There is no federal law in the United States that mandates or regulates sex education. Instead, it is a local issue, and each state can decide on its own whether sex ed merits teaching in the classroom.
As a result, only 24 states and Washington, D.C. require by law that sex ed be taught in public schools. What's even more shocking is that only 13 of those states require the information taught to be medically accurate. That means the majority of American schools can teach kids whatever they want — whether it be based on science, effectiveness, faith, shame, or nothing at all.
In the current environment, far too few opt for comprehensive sex ed, which includes coverage of sexual decision-making, consent and the proper use of contraceptives. Abstinence-only sex ed is taught in 37 of the 50 U.S. states, and far too often, it utilizes a slew of shame-based and misogynistic metaphors to scare kids away from premarital sex by comparing those that have it to ruined objects that have lost their worth.
One of the shame-based metaphors most prominent in abstinence-only sex ed throughout the country is that of tape that has lost its stickiness. In this popular demonstration, exemplified in the YouTube clip below, a volunteer — almost always a teenage boy — is asked to come to the front of the class and "have sex with his girlfriend." For the purposes of the demonstration, that simply means an instructor sticks a piece of tape to his arm. The tape, which is meant to represent his high school girlfriend, bonds to the boy's arm immediately. This is meant to represent how sex immediately bonds two people together.
However, in keeping with the national statistics on high school sweethearts, the teen volunteer and "his girlfriend" ultimately break up. This means he is asked to rip the piece of tape off of his arm. When he does, the instructor holds the piece of tape up for the rest of the students to see. Once transparent, adhesive and new, the piece of tape is now covered in hair, skin, lotion, cologne and anything else the volunteer had on his arm.
The instructor then calls up additional male volunteers to "date" the teenage girl. However, when those boys attempt to stick the piece of tape to their arms, parts of it fall off as it has been sullied and lost its ability to stick.
"This is what happens when we have multiple partners before we get married," Shelly Donahue, who has created a national abstinence curriculum that has been taught in 48 states and 7 foreign countries, explains in the YouTube clip below. "We give up our ability to bond."
The spit cup
In another popular shame-based metaphor taught throughout the country, an instructor holds up a glass of clear water for a room of students. She then passes the cup down the rows of desks, asking students — again, mostly male students — to take a sip, swish it around in their mouths, then spit the water back into the cup. When the cup finally reaches the front of the room again, it is no longer clear, but rather a murky mess of cloudy liquid and food particles.
In many of these demonstrations, the instructor then pulls a new, unsullied glass of water out from behind her desk and holds it up next to the "spit cup." "Which one of these girls would you want?" she asks. "The pure one or the one who has had multiple partners before marriage?"
Yet another lesson popular in abstinence-based curricula is that of the rose. In this demonstration, an instructor will show a beautiful red rose to a classroom full of students. He will smell it, feel the smooth texture of its pedals between his fingers. Then, the instructor will tell the students to pass the rose around and do the same.
After the rose has made its rounds through the many desks of teenagers — or occasionally the pews of a church — the instructor will ask for it back. Now, the rose is much worse for the wear. Its stem is often broken, its pedals disheveled and falling off. And the demonstration culminates with the instructor, much like the minister detailed in the YouTube clip below, asking the students, "Who would want this?"
The chewed up piece of gum
In this example, an instructor will tell children they are all like pieces of gum and that having sex is like being chewed. If you then have sex with multiple partners, you became a piece of gum devoid of flavor and without worth. And who would want an old piece of gum?
In 2014, during a poignant and emotional speech at Johns Hopkins University, Elizabeth Smart revealed she had received this abstinence-only sex education lesson prior to her being kidnapped from her room as a child. While in captivity, she was then repeatedly raped by her captor. And that lesson – that teacher who told her that she would be a worthless, old piece of gum if she engaged in premarital sex – not only stayed with her, but it also made her wonder whether there was any point in trying to escape.
"For me, I thought, 'Oh my gosh. I'm that chewed up piece of gum,'" Smart told the audience of gathered listeners. "Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that's how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued, if your life still has no value?"
In all of these shame-based examples, people who engage in premarital sex are presented as tarnished objects. There is no mention of consent, and no reference to how LGBTQ couples can engage in healthy sexual relationships. And all too often, these heteronormative demonstrations make it clear that the tarnished object in question is meant to represent the woman involved in the act. Consequently, students may leave with the impression that women who have sex with multiple partners are damaged goods, while men do not share the same set of consequences.
Americans today know all too well that that is not the case. And as the country grapples with both the #MeToo movement and the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses, it might be prudent to take a closer look at the lessons we're teaching American children about sex. Otherwise, we are sewing the seeds of sexual violence – and acting surprised when those seeds bloom.