This is a follow up of my previous Abortion debate question.

I confess that I have been brought up in a very traditional middle-income Indian family; and no-sex (abstinence?) before marriage is the common social norm here (at least in most of the middle income families). As a result when the terms like "condoms" and "contraceptive pills" (not talking about rape or incest but consensual protected sex) first appeared in our school textbooks, my first impression was, if these people want to prevent pregnancy, why do they have sex at first place? Why cannot they wait for a later period of time when they are able to have a planned pregnancy? Pardon, I was much younger then (age 17-18) and had not more deeply reflective social ideas.

Much later, I came to know through social media and movies that in many places sex is not seen as a sacred and preserved ritual but rather as a pleasurable activity, and young adolescents (especially college students) frequently have sex before marriage. This gave me a plausible explanation.

But what I then realized; just like condoms and contraceptive pills; could abstinence be a method for prevention of unwanted pregnancies? It took me by surprise because I had never seen this option in textbooks. Is there any reason why it is not preferred or advised?

Now, there is a downside to culturally taught abstinence. In a society where pre-marital sex is forbidden by social norm, if some 'teens accidentally try sex, people may see them as sinners or sub-humans. There may be huge social disturbances and unimaginably bad consequences. On the other hand, in a society where condoms are not a normal thing, shopkeepers and passerby may put taunting/sarcastic remarks or do gossip when somebody purchases a condom.

On the contrary, if there is no social norm, like no clothing (complete nudism) and complete random mix-up, there will be horrible consequences.

So my question is do we need to teach abstinence (to prevent unwanted pregnancies) and if yes, then what would be the proper method, so that the stigma does not arise. And what are the moral and ethical considerations of abstinence and uncontrolled sex?

PS. My pre-existing ideas could be completely wrong. Please educate me in a gentle manner.

PS. 2. I feel like sex-education or similar chapters in biology/ social studies/ any other lessons, should be taught in a culturally sensitive way, otherwise radical inclusion of ideas like pre-marital sex, dating, condoms etc. can cause a very deep shock and trauma.

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    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 5 at 22:08
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    "like no clothing (complete nudism) and complete random mix-up, there will be horrible consequences." I dunno, sounds like a good life to me? It is certainly hedonistic but you do need to prove that hedonism is immoral per se.
    – Stian
    Mar 7 at 8:41
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    How is this a question? We have solid evidence from the USA that teaching abstinence INCREASES most of the things you want to prevent, especially teenage pregnancies.
    – Tom
    Mar 7 at 12:27
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    @CitizenandSociety I am struggling to see what any of that has to do with abstinence. (In fact, all of those problems you describe appear to be more likely to arise in the common definition of "teaching abstinence" in North America, where I am from, since that avoids teaching about how to have good, respectful sexual relationships.) But at any rate, this does not answer my question: would I would like you to do is update your post to explain exactly what you mean by "teaching abstinence." What do you tell kids about sex and relationships, and what do you encourage/discourage them to do?
    – cjs
    Mar 8 at 9:00
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    @CitizenandSociety It would still be a good idea to update your question with details about exactly what you mean by "teaching abstinence." People should not have to read the comments or answers in order to clarify missing information in the question. (Remember, this is not a forum trying to maintain a historical record of what people said, but a Q/A site that is attempting always to present questions and answers in their best form. Thus, it's expected both questions and answers be updated as time goes on.)
    – cjs
    Mar 9 at 1:03

8 Answers 8


We should (and do) "teach abstinence" in the sense of talking about the consequences and risks of sex, teaching them about STDs, and recommending that kids wait until adulthood.

But when people talk about "teaching abstinence", that typically means teaching abstinence as the only preventative measure one can or should take, and that kids shouldn't be taught about things like contraception and consent.

The issue with this is that kids are going to have sex even if you tell them not to (as if teens are known for doing what adults tell them to...). When they do have sex, they'd be less likely to:

  • Take proper precautions, and they'd thereby risk contracting life-long diseases or becoming pregnant.
  • Properly understand consent, so they could think abuse and assault is just how things are supposed to be (whether as a victim or a perpetrator).
  • Report assault, because they may feel ashamed for having had sex (regardless of whether they initially consented or never consented).
  • Understand what sex "should" be like, so they'd be more likely to accept that e.g. pain is just normal and it's something you should just push through. For example, there's a common misconception that sex is supposed to hurt the first time for a woman as a rule, when that should be more of an exception. Pain is often a sign that something is wrong, which one should most definitely not just push through, yet that is what's often said.
  • Understand how bodies work, since sex ed and reproductive biology education are often inter-linked. Not understanding one's own body or the bodies of intimate partners leads to some dangerous misconceptions.
  • All of these things may also extend into adulthood, with the addition that people (usually women) might think that sex is just something they're "supposed to" do, even though they don't enjoy it. Proper sex ed would include mentioning that not everyone enjoys sex, no-one is "supposed to" have sex, and that different people enjoy different things (but you don't have to, and maybe probably shouldn't, detail what those things are).

Your last paragraph contains the heart of your problem.

otherwise radical inclusion of ideas like pre-marital sex, dating, condoms etc. can cause a very deep shock and trauma.

In reverse order, the trauma is not being caused to any child. The trauma is entirely yours, not theirs. Naturally these ideas conflict with your preconceptions, but as a responsible adult it is important to really examine how you're keeping your children safe.

Your preconceptions too are not even accurate for Indian society. Between a quarter and a third of young Indian people have had premarital sex - and a third of young Indian people have no idea about safe sex. Let's take it as a simple fact that a large minority of young people will have sex if you don't stop them. Then there are three possible options:-

  1. You can put in place a "morality police" to stop them. You then have Iran or the Taliban, and your son or daughter will be executed if they do. It's an option, certainly, but most of us don't want this.

  2. You can try to frighten them by saying how bad sex is, so abstinence is the only solution. That's been tried for hundreds of years, so we have hundreds of years of evidence that this simply doesn't work for a large minority (and possibly a majority). Maybe it worked for you, but it might not for your daughter. That's why it's not in textbooks so much these days, because we know it simply didn't work. More seriously though, it's girls who are taught how bad sex is. Boys are taught that it's the pathway to being a man. If girls don't want that, the inevitable consequence is either prostitution or rape - and both are huge problems in India, aren't they?

  3. You teach girls how to make sex not dangerous. Maybe this increases the number of girls having sex outside marriage - but it massively decreases the risk that they'll get pregnant or catch a disease, and those really are why you're trying to stop them having sex anyway, aren't they?

The conflict with your preconceptions is that this evidence-based teaching involves education to prepare children for things they're going to meet in real life. Most schools also touch on how interest rates work, how to write job application letters, how the government and voting works, and so on. Is it really radical to include sex and relationships in the list of things that people should know about? Knowledge doesn't make bad things happen - knowledge is how you stop bad things happening which would happen if you didn't know how to fix them. You need teaching to drive a car because it's dangerous if you don't. How much more dangerous is it for people to start relationships or have sex without knowing what's safe (physically and emotionally) and what isn't?

And as an extra bonus for the third option, if you reduce this stigma then people can properly talk about what consent in relationships means. They can also feel more able to report sexual assault and rape, instead of feeling it's a dirty secret they have to cover up. It's not just talking about the sex, it's also talking about all the other parts of a healthy (or unhealthy!) relationship. If you can't talk about the sex, you certainly can't talk about the rest of it.

In contrary, if there is no social norm, like no clothing (complete nudism)

There are many societies around the world where clothing isn't such a big deal. Even in India, male Jain monks can be naked without causing a riot. For tribes in many hotter areas of the world, it is normal for women to have bare breasts, and both men and women wear minimal loincloths at most, without there being chaos as a result.

More relevant to this topic though, a conversation about clothes leads into how women are not "asking for it" by wearing any particular clothing. If you think men can't help themselves, my evidence (as a man) is that all men certainly can - and the question is whether they choose to. So we're leading back into the discussion about sex and consent also involving boys, because I'm sure you would rather have a son who isn't a rapist! If you don't, they'll get their ideas about what's acceptable from whoever they see as a "strong man" - and that won't always be a good man, or a truthful man, or a knowledgeable man. Even if it's your vicar/rabbi/imam, are they teaching facts, or are they just passing on their opinion or someone else's opinion?

Can you be sure your vicar/rabbi/imam won't say that your daughter was "asking for it" if she was wearing a bikini? Or Western clothes? Or showing her hair without a cloak? Or showing her eyes with a niqab instead of a burkha? Or being outside at all without a male escort? Because I can guarantee that you'll find vicars, rabbis and imams who will say that, and that's because they may be in a position of power but they aren't all good people. The very least that schools can do is give out information - and this must not be culturally sensitive, because cultures are all really bad at ethics, and especially religious cultures. I'm not singling out any religion here - many are better than others, but any which embed gender imbalances into teaching are particularly bad. (Which, yes, does mean that Christianity is my top choice for a culture you don't want to be sensitive to.) So children need to be taught this without an option for parents to opt them out, because your children are literally at risk, possibly of their lives, if they don't get this information - and there is no guarantee they will get this information from anyone else.

  • 5
    @Fattie I'd prefer "presents" rather than "recites", because "recites" implies I'm merely presenting someone else's view. :) That aside though, the OP is already coming from a background of "the other side", and to her massive credit is asking for arguments why "the other side" is not now being given such consideration. We don't therefore need to give "the other side" for balance, because she is explicitly asking for why children are being taught they way they are in a secular society based around human rights.
    – Graham
    Mar 5 at 14:50
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    This answer presents one side of a historically-current political debate.
    – Fattie
    Mar 5 at 14:53
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    (Regarding my general point that "this is just politics", I note that already, for goodness sake, one side or the other has appeared, like clockwork, on this page, with the two most obvious statements ... "We're right because Facts" and "The other side is Evil".
    – Fattie
    Mar 5 at 14:58
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    @Fattie I don't disagree that this is more for Politics SE than Philosophy - or possibly Education or something like that. Re the sides though, if a religion/culture has had a thousand years of advocating abstinence and humans still aren't doing it, then "because Facts" isn't necessarily an unreasonable statement. :) I did lose some nuance too in trying not to let this get longer than it already has, but my position is not that "the other side is Evil" and more that "the other side institutionally doesn't stop individuals who are Evil" - which is subtle but significant.
    – Graham
    Mar 5 at 15:05
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    @morten Why would you say that? Of course the Taliban-style version results in executions for sex outside marriage (or at least shotgun marriages), and that's going to reduce prostitution; but trapping people in unwanted marriages does not stop them from being disappointed, bitter, depressed or angry. Evidence is that it isn't even that effective at preventing sex outside marriage, at least for men who overwhelmingly are privileged in societies which impose this kind of control. It certainly does not reduce rapes.
    – Graham
    Mar 6 at 15:03

I mean the obvious elephant in the room is that sex is a natural process and that having sex is a completely natural thing and that your body might even gear you towards having sex and reward you with pleasurable feelings for having it. Because after all it's the human way of reproducing and so a sex drive has also been reproduced and is innate to most people.

Likewise it's often naturally beneficial to reproduce as early as possible, because in the wilderness you could have died at any moment, meaning you wouldn't have reproduced.

Now we no longer life in the wilderness and despite being late compared to many other animals the age span from idk 11-14 is really young from what most societies think about that and it is apparently shifting towards even younger ages, apparently because of good nutritional diets as there is a suspected correlation between sexual maturity and weight.

So just because your body might already have grown your reproductive organs and occasionally releases horny hormones it might still not be a good idea to have sex and reproduce. You're likely still in school have no income, no house, no food on the table, no time or experience to care for a child when you're technically still one yourself. Also you're pretty weak and vulnerable compared to adults, on top of being psychologically impressionable and not very experienced in a lot of things.

So there might be good reasons to delay the process of reproduction culturally if a culture is constructed around favoring a later age of reproduction. But that isn't without consequences either. Like telling people that sex is a bad thing that it is sinful and shameful can leave them psychologically traumatized and even more vulnerable then before as they might not seek appropriate help when they had sex (voluntary but especially when it happened involuntary).

Also what do people mean by "teaching abstinence" like are they just telling them not to have sex or actually teaching them not to have sex? Like whether you have sex or not you should still know how things work and what is happening to your body. Suppressing any sexual desires is often harmful in itself and while some priests do it, that apparently hasn't worked great either. So even if you don't have sex you still have a sexuality so it's usually better to teach people how to have safe sex, how consent works, and what the NotThatGuy has mentioned then to likely still have all these problems or more because abstinence didn't work always.

Also Graham is correct, just because you have a bodily tendency towards something doesn't mean you inevitably have to do something and can't stop yourself. Though you're still likely have an easier time to stop yourself if you've learned about yourself and other people and how things work than being left alone with that.

In contrary, if there is no social norm, like no clothing (complete nudism) and complete random mix-up, there will be horrible consequences.

Also as Graham has said, no clothing is not an invitation and there are plenty of cultures that don't have clothing and not see it as sexual. That's also likely a cultural thing where a deviation from the cultural norm is working as a signal while a different culture might have different norms and signals. Also signals can be send by accident so being aware of that is also important.

  • 1
    @VGR Women have around 30 years in which they can have children, and can give birth at roughly 1-year intervals. (The time to become fertile again after giving birth is a bit variable, but that's a fair back-of-the-envelope figure.) So we can fairly easily say that our sex drive is evolved (or designed; I don't care for the purposes of this) for a world where only 1 in 15 children survive to adulthood. If more children than that survive, then in order to not overrun the environment, we either need less sex or less reproduction. If we still want sex, then clearly yes, it's a good idea.
    – Graham
    Mar 6 at 19:12
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    What a great and refershing answer!
    – Fattie
    Mar 6 at 20:25
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    @Fattie Typically in the wild, something (disease, famine, whatever) periodically swings a big axe on the population, which needs a larger population for some to survive. The average isn't necessarily on one generation - it could be averaged over centuries.
    – Graham
    Mar 6 at 23:22
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    @Fattie In modern settings, the "overrun" would be less Malthusian in environmental impact and more about how many kids you want to support. Since we no longer need to play the numbers game with children, we can invest more into fewer kids.
    – Graham
    Mar 6 at 23:25
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    @Fattie instead of claiming other answers be biased in a comment on several answers; write your own answer and let the vox populi be the judge. This "someone is wrong on the internet" - rampage you are on serves no purpose.
    – Stian
    Mar 7 at 7:46

In addition to the excellent answers already given, you may not be aware that in many places "abstinence education" is a euphemism for an educational course that is ideologically associated with coercing young people into abstaining from sex by any available tactics, including outright lies about birth control and STDs, and emotional blackmail such as telling girls (and, generally, only girls) that sexual experiences will turn them into undesirable "used-up" trash.

Unsurprisingly, such education, when given in lieu of basic biology, is associated with far higher rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. (Causality is a bit harder to determine, as there are no studies randomly choosing which regions get faith-based abstinence education and which regions get education based on scientific facts.)

Certainly sex education needs to be culturally sensitive, if only in presenting accurate local information about cultural expectations, but even teens who are expected to refrain from sex until marriage will benefit from learning basic biology and information about birth control and STDs. Even in the most conservative countries, the percentage of people who wed as a pair of virgins and remain faithful to each other for life is fairly low, and even in the most conservative countries families benefit from being able to space the births of their children out.

  • 1
    That's also what OP wants as an end goal (just with a slightly more modern coat of paint on it)
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 6 at 16:09
  • @Hobbamok What I "want" as an end goal, you think or assume?!
    – user72899
    Mar 7 at 11:23
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    @CitizenandSociety ", otherwise radical inclusion of ideas like pre-marital sex, dating, condoms etc. can cause a very deep shock and trauma." yeah uhm, I don't know why you're so adamant that you're not that kind of person when you blatantly state that you are. You fail to reflect on it because for you these are just -""""facts""" that you base your opinons on, but they are instead (quite fringe) unfounded beliefs rooted in your peculiar moral beliefs. And you are asking how to spread these moral beliefs by adjusting sex ed to conform to them. That is literally your question.
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 7 at 11:33
  • @Hobbamok See my other comment. How abrupt exposure is going to be more helpful than a gradual desensitization?
    – user72899
    Mar 7 at 11:37
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    @CitizenandSociety not directly but you want some of that time that could be spent on actual sex ed to teach, uhm, not having sex? And again, not doing X is always a possibility. You can just teach about the dangers and negative effects of alcohol, but more than maybe one sentence of "you can just not drink" is more than enough. Harking on about "oh don't do it" has no effect but wasting time and frustrating the pupils
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 7 at 12:11

no, because everyone already knows they can choose to not have sex.

That's like teaching people to stay at home instead of driving somewhere because driving is dangerous. People want to drive, and have sex, so the solution needs to include actually doing the thing. The precautions and safeties are the things that need to be taught, so that if the person chooses to do the risky activity, they can do so whilst protecting themselves as much as possible. That's why we teach to drive with seatbelts and don't speed, and don't drive after drinking or while sleeping, etc. Similar with sex, there are lots of risks and lots of ways to mitigate them.

Teaching these things also exposes the person to the risks, which means they are more likely to choose to abstain anyway after weighing the pros and cons. But if they choose to do it anyway (and they will) then at least it's as safe as possible.

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    Upvoted, but: "no, because everyone already knows they can choose to not have sex." I wish that were true.
    – Stef
    Mar 7 at 19:27
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    "everyone already knows they can choose to not have sex." -- Not all sex is consensual. For some reason teaching kids that being coerced into sex is bad is controversial.
    – arp
    Mar 8 at 1:32
  • @arp I wouldn't classify non-consensual or even coerced sex into that statement though. I was more describing people who wanted or even actively sought it out. I would absolutely classify manipulation/coercion/pressure/enthusiastic consent kinds of things under the "lots of risks" part (for both sides btw) and people should be taught how to deal with it and how to not accidentally do it.
    – Aequitas
    Mar 9 at 1:32
  • They may have the idea that sex is voluntary floating around in their heads, but they certainly do not behave as if they know. Or even speak as if they know. Some people talk as if not having sex is the final calamity.
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 10 at 12:41

The question is, do you want to prevent unwanted pregnancies, or do you want the young people to abstain from pre-marital sex altogether?

These are different goals, and while successfully teaching abstinence will also minimize unwanted pregnancies, unsuccessfully teaching abstinence will also fail to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

However, the people who want unmarried people to abstain from sex are right when they point out that if your lesson starts by advising abstinence, and then recommends condoms and birth control for those who don't abstain, the part about abstinence may as well not have been said.

So you need to decide which of the two is what you're really after, and make your case based on that.

If you are trying to get the young people to practice abstinence, then you have to base your arguments on the risks of sexual activity for which abstinence is the only effective counter-measure, specifically, the emotional and spiritual risks. Problem is, for the most part the young people think these risks are imaginary.

  • I repeat, I do not want to employ moral police and I want to reduce stigma when youngsters accidentally have sex. But I want that people are told about having their choice responsibly.
    – user72899
    Mar 6 at 6:44
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    @CitizenandSociety no but you want to have the effects of a moral police because of your personal beliefs. And " But I want that people are told about having their choice responsibly. " is the OPPOSITE of teaching abstinence
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 6 at 16:09
  • @Hobbamok You missed the point entirely. I did not supported moral policing. I have edited the question too for clarification.
    – user72899
    Mar 6 at 16:38
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    @CitizenandSociety no YOU missed MY point. I read your edits. And what you want is the end effect of having a morality police, just without the bad PR of having a morality police. You want to censor and cut Sex Ed to the point where it stops being useful due to being too far removed from reality because of YOUR sensitivities.
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 7 at 10:45
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    @CitizenandSociety PLEASE LEARN TO READ. Omg. Nobody ever said you want moral policing. My point is that you want the end result of having a moral police, just without having to have one. Because nobody needs to be taught abstinence, everyone knows that you simply cannot do X to avoid potential downsides of X. It's not necessary to even mention that. UNLESS you have personal moral beliefs about abstinence that you want to spread (as you do, see my quote from you)
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 7 at 11:38

As a preamble, regarding the (recently edited) question:

The question title is so incredibly loaded it should be edited again.

What is "unwanted pregnancy" ? It would be as if in the US political milieu a "Republican" hopped on here and wrote "How then is the best way to eliminate the evil that is taxes." Or if a vegetarian activist wrote "Can more candy consumption reduce the meat horror?"

This question (and indeed the OP's other question) are confusing.

  1. The debate between (A) abstinence training, and (B) condom training is one of the most prominent, basic, political conflicts in the present historic era.

It would be as if someone appeared on here and stated "I've always been taught that high taxes are a good thing. But!!!! I've suddenly realized!!!! that many people!!!! assert low taxes are a good thing!!!!" And then vaguely stated in a confusing question headline "Should we have low taxes?!"

At worst it reads as simplistic agit-prop from one side or the other, and best it's just plain silly.

And in all cases it has nothing to do with philosophy, that I can see.

  1. Regarding the two political camps (A) abstinence training, and (B) condom training. It's probably the case anyway that worldwide, indeed "A" is the numerically superior political group. So it's doubly-confusing that the OP leads with a kind of hokey "gosh, I've just learned the 'A' side is the only side, isn't there any room for 'B'?!".

Above I mention that it "reads as agit-prop". Moreover, it unfortunately reads as "totally confused" agit-prop, in three ways. (i) The OP presents a world where the "B" situation is the overwhelming norm - which is totally absurd. (ii) The OP presents a situation where he was and is "shocked!, shocked!" to hear about this "B" camp thing. (This is frankly ridiculous. Every politically motivated person, on any given topic, is intensely aware of the enemy side, as the very nature of them having one of the two opinions. Having lived in middle-class India for a few years, which as OP mentions is "full-on A" I know they are extremely aware of and agitated by - like any political division - the "B team". (iii) OP is sort of glibly presenting that he's plain unaware that the "A versus B" debate at hand, is, one the the let's say three major, overwhelming, everyday, political tensions, globally, of our era.

  1. If you ask a philosophy question about a major, central, overwhelming politcal debate of the era, the only possible outcome will be recitations from one side or the other of that side's thoughts. It's difficult to think of a subject where one can find more essays, letters, books, films, documentaries, professors, charities, political parties, whole institutions, dedicated to one side or the other, than the topic at hand.

To try to put it humorously, it would be as if in the US political milieu, someone hopped on the philosophy site and stated "I'm a Republican. But I've just heard about these 'Democrat' things." And then, very confusingly, had a headline "Should a Democrat be president?!" (Completely ignoring the fact that, as well as Existing, Democrats are often, indeed currently, president!) And then ... triply-confusingly ... repeatedly "self-dismissed" in confusing statements of the form "But surely Republican can exist?"

I'm afraid it's really that confused.

As I mention in a comment,

OP, your questions are essentially political questions or political musings. They have little, perhaps nothing, to do with technical philosophy

and indeed

This site, just IMO, should take care to gently move agit-prop questions, essays, to say PoliticsSE

or indeed as I commented to OP on his other question,

enter image description here



That depends. If we value lies, rape, the spread of STIs, and traumatizing young people, we should not. If we do not value those things, we should.

Let us Reframe

A lot of the discussion here has been around the question of unwed people having sex. This is actually a red herring when considering the actual question at hand. The question is: what is the best approach for our society to take when teaching about human sexuality?

That depends on our values. If we value honest communication, presenting correct information, protecting people from sexual trauma, or human happiness in general, than we should honestly present correct information about human sexuality. That would be information about STIs, pregnancy, masturbation, consent, sexual preferences, and so forth. And whether we do teach this has nothing to do with any position on whether non-marital sex is moral or immoral.

Married people need to know about birth control if they want to control when they have children. It is an option that is available. This is a true statement about the world, and the only reason not to teach it is to hide true information about the world from people.

Married people need to know about consent. If a married person coerces their spouse into having sex, that is rape. The only reason not to teach about consent is to support a culture of rape.

Sometimes, married people commit adultery. This is a true fact about the world. If a married person has sex outside of marriage, they owe it to their spouse to have correct information about the risk of catching an STI.

Some people are homosexual. This is a true statement about the world. People who are homosexual will not become heterosexual through some kind of intervention. That is a true statement about the world. If we pretend that these are not true statements about the world, we traumatize and stigmatize homosexual people. Teaching children that homosexuality is not part of nature is a lie. If we value honesty, we should not lie. If we value children, we should not stigmatize and traumatize them for simply being who they are.

I could go on like this, but the point, I think, is pretty clear. This is a philosophical question. It's a question about how we should enact our values, and about what the consequences of different values are.

It is true that there is no right answer to this question, at least not in the sense that a mathematical question is right or wrong. But there is a right answer if we do not value lies, rape, and brutality.