Journal of Medical Humanities

, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 101–108 | Cite as

I Want to Hold Your Hand: Abstinence Curricula, Bioethics, and the Silencing of Desire

  • Abby WilkersonEmail author


The abstinence approach to sex education remains influential despite its demonstrated ineffectiveness. One bill forbids the “promotion” of “gateway sexual activity,” while requiring outright condemnation of “non-abstinence,” defined so loosely as to plausibly include handholding. Bioethics seldom (if ever) contributes to sex-ed debates, yet exploring the pivotal role of medical discourse reveals the need for bioethical intervention. Sex-ed debates revolve around a theory of human flourishing based on heteronormative temporality, a developmental teleology ensuring the transmission of various supposed social goods through heterosexual marriage (Halberstam, 2005). Heteronormative temporality also constitutes a moralized discourse in which the values of health and presumed certainties of medicine serve to justify conservative religious dictates that otherwise would appear controversial as the basis for public policy. Overall, this analysis explores how moralized medical discourses compound existing injustices, while suggesting bioethics’ potential contributions to moral and political analysis of sex-ed policies.


Queer bioethics Comprehensive sex education Abstinence HIV/AIDS Youth sexuality 



The author wishes to thank Patrick McGann for his insightful responses to earlier versions of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University Writing Program, The George Washington UniversityWashingtonUSA

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