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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Why do we assume sexting girls aren’t expressing their authentic desires?

An article by Leigh Goldstein in Jumpcut argues that the legal and media commentary about sexting denies youth the capacity to be subjects:

By criminalizing self-produced child pornography, our government has effectively censored minors’ right to record their sexualities or erotic identities. … Having shushed the kids, we adults gleefully expound on what they must feel: duped, misguided, ultimately regretful of having exposed and/or exploited their bodies. Exploited object? Of course, it’s the part kids were born to play. But the role of subject when it comes to discourses of desire? That remains off limits.

Goldstein also raises interesting questions that I am trying to grapple with in the chapter I am currently working on:

If ample research, especially that coming out of girls’ studies, has already documented the silencing of adolescent sexuality, why do legal and media discourses continue to participate in this silencing? And what are the possibilities for bringing together these different forms of discourse so that they better inform each other?

We’ve been hearing warnings from feminist researchers for decades that the “missing discourse of desire” in sex education for girls could lead them to have trouble saying “no” as well as saying “yes” to sex. Why haven’t I seen any feminist articles heralding sexting as: “finally, look at this, a new way that girls are expressing themselves sexually!”?

DHS advises parents to tell their kids to “wait”

The new administration seems to be still pushing abstinence over education. A new series of TV PSA’s depicts kids (75% girls, of course) telling parents: “tell me you want me to  wait to have sex.” Wait until when? Until they’re married, of course. Because, as the campaign slogan explains: “success comes to kids who wait to have sex.” Why? Because people who wait “have a better chance at success, whether that means getting an education, having a career, or just being happy.”

Since 95% of people do have non-marital sex, and research consistently demonstrates that abstinence programs are “ineffective, unethical, and poor public health,” why promote such an impossible and counter-productive goal? Are these PSA’s just a politically viable facade for a hidden comprehensive sex education agenda?

Not quite. Though the campaign promotes abstinence until marriage, it does have some information for those 95% of people who won’t get there. Under the section “Dealing with Risky Behaviors and Other Challenges” the birth control information chart cites only the “typical use” failure rate (15% for condoms) and not the “consistent and correct use” failure rate (2%). Why not launch a PSA campaign to make “typical” use more “correct and consistent”? And really, why bother with this section at all–how many teens would ask for help getting condoms or birth control after a parent makes it clear that the only thing they approve of is “waiting”?

The site devotes a few sentences to parents of queer kids (or, um kids who might be, err,experiencing difficulties with gender identity or sexual orientation“), who should keep in mind, “Accepting your son or daughter can help lead to strong, life-affirming relationships in the future.” But the rest of the campaign makes it pretty clear that gay kids, who can’t ever get married, will never be successful or happy.

via Feministe and Salon.