Teaching Abstinence Without Teaching Consent is Dangerous

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Shaney Irene’s blog. It was originally published on October 9, 2015.

Today, Christian magazine WORLD News published an article about California requiring schools to teach consent in sex education classes. Although not stated explicitly, it’s pretty clear the author, Laura Edghill, is not too happy about this. Only one of the four quotes given in the article is positive, and more time is spent discussing the supposed downsides of the bill, rather than talking about why consent is an important topic to teach. It also demonstrates that WORLD has no idea what teaching consent actually means.

“But advocates for abstinence education say that while preparing students to protect themselves from sexual assault is important, the “affirmative consent” conversation is based on the flawed assumption that the best we can do for students is teach them risk reduction, rather than risk avoidance.”

WORLD has long been a proponent of abstinence-based sex education, so it’s safe to assume that their readers are going to agree with what the abstinence educators say.

But here’s the thing: Teaching consent is not about “risk reduction” vs. “risk avoidance.” Teaching abstinence without teaching consent actually puts kids MORE at risk for sexual assault. Teaching kids to only have sexual contact within marriage won’t stop predators from attempting sexual assault. But teaching kids consent will enable them to recognize what they’re experiencing as sexual assault or not.

I know too many women who grew up in conservative Christian environments who experienced sexual assault, but did not recognize it as such at the time. Why? Because they were never taught that once they said no, the other person was committing a crime. They were never taught that only yes means yes. So they carried guilt for years, assuming they were complicit in sexual sin (“I must have tempted him in some way,” or, “I must not have protested hard enough,”) until they came across the concept of consent and realized they had been assaulted.

“Sex is like boxing. If both people haven’t consented, one of them is committing a crime.”–John Oliver

The rich part of this is that WORLD has reported extensively on the issue of sexual abuse. But in reporting to their readers that teaching consent is “risk reduction” while teaching abstinence is “risk avoidance,” they’re giving parents false information and exposing children to even more risk of sexual abuse. Not one instance of sexual abuse has been prevented by telling people to only have sex inside of marriage.

Assuming abstinence-based sex education will prevent sexual abuse is as ludicrous as assuming saying, “Don’t drive while under the influence of alcohol,” will prevent someone from getting hit by a drunk driver.

And this is a HUGE problem within the church, as this article from Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal describes. The church today does not understand consent. It assumes that teaching that sexual contact outside of marriage is enough, but it’s not. We must teach our kids that their bodies belong to them, and no one else can touch them without their okay. Without teaching consent, abuse will continue to run rampant.

So WORLD magazine, you are part of the problem. If you want to prevent more sexual abuse within the church, you need to stop acting as if teaching consent is a bad thing. You can start by giving away copies of God Made All of Me, a book written to teach consent to young children, to your readers.


  • I completely agree on the importance of teaching consent. It doesn’t just help victims realise that they have rights, it helps prevent sexual assault. If you know that it’s wrong for the other person to continue once you’ve said “no”, it’s easier to overcome a dislike of causing a scene.

    I wonder if the reason that abstinence-only sex education proponents would object to teaching consent is that, to teach it properly, you have to make it clear that consent only applies to what you consented to. If you agree to oral sex that doesn’t mean that the other person is entitled to intercourse. It takes away a fear that (allegedly) would keep teens from agreeing to have sex.

  • Evangelical, particularly patriarchal belief does not teach consent. Women are in role-prison and to submit. Women who have never been honored by being told of consent often end up saying, “I must have tempted him in some way,” or, “I must not have protested hard enough,” and they say this because they have been disrespected in the church and taught to disrespect themselves, to remain in ignorance for the Father’s sake. Consent is unknown and not allowed. When the time comes, they are to submit in marriage, and whether they consent or not is a moot point in patriarchal faith. Sex is a man’s right. Women should be joyful even if they don’t desire it at all at any time.
    The parent who teaches complete abstinence, teaches harm to a young person. Respectful caregivers share the importance of love and consent, not just regarding possible lovemaking but in all things. Young people who are respected and loved are not ordered around but given loving choices instead of threatening, loaded ones. When a young person chooses intimacy, it is no business of others (except of course, Pastor Doug Wilson, who will want to know the details and what kind of sex occurred and how often and whether it was oral etc. but Doug has special dispensation as a theological bully. His religion has a hunger, and big teeth. )

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  • I never thought about it before, but teaching consent also may help those who “stumble” from becoming full fledged abusers. there is a difference between a sin in God’s eyes and a crime in the laws eyes, and consent is the dividing point between the two.

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