A comprehensive, inclusive approach to defining abstinence, and making it part of the conversation.

The pedagogical concepts introduced in Making Sense of Abstinence make it unlike other abstinence education manual. There are four key themes that are woven throughout the manual’s sixteen lessons:

    • abstinence education needs to help young people define abstinence in ways that help them understand and apply their decisions in real life
    • abstinence education needs to include decision-making, skills-building opportunities
    • abstinence education is not just talking about which behaviors to avoid, but also the behaviors that are permitted in a person’s decision (and the associated risks and benefits)
    • abstinence education needs to help young people protect their sexual health, and transition safely when they decide to no longer abstain.

Making Sense of Abstinence
This lesson helps young people recognize that “abstinence” is a far more complex, difficult concept than it is often portrayed as being. Participants examine what “abstinence” means to different people, as they each come to terms with what abstinence means to themselves.

So What’s an “Abstinence” Anyway?
This lesson helps participants think about what it takes to make sexual abstinence work and what they would need to do if they were going to choose abstinence as the way to protect themselves from unwanted consequences of sexual intercourse.

The Abstinence Line-Up: Much More Than “Just Say No”
This lesson helps teens think about the conscious decision-making process that successful abstaining requires and identify specific, concrete ways to make abstaining work.

What’s Your Take?
Examining Opinions about Abstinence

This lesson allows participants to examine the many diverse opinions people have about issues related to sexual abstinence and abstinence education. Participants will identify factors important in making decisions about abstinence, and clarify their own views.

Hey, Mom? Hey, Dad? (Hey, Gram?):
Can We Talk about Abstinence
This lesson helps young people begin a dialogue about sexual abstinence with their parents, guardians or other trusted adults. Participants will compare social norms and pressures related to abstinence in the past and present, and participate in a role-play to help them become more at ease talking with an adult about abstinence and sexual decisions.

Just Say Know:
Navigating Mixed Messages about “Sex”
This lesson helps participants realize that people need to examine the messages they are receiving and then make conscious decisions regarding their own beliefs and behaviors, including their beliefs about abstinence and sex education.

Everyone Deserves Respect:
Looking at Abstinence and Stereotypes

This lesson addresses the stereotypes about sexual abstinence fueled by rigid beliefs about gender and sexual orientation. Participants examine the possible meanings of abstinence to lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, evaluate abstinence-related stereotypes, and recognize that any person’s definition of abstinence is deserving of respect.

A Touchy Subject

This lesson helps participants develop positive attitudes about a behavior in which most will engage, regardless of whether or not they elect to abstain from intercourse. Participants examine facts about masturbation, while dispelling common myths and misinformation.

Figuring Out Outercourse
This lesson helps young people consider not only what their abstinence definitions prohibit them from doing, but also what these definitions permit. Participants examine outercourse as an important sexual option that may fit with a person’s definition of abstinence, allowing them to express their sexuality while avoiding the risks of sexually transmitted infection and unplanned pregnancy.

Oral Sex and Abstinence:
Examining the Role of Intimacy in Sexual Decisions

This lesson addresses concerns many health professionals have about reports of oral sex among young people and its risk of transmitting sexual infections. Participants explore and clarify their beliefs about oral sex and intimacy and how oral sex relates to their personal definitions of abstinence.

Handling Horny:
Savvy About Sexual Response

This lesson helps young people recognize that sexual feelings are present throughout life, and helps them build skills for recognizing and handling sexual responses.

Is the Slope That Slippery?
This lesson addresses the common belief that any sexual behavior will cause young people to get “carried away,” and will always result in intercourse. Participants assess whether they think various behaviors would or would not lead to intercourse, and build a foundation for making decisions about their sexual behaviors.

Ready or Not?
Deciding about Sexual Behaviors

This lesson helps young people assess the many factors associated with readiness for sexual behaviors, and to decide for themselves the conditions that would indicate whether or not they are ready.

Saying Yes, Saying No
This lesson helps young people examine the communication skills needed to assert their decisions, and discuss conflicting decisions, about sexual behaviors in a relationship.

ABC…Easy as 123?
This lesson addresses the new “ABC” messages (Abstain, Be Faithful, and Use Condoms) for HIV prevention. Participants assess the meanings of these phrases in their own lives, as well as the attributes necessary to follow each part of the message.

Some Day:
Making the Transition from Sexual Abstinence

This lesson addresses the reality that most young people who practice sexual abstinence will stop doing so at some time in their lives, and helps prepare them for a healthy transition to intercourse whenever that might occur.

Foreword to Making Sense of Abstinence

By Susan Wilson*

Making Sense of Abstinence succeeds brilliantly in making the topic of abstinence intelligent, thought-provoking, imaginative, respectful and downright engaging. These lessons give the choice of abstinence from oral, anal and vaginal intercourse during the teen years a very good name. They provide educators who use them a much-needed opportunity to teach, not preach. They read clearly and because they call for only a few standard classroom materials, are easy to replicate.

Students will instantly realize, and deeply appreciate, Taverner’s and Montfort’s willingness to be honest with them and to provide them with accurate and balanced information, starting with abstinence, upon which they can make decisions about their sexual lives. They will learn that there is a long continuum of behaviors between “saying no” and “doing it” that will keep them safe not sorry. Educators will gain courage and feel much more secure about teaching tough topics such as oral sex, masturbation and outercourse, when they see they are allied with discussion about personal values, decision-making and communication.

Taverner and Montfort direct their lessons at educators of comprehensive sexuality education. But, some of them could surely fit into an abstinence-only program thereby offering a sliver of common ground upon which those with differing points of view about the content of sexuality education can stand. Let’s salute Taverner and Montfort for this important effort to help all our teens get complete information and protective skills they need and deserve so they can make smart, safe decisions.”

*Susan N. Wilson is the Senior Advisor at Answer, Rutgers University, NJ

Introduction to Making Sense of Abstinence

By Bill Taverner and Sue Montfort

Welcome, Comprehensive Sex Educators, to MAKING SENSE OF ABSTINENCE!

Why did The Center for Sex Education, known for its long list of comprehensive sex education resources, decide to write a teaching guide about abstinence? Just imagine yourself, a comprehensive sex educator, attending a meeting, workshop, or conference in which the problems with current abstinence-only education arise for the umpteenth time. Despite the fact that there have been no peer reviewed evaluated studies that have demonstrated conclusively the effectiveness of abstinence-only education programs, everyone is equally frustrated that, over the past ten years, more than a billion dollars has been poured into federally funded abstinence-only education.

As we listened to keynote speech after keynote speech, read article after article, and sent e-mail after e-mail, we became more and more cognizant that while we were all admiring the problem, abstinence was quickly becoming part of the language and culture in which our teens live.  (The word, that is, not necessarily the practice.) Young people continue to be bombarded with the word “abstinence,” without a contextual meaning for the decisions they make about sexual behaviors in their own lives. What does the word mean? While teens are being told, “Just say no,” they are never told what, exactly, they are to say “no” to. Vaginal intercourse? Oral or anal intercourse? Outercourse? Masturbation? Deep kissing? Part of the problem, of course, is that “sex” goes equally undefined.

Further, those teens who do feel they have a grasp on the meaning of abstinence don’t tend to use it very effectively, or for very long. Research is showing that teens who pledge abstinence experience sexually transmitted infections at the same rates as those who don’t, in part because of the varying assumptions among those who “abstain” about what “sex” and “abstinence” mean, and because of their failure to protect themselves when they stop abstaining.  It was alarming enough that abstinence-only education programs were leaving teens uninformed, or giving incorrect information, or excluding gay and lesbian teens, but is it not also possible that these programs are harming teens?

You may be wondering, as we were, what could be done to make a positive difference in the kind of abstinence education so many young people are receiving? You may be wondering, as we were, how comprehensive sex educators can be cast as “anti-abstinence” when comprehensive sex education can’t be comprehensive without positively-framed education about sexual abstinence. You may be wondering, as we were, what abstinence education looks like with the only removed from our lexicon.

Enter MAKING SENSE OF ABSTINENCE: Lessons for Comprehensive Sex Education, designed to be a resource that you can confidently turn to for approaches that are respectful of teens and that address the many facets of a very complex issue without simplistic “just say no” solutions. This manual stresses the importance of defining “abstinence” for oneself, if it is to be a viable and meaningful decision. It includes information on a variety of behaviors that may be congruent with one’s personal decisions, and adheres to the principles for sex education that guide all our manuals. MAKING SENSE OF ABSTINENCE is empowering, not fear-based or directive.  It teaches accurate information, not theology or morality; it encourages young people to develop personal definitions, not to use evasive or undefined terms; it focuses on ways to help young people who choose abstinence to be effective at carrying out that choice.

Important concepts that young people will investigate in these lessons include:

      • What abstinence means to them;
      • What behaviors their abstinence definitions include and exclude;
      • That abstinence is a conscious, viable choice that some people will make and others will not;
      • How to be effective at carrying out the decision to choose abstinence;
      • How to protect their health if they choose not to abstain;
      • How to think carefully about their decisions in the context of factual information, their own and their family’s values, and the cultures in which they live.

We are pleased to offer you an “abstinence manual” like no other.  While the debate continues, our chief concern is how the real lives of young people are impacted, not who wins the culture wars.  If undefined “abstinence” is now part of the world in which teens live, we’d better start helping them navigate this new territory in ways that are meaningful and respectful of their lives.

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Endorsements for Making Sense of Abstinence

Making Sense of Abstinence is a treasure!  It is a veritable compendium of practical, well constructed activities for teachers, clergy, and youth workers to help them lead skill building learning experiences for teens. The lessons are creative, age appropriate, interactive, and based on sound learning principles and accurate medical information. They provide opportunities for adolescents learn and practice the interpersonal and communication skills they need to make decisions about abstinence that are based on their values, an understanding of consequences, and the realities of cultural, media, and peer pressure.”
Maggi Ruth P. Boyer

Making Sense of Abstinence provides a critical perspective as well as an array of excellent activities that helps the conscientious sexuality educator help teens think about abstinence in a way that values the teen’s ability to make good decisions in our complex society.”
Bernice Humphrey
Associate Director, National Programs, Girls Inc.

“At last, abstinence education based on science and learning pedagogy, that affirms the intelligence of young people and acknowledges their right to sexual health. Making Sense of Abstinence is amazingly inclusive and respectful, giving all of us who care about kids a real life tool to replace ‘Just Say No’ with ‘Just Say Know.'”
Jan Lunquist

“A simple manual to use that provides factual information and an array of strategies to target all learning styles. Allows for each school district to select lesson plans that are relevant to their curriculum: from conservative districts to more liberal districts. An excellent source for Health Educators.”
Sandy Toronzi
North Warren Regional High School, New Jersey

“I recommend Making Sense of Abstinence for anyone who does sexuality education. It covers a breadth of material that’s refreshing, accurate, engaging, and supportive of young people’s decision to delay intercourse and prepares them for thinking about their backup method too!”
Michael McGee

“Thank goodness for Making Sense of Abstinence! Young people want to learn and talk about healthy sexuality, but too often adults have used the word ‘abstinence’ simply to shut down the conversation. Here’s proof that there’s a better way: positive, creative, inclusive, and medically-accurate educational activities to help young people take ownership of their decisions and their sexual futures.”
Kurt Conklin, MPH, MCHES®

Making Sense of Abstinence

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