There’s No Such Thing As Safe Sex

I’m finally working on chapter four of my dissertation which is the chapter in where I incorporate content analysis of abstinence-only until marriage sex education [AOUM]. In the introduction to Sex In Crisis Dagmar Herzog writes, “This book has been an agony to write.” It’s not totally appropriate to say that getting to chapter four has been an agony but it has certainly been a long journey. In some ways, my own experiences with AOUM, beginning when I was 14, are what created the curiosity around virginity that has led to this dissertation.

Although I’ve read and written about AOUM for years I’ve had to rely primarily on secondary sources because, it turns out, AOUM curricula are ridiculously difficult to get a hold of. Libraries don’t have them and I don’t know mean my library doesn’t have them. I mean that, through the consortium libraries of which Purdue is a part, I have access to some of the best education libraries in the country and I have pestered their librarians with questions about curriculum resources and how to find these things. Finally, the wonderful education librarian at Purdue was able to help me acquire four of the most prominent AOUM curricula for this content analysis that pulls the elements of my previous chapters together.

Engaging with these materials directly has reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with my colleagues in history. So, to my history cohort, yes, you were right. Being able to engage with the primary sources does reveal a lot of important information I would never have had access to otherwise. That said, I was also right. In reviewing what I know about AOUM and what I’ve found in my content analysis I’ve realized that most of the secondary sources available of AOUM are organized around a specific principle. In general, there seem to be two streams of thought which are (1) the medical inaccuracies of AOUM and (2) the gender stereotypes encoded in most AOUM. These are both important things and they need to be talked about.

What I’ve been surprised to find in these materials are the ableism and classism. I’m not surprised in the sense that I thought these things would be absent from the curricula, but I am surprised by how very present they are. I’m looking forward to meeting up with some colleagues at NWSA to discuss a future panel that discusses the ways in which AOUM excludes students with ADHD and ASD.

But none of this long preamble is actually my point. This is just me working through a lot of thoughts on what has been a long process. My main point is this: there is no such thing as safe sex.

This refrain is something that is often touted in AOUM–any sexual activity outside of marriage is dangerous because it can lead to disease, unplanned pregnancy, or emotional harm. The promise of AOUM is that if people avoid sex outside of marriage they will also avoid disease, unplanned pregnancy, and emotional harm.

In my work, I am interested in looking at what actually happens if a girl actually follows all of the rules. What happens to the girl who is white, middle-class, able-bodied, able-minded, and a virgin until marriage? What if she marries a boy who is the same? Do they have a magical sex life with no unexpected repercussions in the form of disease or emotional harm? Of course not.

First of all, for all of their concern about the spread and harm of STIs the authors of AOUM never mention urinary tract infections. I imagine this is because UTIs kind of blow their whole argument to smithereens. UTIs are one of the most common STIs and can happen between monogamous married couples simply because the shortness of a woman’s urethra and its proximity to her anus means that almost every woman will get a UTI at some point in her life. This doesn’t even begin to discuss the possibilities of yeast infection which, though not technically a STI, can be exacerbated by partnered sexual activity. We haven’t even begun to talk about the sexual complications that can arise after the complications of childbirth (even if that child is healthy, wanted, white, able, and middle-class). From these very real and normal physical complications emotional complications can arise.

And here’s the real kicker, even if there are no physical complications, emotional harm can still happen. It can happen because one partner has a higher sex drive than the other which results in the partner with the higher sex drive feeling rejected or the partner with the lower sex drive feeling pressured or both. It can happen because one (or both partners) have an incredible amount of guilt around sex resulting in emotional outbursts after PVI which leave partners feeling wounded, rejected, or angry. It can happen because partners don’t know how to articulate their needs and wants which will likely result in uncomfortable and unpleasurable sex. All of these issues are exacerbated by an AOUM culture that discourages talking or thinking about sex before marriage.

There is no such thing as perfectly safe sex. Instead of promising a mythical marriage where there will be no physical or emotional pain we should be honest with young people and teach them how to navigate the inevitable challenges and pain that come with sex, relationships, and their combination.

To some, the above conclusion seems absolutely obvious and it is a mystery that AOUM has persisted so long. Next week I’ll be posting about how and why AOUM advocates and critics consistently talk past each other.


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