Dear Pope Francis,
A couple of weeks ago, the provincial government of Ontario announced that it is introducing a new sexual education curriculum that would focus on teaching about healthy relationships, consent and internet safety. In light of some of the big events and scandals that have come to light in the last year alone about sexting, cyber-bullying, and sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, these topics seem more relevant than ever. However, in the Catholic world, people are concerned about how healthy relationships are going to be taught, namely that methods for safe sex will be taught, rather than abstinence. As a practicing Catholic with an awareness of the society we live in, I’m struggling to understand why safe sex and abstinence can’t be taught.
I will never forget my ninth grade health class, when my teacher’s mantra was “don’t do it until you’re 47”. She said it several times every class. But, part of the curriculum was to discuss sexually transmitted diseases, their symptoms and how to prevent their transmission, including safe sex. My teacher taught us the curriculum, but maintained throughout that that best way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, as well as teen pregnancy, was to not have sex. Basically, without using the word, she was making abstinence a norm as well as giving us the information necessary to make an informed choice about being sexually active. At no point did she sugar-coat the truth. She acknowledged that as teens and adults we would want to be intimate with our boyfriends or girlfriends, but she always reminded that those actions would have consequences. Maybe we wouldn’t get an STD or pregnant, but there could be emotional hurt and/or regret, perhaps in the moment, or perhaps years later.
So, while I affirm the Church’s understanding of sexual intercourse as something to be saved for marriage, and that’s a choice I’ve made for myself, it is an informed decision on my part. I know the risks of being sexual active with multiple partners, both physical and emotional, and I don’t want to take those risks. I am incredibly grateful that I was given the information and then trusted by the adults (most importantly my parents) in my life to make the decision for myself.
I concede that not every ninth grader (or teenager in general) would make the same decision I did. Statistically speaking, many won’t. But that doesn’t mean that teaching about abstinence in a hyper-sexualized world is outdated. I think now more than ever, young people, both teens and young adults, need to be reminded that abstinence is perfectly acceptable, whether or not you are religious. I didn’t attend a Catholic school, so my ninth grade health teacher didn’t base her beliefs about abstinence on faith principles. Instead she used common sense, “if you don’t want to have a child, then why are you doing the action that is properly meant to make a child?”
So am I concerned that abstinence probably won’t be taught at all? Yes. But I don’t think the answer is to only teach abstinence either. It shouldn’t be an either/or conversation. Teaching healthy relationships can, and should, include both abstinence and giving the necessary information for teenagers to stay safe if they choose be sexually active, which includes both the physical and emotional risks associated with having multiple partners. In a Catholic school, this should include the Church’s teachings on pre-marital sex, but the conversation on abstinence shouldn’t be limited to Catholic schools. It is important information for all people to have.