Whenever the subject material of an abstinence-only lesson is reported in the media, Americans are typically shocked to hear what kids are hearing in their classes or at their school assemblies. In addition to withholding valuable information about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, some of these courses also rely on harmful shame-based attitudes about human sexuality to impart negative messages to the 95 percent of Americans who have sex before marriage.
Here are five common analogies that abstinence-only curricula use to teach youth that becoming sexually active will make them worthless — and five good reasons that more states should enact comprehensive sex education requirements:
1. Dirty chocolate.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that a school district in Mississippi uses a Peppermint Patty in its sex ed classes. Allegedly, students are asked to unwrap the chocolate and pass it around to see how dirty it becomes after being touched by multiple people. A spokesperson from the school district says that while that lesson was part of a state-approved curriculum that passed three years ago, the “dirty chocolate” lesson is not currently being implemented. Nonetheless, there’s some evidence that this analogy isn’t unique to that particular district. Other internet commenters recall doing the same Peppermint Patty exercise in their own classes. Others did the “dirty chocolate” lesson with a Hershey Kiss.
2. Used tape.
Tape is another popular tool to demonstrate how sexually active teens become “unclean.” In these demonstrations, a piece of tape is affixed to a student’s arm, then removed, and repeated with several other students. This lesson is supposed to illustrate that, just like tape loses its ability to form a tight bond after coming into contact with multiple people, it’s hard to have an emotionally fulfilling relationship after having multiple sexual partners. Sometimes participants’ wrists are taped together to drive home the point further.
3. Chewed up gum.
Last year, a school district in Texas made headlines after some parents complained about a middle school curriculum that encouraged teachers to tell kids that having sex makes them like a used toothbrush or a chewed up piece of gum. Like the other examples on this list, that’s a popular analogy. Elizabeth Smart — the kidnapping and sexual assault victim who was held in captivity for nine months — famously pointed out emphasizing the importance of purity can make rape victims feel dirty and worthless, and described hearing the same lesson about chewed up gum when she was younger.
4. A cup of spit.
“Drink the spit” is an exercise that requires students to pass around a cup and spit in it. Then, students are asked if they would choose to drink that cup. The idea is the same as the chocolate or the tape lessons — having multiple sexual partners, and subsequently exchanging bodily fluids with multiple people, is undesirable. Sometimes the symbolism of this lesson gets pretty explicit. For instance, one variation involves pouring the cups of spit into an empty glass pitcher placed next to a pitcher of clean water. Students are asked to which pitcher they would like their “future husband” or “future wife” to come from.
5. A rose with no petals.
In this lesson, a teacher is instructed to “hold up a beautiful rose.” The rose is passed around the classroom, and each student is asked to remove a petal. Then, when nothing is left except for a thorny stem, the teacher explains that each petal symbolizes a sexual relationship, and this is what happens when people choose to give away the most personal part of themselves. “Ask: Of what value is the rose now?… The rose represents someone who participates in casual sex,” one curriculum instructs.
Abstinence-only programs have received over $1.75 billion in federal funding since the creation of the Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program, which was first attached to a provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill and has been periodically renewed since then. After this funding ballooned under George W. Bush’s administration, President Barack Obama eliminated Title V when he first took office. But during the political fight over the health reform law, Republicans forced through an amendment to Obamacare that restored funding for abstinence programs.
Some lawmakers continue to fight to end abstinence-only programs for good. At the end of last year, Democrats in the House introduced the “Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act of 2013,” a measure that the same group of lawmakers has repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — attempted to push through.