Abstinence-only and the perils of optimism

This video of GOP candidate Rick Perry talking about his support for abstinence-only education has been bouncing around the internet. The consensus among feminists and progressives seems to be that he doesn’t understand that abstinence-only doesn’t work. But I think it’s too simplistic to say that people like Perry are misinformed about the facts and to think that if they just understood the data they might change their minds.

story via AD

In fact I think the reality is far more disturbing. I think Perry is well aware that his state’s sex education policies are harmful to youth, but that the political capital he maintains by publicly supporting abstinence-only is more important to him.

Perhaps this is too cynical.

The more charitable–but equally disturbing–interpretation is that he truly believes that abstinence-until-marriage is such an important moral value to promote that it is worth spending money on educational policies that have negative effects on teens’ health.  In this video, his rhetoric is clear: he is saying that even if abstinence-only education enables just a few kids to delay sex until marriage, it is worth the cost to the rest of the teens in the state. Feminists and leftists need to understand that their opponents in this matter are not idiots who cannot comprehend a statistic–they know abstinence is not working but they desperately want it to. They are idealists and optimists like we are. Unfortunately, in this case their optimism translates to seriously harmful policies.

Statistics and empirical studies are useful for convincing fence-sitters and pragmatists to support comprehensive sex education. But the real battlefield is in the realm of ideas about sexuality. Why do people like Perry think abstinence-until-marriage is so vital and important? What does it mean to them and why are they willing to make huge public health sacrifices to pursue it? Until we can redefine what sexuality means for people with these views, no proof of abstinence-only’s disastrous effects will convince them that it is not a goal worth pursuing.


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