What’s In A Name (Abstinence Without Hyphens)

By Scott Phelps

Abstinence education is spreading dramatically across the country as more and more teens embrace the message that saving sex for marriage is the safest and healthiest lifestyle. However, there is a fair amount of uncertainty as to what to call these programs. Some of the most common labels are:

  • Abstinence-Only Education
  • Abstinence-Until-Marriage Education
  • Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage- Sex Education

The third option listed here is typically invoked by the most strident opponents of abstinence education who want to make abstinence sound narrow, restrictive and silly. What better way to do that then to throw in as many hyphens and modifiers as possible.

At the heart of the abstinence-label problem is, in fact, the hyphen. Hyphens dilute. They denote subsets. They allow for many different modifiers or types of “abstinence education.” For example:

  • Abstinence-Only education
  • Abstinence-Plus education
  • Abstinence-First education
  • Abstinence-Based education

This is problematic because the term “abstinence only education,” implies that there is such thing as “abstinence-plus education” when in fact there is not.

Consider the particular difficulties of the more precise label “abstinence until marriage.” Abstinence is necessarily about marriage. The end goal of abstinence is nothing less than the restoration of the institution of marriage in America today. As such, abstinence education is on the front lines of the battle to strengthen future marriages by helping teens to avoid the many potential negative consequences of sexual activity that can complicate and burden a marriage relationship.

However, if I claim to teach “abstinence-until-marriage education,” I concede that there are other types of abstinence education and that I have been careful to differentiate the kind that I teach – the “until-marriage” kind. But there is no other kind.

By specifying our type of abstinence, we invite others to specify as well. Unwittingly we end up allowing abstinence education to be modified at will resulting in: “abstinence-until-you’re-ready education,” or “until-you’re-in-love,” “until-you’re-in college,” “until-you’re twenty-one” — whatever. The result is that everyone is able to claim that they are teaching some type of “abstinence” chosen from the lengthy menu of hyphenated options.

No. It is far better to insist that if it isn’t “until marriage,” it isn’t abstinence. Period. There are not fifty-seven varieties of abstinence education, there is one.

Abstinence is our term. The whole thing. We don’t own a piece of it. We own all of it. We must not allow others to claim that they teach abstinence too – when in fact they do not teach abstinence at all.

The message of abstinence is being embraced by teens all across the country today largely because it provides an objective standard – a rock on which to stand. Indeed, the only 100% effective protection from the physical, emotional, mental, and social consequences of sexual activity is to save all forms of sexual activity for marriage. This message is properly referred to as abstinence education.
Scott Phelps is the founder and executive director of A&M Partnership. He is the author of five popular abstinence curricula and a national trainer for abstinence and marriage education.