The war on abstinence and fidelity

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | August 18, 2016

A recent comment in The Lancet makes the case that when it comes to international HIV/AIDS prevention, abstinence and fidelity should be abandoned in favor of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE).

Titled “A farewell to abstinence and fidelity?”, the brief article was written by authors from UNAIDS, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, and University College, London. Discussing the High-Level Meeting on Ending Aids held in June, they wrote:

Many socially conservative Member States, in alliance with the Holy See, argued against the deletion of abstinence and fidelity as core components of effective HIV prevention. They were urged on by actors on the margins who provided delegates with misinformation and spurious arguments in opposition to comprehensive sexuality education.”

Proponents of CSE will not tolerate even the inclusion of abstinence and fidelity alongside other measures; only deletion will do.

What nobody disputes is that abstinence and fidelity, when practiced consistently, are effective in preventing HIV, crisis pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections, not to mention the emotional and psychological consequences of sex outside marriage. While CSE advocates frequently claim that abstinence education is ineffective in changing behavior—certainly a disputable claim—they show little interest in coming up with more effective abstinence-based curricula. Rather, they seek to impose a set of values around human sexuality that are highly controversial and, in many parts of the world, utterly unacceptable.

Particularly when it comes to young adolescents, sexual activity can have devastating consequences, and brings no benefits. The fastest-growing health risk for adolescents around the world is “unsafe” sexual activity—but it isn’t as if “safe” sexual activity is beneficial to them, nor consequence-free.

We have new data from the U.S. showing that abstinence is not only plausible but a lived reality for a large—and growing—percentage of adolescents. Teaching young people the value of fidelity and abstinence to their long-term wellbeing is something worth doing, and finding ways to do better, not something to be discontinued for the purpose of promoting a harmful ideology of human sexuality.

Because in the end, it is about ideology. One of the common tropes we hear is that CSE is about science, while abstinence and fidelity is about religious beliefs. From the Lancet piece:

With scientific evidence rather than dogma, countries should adopt and implement a progressive agenda to end AIDS and ensure sexual health and wellbeing for all.”

Ultimately, scientific data can help us to find and evaluate better ways to teach adolescents people how to exercise responsibility with regard to their sexuality, starting with risk avoidance. But starting with a harm reduction approach that presumes that self-control and fidelity are beyond the scope of the world’s young people is an ideological move, not a scientific one—it’s just motivated by different dogmas than those of the world’s major religions.