Abstinence of Malice

March 5, 2013


House Republicans are seeking $550 million dollars in funding for Abstinence Education for Teenagers. We live in a time when all kinds of necessary programs that actually work are being cut. Why are House Republicans only happy when they're seeking to spend enormous amounts of money for programs like Abstinence Only Education ($550 million) or the F-35 Raptor ($1.4 trillion)?

"Evidence has not supported the effective use of abstinence-only sex education." This is one of many scholarly peer-reviewed conclusions about abstinence-only education. Think about this for just a minute. Abstinence Only education is essentially what we had in the US when my grandfather went to school in the tail end of the 19th century. Nobody kept statistics on rates of unwed teen pregnancy in those days, but as soon as they did, many people began calling for real, comprehensive sex education as a rational way of dealing with the problem.

Of course, some people objected. In general, the people who were for sex ed believed that sex was a natural, inevitable part of life that, if done properly, could be a huge source of joy and satisfaction. They knew from their own experience that many young people were going to flirt with the idea of having sex long before they were in a position to, or could be expected to become a parent. They saw that much of the problem was caused by ignorance and misunderstanding.

A lion's share of those who objected to sex ed believed that sex was evil, sinful, horrible, nasty and should be avoided in every instance except in marriage for the regrettable necessity of procreation. Of course, this was not really what these people believed, that is to say, this is not how these people lived their own lives. In general, these people had lots of sex, often with lots of people, typically, at least some of the time, with people they were not married to. But they pretended to believe the stuff about sin and damnation, at least for public consumption.

It is called hypocrisy, and it is every bit as with us today as when my grandfather wore short pants.

But the grand old argument aside, sex, whatever it is, is something that is with us, has been with us, and will be with us, as long as the species survives. It is perhaps unfortunate in the modern era that people discover sex empirically at a time when their emotions and cognitive abilities are so much in turmoil. Coupled with the notoriously poor impulse control exhibited by most teenagers and we have a simple formula for teen pregnancy. This isn't philosophy or politics. This is basic biology, and human nature.

We are not at the whim of basic biology, of course. For a start, we can make contraception available and that will neatly prevent most unwanted teen pregnancies. Prescribing the right contraception will even make sexually transmitted diseases much less likely. Some people have a problem with contraception because they think it allows people to sin without consequence. Well, if they really believe in their God and His hell, you have got to think that they would conclude that contraception would be singularly ineffective method of avoiding divine vengeance for sins. If sex is a sin, and God punishes you for doing it by burning you in hellfire for eternity, you are going to be damned to burn in hellfire if you have sex, protected sex, or unprotected sex: this is a consequence. Abstinence Only education supporters believe in it because they want it to work. They want it to work, because if it does, they believe it proves their beliefs to be correct - and if they have to admit it doesn't work, when their other beliefs say it should work, that might invalidate those beliefs. When Mother church said the world was flat, it had to be flat, and proof was given that it was flat.

Abstinence education doesn't work, and the earth isn't flat. As grown adults, we should recognize that things are not so just because we say they are. Wanting something to be real doesn't make it real. Wanting something to work doesn't make it work. We should support effective solutions to real problems. We should look critically at the problems and very critically at the solutions. We should pick solutions that are more effective, regardless of our pet prejudices and beliefs.

The fact is that teenagers are going to have sex. They can either have informed sex, or sex in ignorance. Informed sex tends to be much less costly for the teenagers, their families and society at large. That is usually how education is supposed to work. We pay for it because it provides a benefit to the public of some kind. Unfortunately abstinence only education fails that fiduciary test. Abstinence only education costs at least as much as comprehensive sex education, but it is far less effective in protecting our children and society.

Any rational person would conclude that you should logically choose to pay for the most effective alternative and not the least. But the opponents of comprehensive sex education,. believing that sex is dirty and sinful, think that education is a kind of gateway drug to sin and depravity.

Thinking people know that sex is an aspect of being human. It is neither good nor bad. It can be gloriously good or horribly bad. It is gloriously good when it helps people understand their world, their own feelings and the feelings of other people on this planet. It is horribly bad when young women die from peritonitis from back street abortions. The difference between those two outcomes is supposed to be what education does. Real education teaches us the skills we need to perceive our world, figure things out, and make up our minds about things. An educated person sees what things are, and what the consequences are, or may be, and then makes a choice. An uneducated person sees something, labels it, and reacts to it, without considering the thing itself or the real consequences of their actions.

People who are prejudiced against sex want to bend the state education systems to teach their prejudices to young people. It doesn't matter what the consequences of those prejudices are on those children, that state or our future.

Very few abstinence only proponents will admit it, but what they really believe is that those who sin deserve the bad things that happen to them. This is God's will. If you teach them that sex is bad, outside of marriage for purposes of procreation, and they abstain from all sex, the program works. If it doesn't work for sinners, that doesn't matter. Except that we're all sinners. It is also true that the vast majority of the consequences of ignorance about human sexuality happen to the girls. The young men who sin get away without penalty, in most cases (in this world anyway). Women bear the burden of this program's ineffectiveness. Their children suffer from being born to parents who are unready, and unable to support them properly. These people often become a burden on society, sin notwithstanding.

Let's choose a better outcome. Let's pay for stuff that works. Lets evaluate and choose wisely. Then at least we will have been good role models for our children when they are making choices about their bodies and sex.

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