In response to a viral TikTok video by “Nurse Holly”, Rachel Campbell discusses the dangers of abstinence-based sex education.
A TikTok user known as “Nurse Holly” received criticism recently after posting a video claiming: “Did you know … the best way to prevent STDs is waiting for sex until marriage.” Viewers such as @bunnmomma on Twitter were disappointed that a nurse would have this response, stating “Did you know it’s unethical and damaging to the patient-nurse relationship when u [sic] make judge-filled, untruthful comments like these, nurse holly.” Some also argued her video was ignorant to the variety of situations those who contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may have been in, as @megaholt on Twitter wrote in response to the clip: “Nurse Holly also seems to forget that not everyone has the choice of waiting until marriage. Sexual assault and abuse happens.” It sparks a conversation about whether it is the right of those teaching sex education to bring their own views, religious or otherwise, into play.
“Teaching abstinence is the reason teens get pregnant, [and contract] STDs, because they are uneducated about protecting themselves,” states @run_chloe in response to Nurse Holly’s TikTok. Of course, people are entitled to their own religious opinions on the link between sex and marriage, but in a world which is becoming more and more secularised, it can be argued that favouring abstinence over teaching young people about other ways of protecting themselves against STIs and unwanted pregnancy may have an adverse effect. Purity culture (the idea that abstaining from sex until marriage makes you pure) may discourage young people from seeking out information from reputable sources, and they may feel misinformed and embarrassed if and when they do decide to have sex. It seems potentially dangerous to present a message based on abstinence in a society where most people do have sex before marriage, as it creates a stigmatisation around sex and therefore around sexual health.
This is particularly alarming considering under 25s experience the highest rates of STIs in Scotland. In fact, 75% of women diagnosed with chlamydia in Scotland were under 25, as the last update of the Sexual Health and Blood Borne Framework found in 2015. Whilst this is due for its five-year update in the next year, it seems there is still an issue of misinformation and stigmatisation surrounding sex and sexual health with young people, and continuously instilling the idea of purity instead of educating under 25s about protecting themselves may have a detrimental effect.
My own experience of sex education at a non-denominational school was largely limited to a description of cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied sex, STIs, and how to find your way to the nearest sexual health clinic. After speaking to several of my peers who attended Catholic schools, it seems their experiences were even further from comprehensive, with abstinence-based messages being their main take-away. In a survey of students, some responses were: “There is no LGBT sex ed – very bad for society”; “I was never taught about how my heart condition would affect sex and contraception”; and “By the time I received any useful information I had already learnt it for myself out of necessity.” From speaking with others, there emerges a collective feeling that there are gaps in the curriculum for those who are LGBTQ+ or who have a disability. Even for those who do fit the “norm” decided in these lessons, the information is lacking, especially when this idea of purity reigns above all else in the eyes of some educators. This leads to young people having to find this information for themselves. It is true that today there is much more access to reliable, accurate information surrounding sexual health and relationships online (where most young people will turn to for this information), but is it right that they are left to find these sources for themselves when they feel their sex education is lacking?
It could be argued that considering the amount of information available in the media today regarding sexual health and relationships, there is still a place for abstinence-based messages in schools (religious or non-denominational) for those who believe waiting for marriage is the right choice for them. Netflix’s popular show Sex Education gives information about different sexualities, abortion, sexual assault, internalised homophobia, consent, and much more, all while remaining an engaging and entertaining programme which young people may be more inclined to learn from than information given in a classroom setting.
YouTuber Hannah Witton makes content about sex and sexual health, including a series entitled “The Hormone Diaries”, which discusses periods and contraception. Her videos, blogs, and books discuss a whole range of topics including sex and disability, body image, choosing the right period products and contraception for you, abortion rights, and collaborations to discuss LGBTQ+ sex and relationships. Her channel has nearly 600,000 subscribers, showing there is an audience looking for this information which they do not, or did not, receive at school. With sex and sexual health becoming more widely discussed and accessible, perhaps it is true that abstinence has a place as an option, though it doesn’t seem as though it should be presented as the best or only option. It could also be argued that with the time and resource constraints they have, schools could never teach the same amount of information that is available from other sources, such as the two I have discussed. However, it does seem that the basic information which schools provide is lacking, even if it were only to act as a springboard to encourage young people to seek out information they need regarding sex and sexual health.
Ultimately, it can be argued that abstinence has a place in the sex education curriculum as an option, but it seems that submitting it as the best or only option is dangerous considering the large numbers of young people contracting STIs in Scotland. Enforcing the idea of purity limits the education of young people about other forms of protection, and in a society where the majority of young people will have sex before marriage, it seems important that they are well-informed and the stigma surrounding sex and sexual health is diminished. Of course, each person’s religious and moral views are valid, but to limit the education of young people due to these views, in a way that could affect their health, would not be fair.