Friday, September 17, 2010

How To Prevent Abortions: Stop Pretending Teenagers Don't Have Sex

Yesterday I was part of a Constitution Day celebration at the University of Connecticut - Storrs, in which three of us from the academic, activist and policy world were asked to focus on the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment ninety years ago. In one way or another, we all took the opportunity to connect women's votes to a discussion of what it means for women to be full citizens, with equal rights to men across lines of class, race and region. One of the speakers, a founder of Shoreline Women's Liberation, made the argument that debates over hot button social issues like abortion have become so polarized that, as feminists, we are left with few options about how to resolve them through rational debate. Inevitably, then, they become the stuff of power politics and embed themselves as wedge issues, allowing legislatures in places where conservatives dominate -- Oklahoma, for example -- to pass laws which effectively make women into second-class citizens by taking control of their bodies.

What this activist suggested was that we feminists must begin to reform political discourse by acknowledging other people's moral and ethical concerns as legitimate even if we disagree profoundly with the factual basis of those concerns or the policy measures that our opponents advocate. I would agree with this. Increasingly, feminists are tacitly acknowledging that abortion is an ethical offense to some people when they argue for increased access to pregnancy prevention as an alternative to abortion. This also dovetails with safer sex agendas originally promoted by GLBTQ activists that are increasingly mainstream and also controversial: the distribution of condoms in public schools, the broader availability of birth control, and instruction on how to use these technologies to control reproduction.

What can hamper the prevention of pregnancy through education, of course, is the belief of many social conservatives that parents should be -- and can be -- in complete control of their children's bodies, and that the public interest is co-terminus with the desire of parents to keep their children ignorant of the facts of human sexuality if they so choose. In recent history, this has led to sex education programs that do not educate the young about sex. Abstinence-only programs (begun in the Reagan years, and supported by the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations) not only emphasize, but are exclusively limited to, instruction about why the young must avoid sex (or at least intercourse) until they are married and in a position to raise children. A study of 2,800 teenage girls recently released by the Centers for Disease Control reveals that, although 97% reported having had sex education in school, only 2/3 had been instructed in how to prevent pregnancy with birth control. As one summary of the CDC report notes, "Lessons about saying no and STDs were more common than instruction on how to use a condom or other birth control....Overall, about two-thirds of teens got birth control instruction by the end of high school — about 62 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls." By the end of high school is, of course, about six years too late: according to the nonprofit Connect With Kids, by the ninth grade 34% of kids have already had intercourse. And if you are loving those numbers, try these: according to Science Daily, "by age 12, 12 percent of students had already engaged in vaginal sex, 7.9 percent in oral sex, 6.5 percent in anal sex and 4 percent in all three types of intercourse."

So here's what I am offering as a compromise position. I won't give up the right to a safe abortion. However, I will honor and respect the belief that "life" begins at conception (even though I don't accept it) if my opposite number honors my belief that sex education ought to tell the full truth about sex and reproductive choice, making those choices real through the availability of birth control and insisting that both boys and girls are equally responsible for safer sex practices and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. In this vein, another panelist on my Constitution Day panel noted that all innovations in birth control, except for condom use and the Big Snip, can only be implemented by women. Decades after the sexual revolution, large numbers of adults continue to assume that girls are responsible for "it," not boys. Think about it: when you imagine your average heterosexual teen couple on the brink of doing the nasty do you imagine: a) her saying no; b) him saying no; c) a chorus of two saying no; d) a group of teens of any gender talking about how much happier and better their lives are without sexual activity?

The logic of abstinence education is, of course, that keeping teens ignorant of sex makes them safer (interestingly, some of the same people would argue that teaching teens how to use and care for guns makes guns safer, a position with which I would agree.) In culture wars logic all sex, whether hetero- or homosex, is "an infectious idea," as one scholar has put it. If you talk to the young about sex it will make them sexual, a patently absurd proposition if I have ever heard one, but a popular one in certain circles all the same. One of the scariest things I ever heard about teen sex was in a student paper in which I asked students to interview someone else about their experience in sex education. A gay man from Oklahoma City interviewed his best friend from high school, a woman who told him she was "still a virgin" and so was her boyfriend. Both were committed Christians, who wanted to remain "pure" until their wedding night. How did this work in practice? As the interview continued, it turned out that they had been having unprotected anal sex for three years, which she found painful and scary, but a good strategy to help them both wait for marriage.

Now you might argue from this example that the problem with abstinence education is that it doesn't go far enough: "Say no to that -- and that -- and that. And, oh yes, there is that." Perhaps that is so, but I doubt it: teenagers are remarkably creative in finding ways to do what they want without formally breaking the rules; hiding it when they do break the rules; and elaborating justifications for doing things you forgot to make a rule about.

And just in case you think telling students something causes them to learn it, ask any college teacher how many times they have announced their regular office hours, how many places they have written them down, and how many students -- every week -- come up after class and say "When can I come see you?"

13 comments:

Luis said...

Dammit, TR, I've been saying that "sex ed = gun ed" thing since I was in high school. But no one ever seemed to listen in my backassward redneck home town.

Susan said...

You are so right about education. The notion that kids have sex because of sex education? Gee, how did the species last this long? Never mind why all the shotgun weddings!
Last night I was reading the newsletter of the National Women's Health Network which had a couple of articles on abortion -- one on how to create empathy in controversial discussions. (This was a process used in West Virginia, South Dakota, etc.) And there the central method was to say things like "We all know that for many people, abortion is an unacceptable choice. We all care about strong families which provide safe homes for children". And then you talk about individual women's stories, rather than the abstraction.

Anonymous said...

Well, why back down from the position that whether or not you believe life begins at conception women should not have their bodies conscripted by the state. And, why must American sex education always focus on not having sex? Why not say sex is great and to enjoy it to the max you need to be free of the worry of pregnancy and disease and you need to do it for yourself and not just because a partner pressures you to do it. That method is used in a lot of European countries that have lower rates of unplanned pregnancy and stds.

Ruviana said...

The anal sex thing reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a student who was Iranian. She said that middle eastern women were notorious for having anal sex since it allowed them to remain virgins at marriage. I haven't the foggiest clue if this is true, but the parallel struck me. And how many of us recall (I'm in my late 50s if that helps) many "technical virgins" who were probably more sexually sophisticated than their fellow students who were actually having sex!

Ruviana said...

The anal sex thing reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a student who was Iranian. She said that middle eastern women were notorious for having anal sex since it allowed them to remain virgins at marriage. I haven't the foggiest clue if this is true, but the parallel struck me. And how many of us recall (I'm in my late 50s if that helps) many "technical virgins" who were probably more sexually sophisticated than their fellow students who were actually having sex!

Ruviana said...

EEEK! Forgive the double-post!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

However, I will honor and respect the belief that "life" begins at conception (even though I don't accept it) if my opposite number honors my belief that sex education ought to tell the full truth about sex and reproductive choice, making those choices real through the availability of birth control and insisting that both boys and girls are equally responsible for safer sex practices and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies.

Considering that the whole point of "pro-life" assholes is to punish sluts for fucking by forcing them to carry pregnancies to term, I doubt you're gonna get any "pro-lifers" to accept your offer, since it will allow sluts to fuck without suffering.

From a broader perspective, however, I am somewhat troubled by your position. You are basically saying, I'll allow you to drive some public policy with your deranged religious lies, so long as you allow me to drive some public policy with empirical reality.

Urban Exile said...

Well, PhysioProf, we have to start somewhere.

I know you're given to hyperbolic language, but that's not going to get us any closer to developing anything akin to a civilized dialogue on how to approach public policy on this matter. Don't you think we've been stuck on this one for a long, long time? Long enough for you?

Agreeing that others have the right to their misguided ideas is part of being a good American. Forwarding the stale discussion into a new discussion with new terms and positions is progress.

Urban Exile said...

Oh, and BTW, I agree with anonymous. How about the sex is good idea? Because it is. That's why people keep having it.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Forwarding the stale discussion into a new discussion with new terms and positions is progress.

Supposedly rational liberals capitulating to right-wing woman-hating assholes in some misguided attempt at compromise is "a new discussion with new terms and positions"? For realz?

I agree with Amanda Marcotte that the better strategy is to educate reasonable people that anti-abortion right-wingers are motivated by their hatred of women and their desire to punish slutty sluts, not by "protecting life".

Forgetting about the substantive merits, why do you think it is that the right-wing always wins these battles? Could it be because they draw stark moral lines, and refuse to compromise? Why did the left win on preventing right-wing plutocrats from "privatizing" (i.e., plundering) social security? Because it drew a stark moral line and refused to compromise.

AcadeMama said...

Regarding the story about the couple in OKC, I have a friend who was raised Southern Baptist and made the whole "purity promise" and whatnot before she got to college. Yeah, the oral sex she was giving to her boyfriend evidently didn't count in that promise, so clearly there are some loopholes, as you point out.

This is something I deal with almost daily, as my 11 year old daughter is on constant Puberty Watch. She begs me to let her shave her (hairless) armpits and wants to know if vaginal mucous is normal. I thank Goddess that she is comfortable enough asking me these questions now, and I'm terrified of the day she goes silent. I respect her body as one that is sexualized, even if not by her. Yet, I have a very hard time reconciling my instincts as a feminist with my instincts as a mother.

AcadeMama said...

P.S. I love life. I'm really a big fan of it. That's why I planned it for my three daughters. Really, the whole "pro-life" slogan needs to come up with a new angle. For realz.

Anonymous said...

The abstinence-only/anal sex correlation is discussed in Celia M. Lescano et al., “Correlates of Heterosexual Anal Intercourse Among At-Risk Adolescents and Young Adults,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol 99, No. 6 (June 2009): 1131-1136. The paper got some media attention in 2008 and led to this (from Dan Savage's Wikipedia entry):

“In 2008–2009, as a response to then President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration—and in response to Stephen Colbert's comment that 'saddleback' sounded like a sex act—Savage Love readers were encouraged to vote to define the neologism 'saddlebacking' in reference to Warren's role as pastor of Saddleback Church. Warren and the church supported the 2008 California constitutional amendment Proposition 8, which required the state to recognize only marriage between a man and a woman. The winning definition for 'saddlebacking' was 'the phenomenon of Christian teens engaging in unprotected anal sex in order to preserve their virginities'"