Reposting: Why I'm Not Teaching My Kids Abstinence

This is a repost from a series I began back in April about what we communicate to our children about their sexuality. I’m putting it up again now because I’d like to return to the topic and I thought it might help to bring new readers up to speed. At the bottom of this post are links to the follow-up posts that I’ve already written–which rely heavily upon the great input received in the comments. I’ll be posting the next installation sometime in the next 24 hrs. If this is a topic that rings with you, I hope you’ll jump into the discussion. Thanks for reading. – Rachelle

What I Think About Kids & Abstinence

“Don’t you remember at church, when they told us it was better for us to come home in a pine box than to lose our chastity?”

-Sarah Henrickson (18) to her brother Ben (16)
Big Love

I grew up in the church. The conservative evangelical church to be exact. Sundays and Wednesdays were spent at the Lutheran Church, and Monday-Friday at the Assemblies of God private school (chapel three times a week, Bible class every day, choir, and optional 7am prayer meetings.) If you’ve ever seen the fantastic dark-comedy Saved, then you have seen my life. It’s like a hidden camera reality show based on my high school, only with better hair.

Growing up, the message I received was that the absolute worst thing you could do was to have sex outside of marriage. It was worse than getting drunk. Hell, it was worse than DRIVING drunk. Sex, actual intercourse, was totally forbidden. All the other bases were either totally verbotten or pretty damn bad. Oral sex. Very Very Bad. Groping of all kinds. Bad. Making out in your boyfriend’s car. Not great. Kissing. Tolerated –but not on school grounds, of course, or you would be given a two day suspension. Holding hands? Well, okay, but only holding hands; certainly not putting your arms around someone’s shoulder. Anything and everything you might do with someone of the opposite sex was cloaked in shame. Tickling? Shoulder rubs? Boy-girl stunts in cheerleading? It was all highly suspicious. (Do I even have to mention that doing anything with someone of the same sex was completely off the charts? You might as well pick up a ‘go directly to hell’ card.)

We had sex education, once, in fifth grade. It was mostly to make sure everyone was in the know about getting your period. I suppose the boys had a similar filmstrip about unwelcomed erections, but I’m not sure. It was the 80’s and AIDS education was huge, so even in Christian school you got a little mention of condoms. You never actually saw one, no one ever demonstrated how to use one on a banana for instance, and they were definitely NOT distributed in health class. The main idea was, “Abstinence is the Answer”, and everyone from teachers to pastors to parents was 100% on-message. And the teens, well, everyone had to sign on. (Or at least pretend to.)

Over and over again the messages we received were distilled in our hormone-soaked brains down to this one echoing refrain:

“Sex is a terrible, awful, shameful thing you save for the one you love.”

I recall one youth group session in which a cartoon was placed on the overhead projector. It showed a pit dug into the ground with a ladder in it. Each rung of the ladder had a physical act on it. The top rung was holding hands, the next one down was kissing, then making out, petting…you get the idea. The last rung, in the bottom of the pit? Yep. Sex. This kind of illustration was pretty common, and usually came along with a sermon about how “your body is a temple” – followed by a round of fast food and artificially sweetened cola. One of my favorite variations of this youth-group sex scenario was told to me a few years ago by a fellow seminarian. He told me, in all seriousness, that he was teaching his youth group that “Sex is like a wild, vicious, hungry lion, and you DO NOT want to go putting your head anywhere near that lion’s mouth.” (How he got away with using “sex” and “head” in the same sentence in a room full of teenage boys without the place exploding into laughter is beyond me.)

I know that the intentions of my teachers, youth group leaders, pastors and parents were good. I know they were trying to protect us from getting in too deep, too fast. I know they wanted to save us from harm, hurt, and, I suppose, hell. But the reality is, all they did for me was create a space in which to grow shame, guilt and dysfunction. And oh, how it grew! Here’s a short list of the messages I carried away from my abstinence experience:

-Every physical impulse you have towards a boy is wrong–probably even sinful.

-All the natural, normal parts of growing up and falling in love –physicality of any kind—are wrong and unnatural.

-If my body want this, then my body is bad. (This combined with the typical magazine spreads with size 0 models and pimple-free skin, and you can see what that did for a teenage girl’s body image.)

-If you don’t plan for sex, it’s not as bad of a sin. (Therefore, don’t own birth control or condoms.)

In spite of this, there were boys who got lucky and girls who went all the way. There were girls swept off to the Crisis Pregnancy Centers and expelled from school—or worse yet, allowed to stay but banned from all extracurricular activities–like going to the basketball games or walking down the aisle at graduation. (The boys on the other hand, never seemed to get into much trouble. I don’t recall any of them getting kicked out or shamed out of leaving.) And if anyone ever had an abortion, well, they kept it as a dark secret, and went through the experience without any help or counseling.

Because of my experience in abstinence programs– and because of the way my experience was echoed again and again in the shameful tears full-grown women brought to me during my tenure as a pastor –I am not raising my children under the banner of abstinence. Being physical and having sex are natural normal parts of growing up. We are physically and chemically programmed for it. We are culturally conditioned for it. It is a part of our healthy emotional development. I want my children to grow up in an atmosphere that acknowledges this reality—one that is shame free, where their bodies are seen as being ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,” and where their hearts can be trusted to lead them in the right direction. My intention, my deep hope, is to raise them in such a way that they will carry with them these messages:

-Your body is amazing. You can trust it to tell you what you are physically ready to do.

-Your heart is your guide –you can trust the wisdom of your own intuition in making choices.

-Sex is something you move into one step at a time. Each step is good. Each step is appropriate. You– and only you–get to choose when you are ready for that step.

-As a romantic relationship grows deeper emotionally, it’s natural for it to grow deeper physically.

-Planning for sex and being prepared to protect yourself and your partner is smart, responsible, and essential.

-You have the right to say NO. And conversely, you have the right to say YES.

Rather than telling my kids “Sex is a terrible, awful, shameful thing you save for the one you love.” I want the messages I give them to be able to be boiled down to this:

“You are capable of building a relational history you can look back on without regret.”

A friend of mine bequeathed that turn of phrase to me. We were drinking margaritas and talking about sex. (What else do you talk about after you’ve had a couple of margaritas?) She was telling me about her major high school boyfriend, and being in love, and what her parents and his parents thought about them having sex (or not). She said, “I never wanted to have sex in the car. I always wanted to build a sexual history I could look back on without regret, and I didn’t think I could do that if I had sex in the back of his Camero.” That’s pretty self aware, don’t you think? Pretty well-reasoned for a seventeen year old. Build a history you can look back on without regret – or at least, with as little regret as possible. I think, all told, that’s the best we can do. That’s what we humans can hope for: safety, respect, and a collection of memories held without shame.

So when it comes to sex and all its accoutrements here’s my parenting pledge:

-I promise to make talking about sex as natural and open as possible. (We’ve already got quite a track record.)

-I promise to help you access birth control and protection. (Yes, even for the masculine kids in the family.)

-I promise to help you assess what your heart and body is ready for, if you want to talk to me about it.

-I promise to give you accurate information about your body and its needs, to the best of my ability.

-I promise not to shame you for wanting physical contact with someone you care about.

-I promise to do whatever I can to make sex a wonderful, beautiful, joyful thing you give to the one(s) you love.

What will you teach your kids about sex? Any conversational tricks to share? Stories that worked out well? Do tell…

Further posts on this topic:
Follow the Discussion here.
Thoughts from the comment gallery.

another Rachelle June 13, 2008 at 6:25 am

Oh goodo! I have been eagerly awaiting follow up posts!

Leslie June 25, 2010 at 3:20 pm

It’s amazing to me that I’ve stumbled into this post JUST at the right time. My husband and I have been talking about this for awhile–the whole failure of the abstinence movement. He’s been working with HS students for years and sees that the messages we keep giving them are so unhealthy!

I grew up in a very similar religious upbringing so I can totally related to everything you shared. What jumps out at me now that I’m reading it is that no one talks about how to change this perception of sex (it being nasty and wrong and sinful) once you do get married. How is one to truly enjoy something that’s been forbidden and talked about with disgust? Really?

I love the pledges you’ve made to your girls. How wise is that. I will be sharing this with my dh and then writing our pledges (which may be the same).

THANK YOU so much for this!!!

Melissa October 3, 2010 at 8:20 am

Wow. Rachelle, the more I read on your site, the more I think you and I are on the same wavelength. I’m going to print this out and add it to my notebook of important things to keep in mind as my children grow… :) Thank you SO much.


Alexis October 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Hi! I’ve been reading lots of your blog posts within the last hour or so (yes, I’m sleepy and you’re an awesome blogger!!!!). I gotta reply to this one…

I was brought up in Catholic schools (till high school, where I decided to homeschool), so I got that same talk, every year, from fifth grade onward. In high school, my family converted to just plain Christianity, and I got involved in the youth group there that met while our parents were in the big church (side note: nice way to teach a kid that not all people who call themselves Christians act like it, especially when you don’t look like or grew up like them… but I digress…). Guess what talk I got again??? The most effective thing there though was not the “STAY AWAY GRRRRR”. This pastor was good about talking about sex. Instead of damning us all and saying that sex was bad and everything, he was very natural and at ease about the subject. What I remember best is him putting a piece of tape on a guy and taking it off, then going on to the next person and so on with random people he pulled from the mini-audience. He said that that is what it’s like, leaving a piece of yourself with that person.

I don’t think that sex is bad, and I don’t think that I’d go to hell for it. I also don’t think that it’s something I personally want to do before marriage. Odd coming from a 22 year old, huh? This is based upon religion and my trust issues. I know that if I had sex with a guy and he left, I’d feel horrible and more depressed and bad than ever. I have a boyfriend who thankfully is understanding about it all, and actually has a goal to do the same. I want the man I marry to know that I waited for him, that I saved myself for him. Really, I like waiting. It shows me what guys are worth my time. :)

I love that you’re so great about it with your kids. I love the line you put in this post. I know my mom would flip (though she had a kid at 14), and my dad would shoot the guy if I had sex and they found out, lol.

Oh, and I figured you’d get a kick outta this… My boyfriend said that, when he was a young teen, a pastor at his Southern Baptist Church that his family still goes to (without him) sat him and a group of other teen boys down, then proceeded to solemnly and seriously tell them this: “Jesus lives in all of us. Don’t poke Jesus.”

Still haunts my boyfriend to this day!!!!! lol

Your new fan,

Rachelle October 11, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Hey Lexi!

You know, I think it is true that you do leave a piece of yourself with each partner. An energy exchange. An emotional connection. It’s so important that we each be aware of that and assess whether that exchange/leaving/investment is something we are prepared to offer to our partner(s). Good for you for knowning yourself, and for honoring what is right-fit for you at this age and stage of your life.

Much Warmth,


John December 28, 2012 at 8:08 pm

I was born into a moderately religious CofE family in the UK. Both parents went to Sunday school, and my dad is proud of the Bible that he was presented with for 100% attendance, but they never indicated they wanted me to attend, so my only experience of Church was at Christmas with my parents and occasionally school plays.
I was brought up with an understanding that everyone deserves respect regardless of beliefs, colour, gender or background, although I am sometimes ashamed to be my colour or gender given the atrocities in the world, both past and present.
In my CofE school we had just one 40min sex-ed lesson in the classroom learning about the difference between boys and girls and what happened, then one 40min sex-ed video which was mostly cartoon style. Then about half a term spent learning about how flowers and plants polinate!…
But it is refreshing to read about Rachelle, about how her beliefs had sprung leaks… My dads previous strongish faith in God and the Bible has left him almost completely the past 10yrs, instead becoming more spiritual, but that too is leaving him in his old age.
My belief has always been in “fate”… Everything happens for a reason… If Rachelle’s faith, her belief hadn’t sprung leaks, would I be here now writing this? How many of us would be reading this, questioning how we have grown from the place we were sent to to study to where we are in the world today?… I personally think Rachelle’s faith, her way of seeing a more maternal way of plugging those leaks in her life, in her faith whilst not abandoning what she was taught as a child, is a strength many people lack… If only the human race could be so forgiving, kind and understanding in life… x

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