The Politics of Virginity
Abstinence in Sex Education
by Alesha E. Doan, Jean Calterone Williams
May 2008, 208pp, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-0-275-99009-1
$55, £43, 48€, A76
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eBook Available: 978-0-313-07182-9
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Federally funded programs of abstinence-only education in public schools injure women’s physical and psychological health, violate the Constitution, and flout the will of the majority of Americans.

Abstinence is currently taught as the only form of sex education in a third of public schools. Although most Americans oppose federal funding for abstinence-only education, the federal government has spent more than $1 billion on Title V and community-group programs that promote abstinence before marriage as the sole healthy and moral choice. Studies show that students in abstinence-only programs are no more likely to abstain from sex than their peers who are in comprehensive sex education programs. Moreover, argue Doan and Williams, abstinence-only programs perpetuate gender stereotypes that disproportionately constrain women, retail medical disinformation, and violate the separation of church and state.

Doan and Williams detail what abstinence programs teach students, expose the political and religious agendas behind them, and analyze the damaging effects to women of the resurrection of the chastity belt: including sexual disempowerment, distorted power dynamics in relationships, increased vulnerability to sexual assault, increased emotional vulnerability, increased risk of unintended pregnancy, and STD/HIV infection. By focusing on the marriage of morality politics with gender politics and of ignorance with chastity that underlies abstinence-only education, the authors fill a major gap in the literature of reproductive politics and policy.


"The notion that the only sex education teenagers need are zippy t-shirt slogans like “Earn your right to wear white: ABSTAIN” would make many of us who remember being a teenager snort with laughter. It's hard enough to get a teenager to clean their room—forcing them to abstain from one of life's most pleasurable activities? Forget it. As The Politics of Virginity points out, a recent survey shows that, despite the preaching of abstinence, half of US teens engage in sexual intercourse. But while these school curricula, supported by America's religious conservatives, may not be stopping teenagers from having sex, they are far from benign. Alesha Doan and Jean Calterone Williams detail the insidious dangers of “morality politics” that is thrusting outdated notions of gender roles and sexuality on to young people under the guise of tackling disease and teenage pregnancy. Moreover, the decision not to educate teenagers about emergency contraception may mean that a young person ultimately finds herself having to choose between an abortion or an unwanted pregnancy. Many of these abstinence-only lessons tell teenagers that “normal” young women don't want sex outside of marriage and that girls do not have the same “biological urges” that boys have. Most repellent of all, several curricula exhort young women to dress conservatively so as not to provoke young men into a sexual frenzy that could lead to assault." —The Lancet, September 1, 2008

"This book attempts to explain how conservative Christians have politically mobilized to support abstinence-only sex education policies in schools. Doan (Univ. of Kansas) and Williams (California Polytechnic State Univ.) show that the interest groups on the Christian Right are pursuing a stealth political strategy to achieve their goals by inserting abstinence-only provisions in omnibus congressional bills....Recommended. General readers, students of all levels, and research faculty."—Choice, December 1, 2008

"An indictment of abstinence-only curricula."—Education Week, August 13, 2008

"This book has a message that extends well beyond abstinence education: Public policy is sometimes less about achieving particular goals and more about enforcing particular value systems. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the policy implications of morality politics."—Kevin Smith, Professor, Dept. of Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

"The Politics of Virginity is an important contribution to our understanding of why abstinence-only education has gained ascendancy in our public schools, what this means specifically in terms of curricula, and how the lessons of these curricula endanger teen girls. Doan and William's extensive interviews compellingly show how abstinence-only curricula cause young women to internalize messages that make forethought and self-protection less likely before they engage in sexual activity. They also show that sexual violence remains a primary influence in the construction of sexual selves for many young women and that the neglect of this fact in abstinence-only education has a destructive impact on their lives."—Valerie D. Lehr, Professor of Government/Gender Studies, St. Lawrence University

"The Politics of Virginity is a thorough, well-researched, and politically astute analysis of more than two decades of disastrous sex education in America. Interviews with students provide the element that is most needed to reform policy: the voices of the victims of abstinence-only education. These students tell us what real life is like. Their experiences cry out for the solid, unbiased information that can help young people deal with the complexities of sexuality and realize the promises therein of deepening relationships, self-knowledge, and pleasure."—Judith Levine, Author, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex
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