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Christina Pesoli Headshot

How Abstinence-Only Messages Steer Girls Wrong

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"Why buy the cow if the milk is free?"

That's how the expression went when I was growing up. In this eloquent allegory, cows symbolize young women, milk symbolizes having sex, and the act of buying symbolizes getting married. Reverent and beautiful imagery, I know.

The moral of this cautionary tale of animal husbandry is that no man would be foolish enough to marry a woman who has sex with him before he, as Beyoncé would say, "puts a ring on it." Everyone knows the only reason men get married at all is so they can get some action. Why else would a man be willing to live in close quarters with such an inferior creature?

Until very recently, I thought the notion that women were chattel had been put out to pasture. But probably because I myself am one of these inferior creatures, I was wrong. Apparently, young women are still being steered into to believing their value depends on their marketability. And as a result, they are being schooled to never, ever forget that their sole objective is to maintain themselves in a condition that will maximize their chances of persuading suitable men to close the deal.

I expected to have to raise my daughter to be strong enough to resist the constant barrage of marketing pitches specifically targeted at her age demographic. After all, there are tons of wicked smart people who dedicate their lives to figuring out ways to convince every adolescent and teenage girl in the country that she simply cannot live without a long list of products. But I didn't expect to have to protect my daughter from the message that she herself is the product being marketed.

A recent statement by Elizabeth Smart made me realize that no matter how far we've come, we still have a very long way to go. Following the liberation of the three women in Cleveland who were kidnapped, sexually assaulted and held captive for ten years, Smart -- a survivor of a similar ordeal herself -- weighed in on the psychological factors at play for such women during captivity.

"I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence," Smart recounted when speaking at Johns Hopkins University. "And she said, 'Imagine you're a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that's like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you're going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?'"

In the wake of Smart's remarks, other bizarre analogies used in abstinence-only education came to light. One such analogy involved an actual demonstration with a plate of cookies. The teacher broke the cookies into pieces, threw dirt on them, and then asked the class, "Who wants cookies now?"

Much has been said about how these analogies sabotage the recovery of women who later become victims of sexual assault by making them feel like they are permanently damaged or even worthless as a result of the assault. But the problem with these analogies isn't just the danger they present to girls who may later become victims; the problem is the messages themselves victimize all girls who are exposed to them.

When girls are raised to believe their value is tied to their marketability, the determination of their self-worth is always in the hands of others. That means they cannot rely on their own ideas of right and wrong when it comes to what kind of person to be, because their judgment does not matter. It's only the opinions of those in the marketplace that are important.

Another message behind these analogies is that sex before marriage converts women into damaged goods. Once a woman has sex, she is irreversibly defiled and can never be "pure" again. Referring to losing one's virginity as losing one's virtue is just one way we reinforce this harmful fallacy. Virtue and virginity are not synonyms; they are two very different things. The former is something a person aspires to live with her entire life, while the latter is something that will be lost in the normal course of a healthy life.

At the end of the day, sex is an activity or a type of behavior. Activities can be started or stopped: You can take up running or you can quit running. Behavior can be healthy or unhealthy: You can be a wine-with-dinner kind of drinker, or you can be a fifth-of-scotch-before-work kind of drinker. Just as binge eating or irresponsible drinking does not corrupt a person's character, having sex in less than ideal circumstances does not somehow diminish a person's intrinsic value. At any time a person can elect to eat healthy, drink responsibly (or not at all), or change her sexual behavior.

There are plenty of reasons to wait to have sex. One major one is the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy and the serious ramifications associated with such an occurrence. Another reason is the possible negative impact sex can have on one's health, whether physical or emotional, depending on the circumstances.

My message to any girl would be to wait to have sex until she is at an age and in a position to both minimize the risks and maximize the benefits. (And in all of our haranguing about sex, we would do well to remember that there are numerous healthy upsides to this activity, too.) In my view, this means waiting at least until a person is in college and in an exclusive relationship with someone she loves. But if a person becomes sexually active and later concludes that the circumstances are not healthy, the time was not right, or the decision was otherwise not in her best interest, she can always change what she's doing. Learning and making adjustments are important parts of living both consciously and conscientiously.

My daughter is a person, not a product being packaged and marketed for purchase by someone else. When reaching a decision, I don't want her to consider the imaginary opinions of members of some hypothetical pool of potential husbands. I want her to take into account solid information, seek the advice of people whom she trusts, think things over for herself and then arrive at decisions that make sense to her. If she makes some questionable or even regrettable choices along the way, I want her to always know that she has the power to correct course. When it comes to her self-worth, the only opinion that matters is her own. After all, that's why it's called self-worth.

So, rather than asking, "Why buy the cow if the milk is free?" or more "modern" interpretations of this question involving sticks of gum or plates of cookies, I have a different question -- and my question is for adults rather than girls: Why are we still cowing girls with this kind of bull at all?