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The Origins of the Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed Movement

Examining the religious right's motivations and influence

Published onDec 01, 2022
The Origins of the Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed Movement

In a Wisconsin school district in the 1990s, there was great controversy among parents regarding sexual education. A Milwaukee Sentinel article [1] explains how parents were having a colorful debate at a Menomonee Falls Board of Education meeting over whether their children should be subject to comprehensive sexual education in classrooms. Half the parents advocated for education on the issues of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and safe intercourse. This faction argued that students ask questions on these topics, so they might as well be taught the facts. The other half of the parents argued that abstinence is the only form of acceptable sexual education. These individuals believed that comprehensive sexual education should only be taught in the home, not by teachers in the school.

Sex-education protestors like those at the Wisconsin meeting.

 The Menomonee Falls meeting is just one instance of thousands of school districts across the United States having the same debate. Sex education had long been (and remains) a hotly contested topic in the American education system. While the setting and details of each individual debate varies, the overall premise remains the same. The liberal side believes that students should be taught about safe sex, as it has been proven to be the most effective way to reduce unwanted adolescent pregnancies. The conservative side, on the other hand, believes that abstinence is the only method to prevent such pregnancies.

While it is evident that abstinence-only education does not work, the religious right has long been determined to establish this type of sexual education across the United States. Much of this stems from religious motivation. Since many members of the conservative community believe that pre-marital sex is a sin, they subsequently think you can only teach students that they should not have sex.

Religious right political advocacy began as a cultural battle, with momentum coming from liberal victories such as the legalizing abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision. However, the fight was soon repurposed as one concerning individual rights and liberties. Andrew R. Lewis, author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, best defines this change: “These conservatives have shifted from defending cultural and biblical morality to cultivating a rights-based advocacy strategy, achieving considerable success in politics and especially law.” [2] As any casual observer of the modern American political system will tell you, this environment remains constant today.

Protestors displaying slogans used by the religious right.

The issue of sex education is just one avenue of creating change used by the religious right. While this movement still emphasizes the need for abstinence-based sex-ed, they have begun to employ a broader legal strategy to accomplish their goals. With prominent conservatives sitting on the Supreme Court and lower-level ones sitting on the boards of education across the country, it is clear that that these efforts will not slow down anytime soon.

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