A Canadian high school student and her mother are taking their objections to abstinence-only education all the way to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, saying that making the teen sit through a Christian-based course about sexual purity violated her rights as a nonbeliever.
Last year, when Emily Dawson’s public school required her to attend a two-day abstinence education class delivered by a conservative religious group, she was shocked by what she heard from the speaker. “She did a lot of slut-shaming to the women, and pointed out the guys as horn-dogs,” Emily, who is now 18 years old, recounted to the Edmonton Journal. She also said that questions about same-sex relationships from LGBT students were immediately shut down.
Emily’s mother, Kathy Dawson, tried to pull her out of the course so she wouldn’t have to attend the second day. But school officials told her that attendance was mandatory in order for Emily to pass her Career and Life Management class. High school students in Alberta can’t graduate without passing that class.
So Dawson decided to sit in on the abstinence lecture to experience it for herself — and, as a single mother, she was personally offended by the messages about families like hers. Dawson told CBC News that the speakers were essentially “bashing” single parents, saying that their kids are “prone to depression, suicide, juvenile delinquency.”
The two-day course was provided by the Pregnancy Care Centre, an anti-abortion group that’s affiliated with a network of right-wing “crisis pregnancy centers” in the United States called Care-Net. Both groups advocate against sex before marriage and consider themselves to be part of the pro-life movement. Dawson, who identifies as an agnostic, signed a permission slip for her daughter to receive sex ed — but she had no idea that these groups were going to be providing it.
“It’s values-based sex ed and all the values are evangelical values,” Dawson told the Edmonton Journal. “It’s not even mainstream Christianity. I’m not against abstinence. But I think the message is diminished when it’s surrounded by misinformation and fear.” She alleges that Emily’s abstinence-only course told kids that most boys have HPV under their fingernails, gonorrhea can kill you in just three days, and girls need to dress modestly to avoid tempting boys.
Emily’s public school district maintains that the abstinence assembly meets school guidelines. So the mother and daughter brought their complaint to the human rights commission, citing a section of Alberta’s Human Right Act — legislation that was enacted in their province in 2009 — that gives parents the right to exempt their children from courses that cover sex, sexual orientation, or religion. This week, the commission agreed to review that complaint.
Here in the United States, similar faith-based groups are involved in developing abstinence education curricula implemented in school districts across the country. These courses typically tell students that sex will make them dirty, and drive that point home with exercises that compare sexually active individuals with chewed up gum, dirty chocolate, and spit. It’s not uncommon for public schools to host mandatory assemblies focusing on these topics. Last year, a West Virginia high schooler made national headlines after she protested being forced to attend a similar “slut-shaming” course.
Proponents of abstinence-only programs typically claim that teaching kids medically accurate information about their bodies will convince them to start having more sex. But there’s actually a large body of research that’s confirmed the kids who receive accurate information about sexuality, contraception, and STDs are more likely to delay having sex until they’re older. Nonetheless, there aren’t currently any national standards for implementing comprehensive sex education classes in public schools.