Outside religious circles, abstinence education gets praised about as often as Donald Trump's hairdo. Whether it's a public school curriculum or just the teachings of a church Sunday school class, encouraging youth to delay sex and choose a partner carefully usually gets branded as damaging or even sometimes "slut-shaming." Abstinence advocates are frequently accused of manipulative tactics or outright deception; discouraging use of birth control; and setting pre-marital virginity up as an ideal state apart from which women face "a kind of damnation," as Andy Kopsa noted in a recent piece on the reality show Preachers' Daughters.
Though plenty of abstinence education's critics raise fair concerns, I have not found the central aim to be harmful. My long, if often reluctant, season of chastity has actually made me more of a feminist and a better, more whole woman.
As with most polarizing terms, "abstinence education" means many things to many people. In this country, it encompasses a range of conversations, from those between parents and children to those within religious communities to some programs in public schools. Regardless of the setting, most apologists for abstinence encourage teens to delay sex—usually, but not always, until marriage.
My abstinence education occurred mainly at a medium-sized, non-denominational Bible church my family attended, when our junior high Sunday school class went through part of Josh McDowell's Why Wait materials. Though my memory of the sessions is sketchy, the gist was that Christians are called to submit all parts of our lives to God, including our relationships. Because the Bible presents sex as intended for marriage, I was taught that sexual abstinence before marriage was as an expectation similar to telling the truth or not stealing.
I don't remember much about what other, practical reasons may have been presented for waiting, but the teachers also encouraged each of us to think about concrete standards for ourselves—how far we would be willing to go on a first date, for instance. Regrettably, I don't recall any counsel on how to announce those boundaries or speak up when things got too far. (I naively planned to disclose my standards when a guy first called to ask me out.)
Perhaps because they knew what I was learning in Sunday school, my parents' sexual guidance was less didactic. Dad often discussed Proverbs with my siblings and me, especially the chapter warning against adultery. They never gave me an official sex talk, though, because by junior high, I'd learned about the mechanics of sex from romance novels. When my parents did discuss sexual ethics, it often came out in Dad's regrets that he'd had sex before marrying Mom, which they said hurt their relationship (he became a Christian when he was 19).
Later as a college student, I read or heard many more apologies for abstinence that introduced other arguments and justifications, many faulty and some perhaps even oppressive. Some books implied that God would provide marriage—and sex—only once you stopped looking for or wanting it ("it will happen when you least expect it!") or as reward for sexual obedience. Others thought abstinence would pay off in even better sex once you got married, like God gave virgins a special orgasmic boost for waiting patiently.
No matter how poorly people made the case, though, the underlying theme has continued to resonate with me. You don't owe your body to anyone. Be selective. Take your time. Wait for someone completely committed to you, who wants your well-being more than he wants your body.
For various reasons, I didn't really start dating until my 20s and, as it happened, most men who asked me out did not share my religious beliefs or commitment to saving sex until I was married. Because one's sexual values don't always come up in a first conversation, I usually managed one or two dates before the abstinence disclosure.