Can we stop saying “abstinence isn’t realistic”?

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Elizabeth |

Next week, I’m conducting a workshop on communicating about adolescent pregnancy. (There’s still space if you want tosign up.)

All the planning has me thinking really deeply about the words we thoughtlessly use to talk about our work and how those words might undermine our work. “Teen”, “abstinence”, and “sexual health” are all problematic in their own ways.

Right now, I’m particularly bothered by the phrase, “abstinence isn’t realistic.” I’ve used this language, and you probably have too.

Let’s get this out of the way: Abstinence until marriage is not realistic. In fact, abstinence until marriage is far outside of American mainstream behavior. 91% of married men and 85% of married women in America had sexual intercourse before marriage, according to the CDC’s National Family Growth Survey*. This doesn’t account for additional sexually active people who have never been married (87% of men and 88% of women).

Here’s the problem: When I say, “abstinence isn’t realistic,” I’m likely putting one of the following thoughts in your head:

  • “Well some kids are just gonna have sex. (You know, those bad, slutty teens.)”
  • “This lady has given up on teens. She’s lowered her expectations.”
  • “We can still help the good kids wait until marriage.”
  • “She’s trying to cater to the most at-risk kids, not the majority.”

Saying “abstinence isn’t realistic” conveys a sense of defeat, and leaves the number of young people that statement applies to open to broad interpretation.

The truth is, almost every, single young person you know will have sex before marriage. It’s the same as it was when you were young. (Yes, it is.) But knowing that doesn’t change your obligation to help them stay healthy.

So, back to the linguistic question at hand:

How do we communicate the importance of helping young people stay healthy, knowing that their lives will – in almost all cases – include sex outside of marriage?

What can we say to the public that honors delaying sex until ready as an important personal health choice, but also recognizes the need to prepare them to be sexually healthy adults?

“Abstinence isn’t realistic,” doesn’t cut it. I’m open to your suggestions.

*It’s been this way for a long time. Premarital sex isn’t some newfangled thing, nor is its predominance. Rates of premarital sex haven’t changed significantly in decades. What has changed is contraceptive use. For example, for women who had their 1st sexual intercourse prior to 1980, only 43% of women used contraception at first intercourse. For those whose first sexual intercourse came after 1999, a full 79% used contraception at first intercourse. You go, safe ladies and gents!!! This also lends more evidence to the fact that contraceptive access doesn’t promote sex.


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