressure to abstain from sexual activity. Depression is more prevalent in teenage girls who develop earlier.

With a lack of access to accurate information about preventing STDs and pregnancy, rates often soar. In Uganda, 7% of the population are HIV positive or have AIDS. A quarter of teenage girls are pregnant or already mothers. The prevalence of STDs and teenage pregnancy have not prevented the government from enforcing a strict ban on Comprehensive Sex Education. Young unmarried mothers are often ostracised from their communities and families and are expelled from school. Without education on safe sex and available contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are jeopardising the academic success and body autonomy of many young women all over the world.

Americans who have only received AOUM education are statistically less likely to use condoms or be aware of STD testing and how to prevent pregnancy. In the USA, just 55% of boys and 60% of girls report (2015) having received information about contraception. There, $2 billion of federal funds have been spent on Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) programmes since 1982 and only 13 states mandate that sex education provides accurate, scientific information about sex. False messages are based on the premise that abstinence is the only way to effectively prevent pregnancy and STDs. Educators incorrectly suggest that a 43 day old foetus is a thinking person, that condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission thirty-one percent of the time and that ten percent of women who have abortions become sterile.

Other sexualities

Abstinence-only education is particularly damaging for LGBTQ youth. Heteronormative programmes leave LGBTQ teens unprepared sexually – in the USA, they are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies than their heterosexual peers.

Eight states limit what can be said on homosexuality and stigmatisation increases harassment of LGB teens in schools in abstinence only programmes. Bullying of LGBTQ youth is significantly lower in states with inclusive sex education, and bisexual youths were significantly less likely to feel depressed.

Sexually active youth and survivors of sexual abuse

AOUM sex education often proposes that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is a sin, shameful and something that reduces our value as a person. The message that extramarital relations are impure and ‘ruin’ a person fundamentally has a very negative impact on sexually active teens.

The programmes’ tendency to promote traditional gender roles and failure to hold men accountable for their actions may further increase confusion and self-blame for survivors of sexual abuse and assault. The focus on virginity as a measure of purity and goodness may cause survivors to view themselves as ‘tarnished’ and unworthy of love, impacting their self esteem, mental health, and making them feel unable to share their experience for fear of judgement.

Comprehensive sex education

Comprehensive Sex Education focuses on gender empowerment, equality and human rights. By recognising sexual activity amongst young (unmarried) people as normal and healthy and discussing consent, it works to ensure safe sex practices, alter social norms and gender expectations and promote an inclusive society.

Internationally, CSE should encompass sexual and reproductive physiology, HIV/ STD protection, contraception and unplanned pregnancy, values and interpersonal skills, and gender, sexual and reproductive rights.

Limitations of comprehensive sex education

Comprehensive Sex Education can be very empowering and effective when taught properly. More and more governments have been expressing plans to deliver comprehensive sex-ed and health services to adolescents over the past decade, but a lack of teacher training in sex education can cause misinformation and confusion. Over half of teachers surveyed in Peru by the Guttmacher Institute hadn’t received proper training in sex-ed before teaching it. Nine out of ten teachers surveyed in Ghana had taught students that condoms are ineffective in preventing pregnancy.

The Netherlands are setting an example

The Dutch system mandates comprehensive sex and relationship education, starting in primary school. Though content differs by school, it must promote sexual diversity and assertiveness. Students are given age-appropriate lessons that help them to discuss, relate and express their boundaries.

Non-judgemental sex education, free access to the contraceptive pill for under-21s and condoms available in vending machines are largely responsible for the low STD and HIV rates. Teen pregnancy rates are some of the lowest in the world, and access to contraception has not led Dutch teenagers to start having sex any earlier than American or European teenagers from other countries.