The Problem With Abstinence-Only Education by Hew Li-Sha

Written for the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM) Hew Li-Sha is a practising corporate lawyer and feminist.

At seventeen, when asked to share something interesting about myself, I boasted to the entire class that I was a virgin.

I was not, but I had just attended an abstinence workshop that encouraged a sanctimonious attitude. The workshop was a weekend of passionate facilitators, persuasive slide presentations, and interactive activities. We were shown tearful videos of people who had regretted their decision to not save themselves for “the one”, and inspiring videos of couples who had. We were taught that holding hands would lead to sex (till this day, I’m still waiting for the many men I’ve held hands with to also offer me their penis) and that casual sex would lead to HIV. We were told frightening tales about having sexual urges and were given pledge cards to sign, formalising our promises to not indulge in the same. However, the workshop did not stop us from having sex. If anything, sex became a secret we had to keep to ourselves. We became experts at this. After all, we were told to be proud of our virginity. We were strong. We were heroes. We were saving ourselves.

My confidence at seventeen should have been bolstered by educated choices, and not fear. Choices are empowering. An abstinence-only education assumes that teenagers will stick obediently to their pledges when it actually stigmatises those who do not. They are seen as less pure, and more troubled. A friend of mine who broke his abstinence pledge struggled badly with this guilt. It was a commitment he believed he had to keep because he was promised a more fulfilling life by doing so. He would slump in the library and groan, “I won’t do it again, I promise”. But he always did it again, and always regretted it. Having had sex meant that it was too late for him, because he had given his gift away. It meant he was doomed to live a life of regret, just like in the videos.

Abstinence also gives too much value to the importance of a traditional heteronormative family. Those who choose not to marry should not be denied a healthy sex life. Again, abstinence invalidates choice. It idolises the idea of marriage when in reality the issues of unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual violence are not exclusive to unmarried couples. It also denies queer sex and ignores the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. Sex should be seen as a pleasurable experience, that can be had in many different ways, but an abstinence-only education tells us that there’s only one way.

In a world where sex is so accessible, telling teenagers to not have any sort of sex is unrealistic. It is estimated that an average of 18,000 girls become pregnant in Malaysia every year. A hundred of these girls will abandon their babies out of guilt and we don’t help by shaming them. Instead, we need to trust our youth more by creating safer spaces for them. Sadly, despite the existing curriculum on Reproductive Health and Social Education, we’re still not taking sex education seriously. In fact, the National Population and Family Development Board still has a pinned tweet from 2019 on abstinence. Its moral-policing hashtag reads “SayNo2Zina”, and its website promotes the idea that abstinence allows students the freedom to be themselves. However, equating freedom with self-restraint is a dangerous paradox.

Comprehensive sexuality education is often misunderstood as encouraging “​seks bebas​” when it’s about being non-judgemental and helping teenagers make informed decisions about their sexual health. These discussions will help teenagers become more comfortable with their own bodies, and discover pleasure. Yet, many students do not have access to information and many are misinformed. According to a 2015 survey, 35% of Malaysian female youth believe that having sex for the first time does not lead to a pregnancy. Schools should be teaching teenagers about contraception, STIs, respect, and consent. Teachers should be providing medically accurate information and answers to questions about sex and relationships, without any judgment. We need to also make contraceptives more accessible to the youth. Let them take turns putting on a condom on a banana. Tell them where the nearest Klinik Nur Sejahtera is. Teach them about sex.

Talking to teenagers about sexuality issues is a difficult conversation because it means admitting that the children we have watched grow up are finally becoming adults. Yet, difficult conversations are often the ones we need to have the most. My friends and I now embrace these conversations about our own sexualities, but it took many years before sex became less of a shameful secret of ours. Giving teenagers the knowledge and access to contraception is a positive approach that reaffirms values more important than chastity such as equality, empathy, and responsibility. Whilst abstinence may be a valid and fair choice for some, it may not be for all. After all, sex is never a one-size-fits-all, no matter what the box says.

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