The Bible Belt in the southern United States is known for its conservative values, which are largely influenced by the popularity of evangelical Christianity in the region. When looking at sex education, policymakers in the area tend to prefer abstinence-only-until-marriage education, if anything, to be implemented in schools.
The Bible Belt is generally considered to be the cluster of states in the southern United States where conservative evangelical Protestantism is, by far, the prevalent belief system of residents. This area includes (but is not necessarily limited to) Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
In this article, we'll look at data on the sexual health outcomes in the Bible Belt, as compared to relatively liberal New England, to understand how the lack of comprehensive sex education — and the popularity of abstinence only education — contributes to inequality in our country.
Personal Values or Human Rights Issue?
Whether comprehensive sex education should be available in schools is often seen as a matter of personal values and belief systems. Critics of comprehensive sex education argue that the sensitive topic of sexuality should be left to parents and caregivers to address in a way that reflects their family’s values. In the Bible Belt, these values often stem from conservative Protestantism, which deems non-marital sex a sin. Proponents of abstinence only education claim that it will delay sexual behavior until later in life and reduce the number of partners students have, which will lead to lower rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It is true that successfully refraining from sexual activity is the most certain way to avoid STIs and accidental pregnancy, which is a strong argument in favor of encouraging abstinence among youth. However, many people find abstinence hard to implement, and it severely limits options for sexual expression and intimacy.
While some see sex education as a matter of personal values, others see it as a human rights issue. According to the United Nations Population Fund (the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, also known as UNFPA), “comprehensive sexuality education empowers young people to know and demand their rights.” UNFPA argues that access to information about sexual health can have a “cascading effect” on human rights. For instance, accidental pregnancy in adolescence can cause girls to drop out of school, preventing them from accessing their right to an education. Also, a lack of information about gender equality can perpetuate gender-based discrimination and abuse. A lack of access to comprehensive sex education is at odds with the human rights of education and health as they are stated in various international agreements (including this one and this one).
The majority of Americans (73%) and health professionals support comprehensive sex education. Even in the Bible Belt, public support of comprehensive sex education is high. In North Carolina, 72% of parents support birth control education in schools. 90% of South Carolina residents support comprehensive sex education in public schools (data from SIECUS, 2018). 80% of voters in Texas support teaching about contraception in public schools. However, policymakers do not always act in favor of public opinion on the issue.
Abstinence-Only Education: Goals & Tactics
Abstinence-only education is one of the main types of sex education currently being implemented in the United States. In 2017, one third of government spending on teen sexual health education went to abstinence-only programs, totaling around $90 million.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the main goal of abstinence-only education is to teach students to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. Abstinence outside of marriage is promoted as a goal in and of itself, as opposed to being solely a means to achieve desired sexual health and wellness outcomes.
Abstinence-only programs tend to focus on the possible negative consequences of non-marital sex and have faced criticism for their use of scare tactics. Examples include showing gory medical photos of bad cases of STIs, as well as exaggerating the risk of pregnancy from protected sexual activity, and downplaying the effectiveness of contraceptives in preventing pregnancy and STI transmission.
It is not uncommon for abstinence only teachers to use shame as a tool for discouraging non-marital sexual activity, as well. One classic example of this that has been used in abstinence only classes across the nation is the “chewed gum” metaphor: The teacher asks two students to come to the front of the class and gives one of them gum to chew. The teacher then instructs the gum-chewing student to take the gum out from their mouth and offer it to the other student to chew. Of course, the second student is expected to refuse the gum, out of disgust. The teacher explains that this is what having premarital sex is like – you become undesirable like chewed up gum, and you have nothing of value to offer to your eventual husband (these messages are generally directed at girl students, and heterosexuality is assumed). Other popular metaphors used in abstinence only classrooms include the used piece of Scotch tape (gets less sticky), and the old sneakers (smelly), both of which give the same message: Girls and women who have sex with more than one person throughout their lives are dirty and undesirable.
Side note: The 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls famously parodied the scare tactics commonly used in abstinence education programs. The film features a scene in which the school's sex education teacher, Coach Carr, warns the class, “Don't have sex, because you will get pregnant and die! Don't have sex in the missionary position, don't have sex standing up, just don't do it, OK, promise?” This use of “promise?” pokes fun at the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs and “promise rings,” which many evangelical Christian teens wear as a way of showing their commitment to abstinence from premarital sex.
While this parody is amusing, the use of shame tactics in discouraging sexual exploration has a serious impact. For some, the shame and repression that these messages encourage lead to negative effects on their abilities to enjoy sexual expression later in life. Additionally, sexual shame may prevent individuals from prioritizing their own preferences and desires in sexual interactions, which can increase their vulnerability to sexual coercion and assault.
Abstinence Education & Religion
Religion plays a large role in the promotion of abstinence education, and is often used as an argument for discouraging non-marital sex. Whether religiosity is effective at preventing young people from engaging in sexual activities is highly debated. In the US, approximately 12% of girls and young women make a vow to abstain from sex until marriage. One study found that young women who pledged to remain abstinent until marriage (often on the basis of religious convictions) were two-thirds less likely to become pregnant before age 18. Another study found that young adults who made a virginity vow in adolescence were 25% less likely to contract an STI. It is possible, though, that young people who are less likely to become sexually active in their teen years are more likely to make the pledge in the first place, which would mean that the encouragement to take a vow of abstinence may not have had much of an impact on their sexual health outcomes.
Research on the effectiveness of abstinence vows gives mixed results. A 2016 study found that adolescent girls who took virginity pledges and then became sexually active were at an increased risk of contracting HPV or becoming pregnant, compared to sexually active girls who did not pledge. This may be explained by the finding that those who make and break a virginity pledge are less likely to use contraception when they first have intercourse. Additionally, a 2017 study found that highly religious college students reported fewer strategies for reducing their risk of accidental pregnancy and STI transmission.
Comprehensive Sex Education: Goals & Tactics
The goal of abstinence-only education to reduce non-marital sexual activity can be contrasted with common goals of comprehensive sex education programs, which more directly relate to public health. These programs tend to include priorities such as: educate students about methods for preventing unintended pregnancy and STI transmission, equip students with knowledge about all their reproductive health options, and give students space to define their individual values around sex, as well as identify and understand the values of their parents and communities. In other words, their goals tend to focus on universally agreed upon positive public health outcomes, like the reduction of unintended pregnancies and STIs, rather than morality-based control over young people’s sexual behaviors. Proponents of comprehensive sex education generally avoid making moral judgments about non-marital sex in their teachings, other than that it “should avoid risk and be non-exploitative.”
Sex Education Policy in the Bible Belt
*A note on Tennessee: In TN, sex education is required if the pregnancy rate for 15-17 teen girls is 19.5 or higher.
While five of the eight Bible Belt states mandate sex education (though, of these, one only mandates sex education if the pregnancy rate for teen girls ages 15-17 is higher than 19.5%), only one requires that the information taught be medically accurate. Not one of the eight Bible Belt states requires that their sex education programs be unbiased. Also, none of these states ban sex education teachers from promoting religion in their lessons. In Mississippi, localities need to seek approval from the state department in order to include information on contraception or STIs in their lessons. Plus, only four of the eight Bible Belt states mandate condom information be included in HIV education, despite the fact that condoms are, by far, the most effective option for lowering the rate of HIV transmission on a societal level (since abstinence is often not successfully carried out).
*This data is from Guttmacher Institute as of 2019.
Sex Ed in the Bible Belt vs. New England
The Bible Belt is thought of as being more conservative than most other areas in the US, but does it really have a more conservative approach to sex education? To give a clearer picture of whether the Bible Belt’s sex education is representative of the US as a whole, it may be helpful to look at some data from New England, an area with a reputation for its liberal politics.
FYI: New England consists of six states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Sex Education Policy in New England
In terms of policy, New England appears to be surprisingly similar to the Bible Belt. Of the six New England states, only three of them mandate that sex education be taught in schools, and only two mandate that it be medically accurate. However, there are a couple of noteworthy differences. First, all eight of the Bible Belt states require that sex education classes promote marriage, while none of the New England states have this requirement. Also, only three of the fifty US states require that exclusively negative information be shared about sexual orientation, and all three of those are Bible Belt states. In contrast, all six New England states have laws that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination, while no Bible Belt states have these laws.
Despite the unexpectedly similar policies, looking at sexual health outcomes in the Bible Belt versus New England shows some clear differences. Bible Belt states have some of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy in the country, and they are consistently higher than New England’s rates.
STI Rates: Bible Belt & New England
Rate per 100,000 Population
Teen Pregnancy Rates: Bible Belt & New England
Number of pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15-19
Are the (somewhat underwhelming) differences in state policies enough to account for these considerable differences in sexual health outcomes?
Looking at state policies for sex education is helpful in understanding the state of sex education, but it is equally important to look at what is actually being implemented. This is where the differences between sex education in the Bible Belt versus New England start to become more striking, which may help to explain the differences in sexual health outcomes.
Contraception Education: The Bible Belt & New England
Percent of schools that reported teaching about contraceptives in grades 9, 10, 11, or 12
Despite their similar policies, Bible Belt states actually implement comprehensive sex education far less widely than New England states.
The average percentage of schools that teach students about condoms in grades 9, 10, 11, or 12 is roughly 50% in the Bible Belt, as opposed to roughly 83% in New England. Additionally, this trend is the case across almost all of the sexual health topics that SIECUS measured, including information about other contraceptives, preventative care for sexual and reproductive health, sexual orientation, gender roles, gender identity, and gender expression, all of which were taught significantly more widely in New England schools.
Unequal Access Means Unequal Wellness
The data suggests that unequal access to sexual health information creates unequal health and wellness outcomes. Negative health and wellness outcomes can limit individuals’ opportunities to work, get an education, and pursue their interests. Health issues can also come with large financial costs, which contribute to poverty and debt. Furthermore, a lack of sex education prevents individuals from making informed decisions about their bodies.
In addition to sexual health education, the prevalence of sexual consent education in a region can also impact wellness outcomes. Sexual assault is, unfortunately, incredibly common in our country — 43.6% of women and 24.8% of men in the US report experiencing sexual assault in their lifetime, according to the CDC. It is encouraging to note, though, that young men who are informed about the definition of consent for sex (e.g., “must be fully conscious and must feel free to act”) are less likely to perpetrate sexual assault. Since knowledge of sexual consent is shown to be an effective protecting factor against perpetrating sexual assault, there is a strong argument for including sexual consent education in schools.
Additionally, the negative representation of homosexuality in Bible Belt sex education programs contributes to homophobia, discrimination, and negative mental health outcomes for homosexuals. Interviews with homosexuals in the Bible Belt suggest that the prevalence of negative beliefs about homosexuality contribute to a variety of personal issues, including depression, low self worth, and fear of going to hell.
In addition to failing to provide sufficient sex education, Bible Belt states also tend to put stricter restrictions on abortions. These restrictions prevent people who are able to become pregnant — especially poor folks and folks of color — from being able to choose when and whether to have children, as the barriers to having an abortion are difficult for many to navigate.
The reality is that almost all Americans have premarital sex (roughly 95% by age 44). Increasing access to comprehensive sex education, regardless of the marital status of students, would likely improve sexual health outcomes on a large scale. Withholding this information interferes with individuals’ abilities to make choices that promote their well being and puts people with less access to information about sexuality at a disadvantage.
This article was written by Pleasure Pie founder Nicole Mazzeo. Nicole is a former evangelical Christian and current agnostic sex educator with a passion for helping people learn to talk honestly about sexuality and overcome sexual shame.