What’s interesting in this otherwise stunningly dishonest op-ed column by Ross Douthat about sex ed is that he casually admits that abstinence-only education is about attacking contraception, a practice that 98% of American women have engaged in at some point in their lives. And by virtue of this, that means that the Bush administration and that anti-choice movement that promoted abstinence-only and required that schools teach it to get federal funding for sexuality education were anti-contraception as a matter of policy and ideology. Attacking contraception while claiming to be all about abortion is a classic right wing move, and under the Bush administration, it became the standard conservative stance. Douthat, I think somewhat accidentally, admits this briefly:
None of this renders the abstinence-versus-contraception debate pointless.
But it’s just a quick moment of letting the reader in on the fact that “abstinence” was a nice way of saying “anti-contraception”, which abstinence-only mostly was about—denying that contraception was effective. Sometimes they did this with overt, factual lies, like claiming that condoms have small holes in them, that contraception fails more than it does, or that marriage was better protection from HPV (and therefore cervical cancer) than condoms.* But even when they were forced against their will to provide correct information about contraceptive failure rates, they engaged in broader lies, what Douthat would call “values”, no doubt, but are verifiably false: that women don’t get horny, that men have no self-control, that abstinence prevents heartbreak, and that contraception doesn’t prevent heartbreak. We were so busy dogging antis for their factual lies that we very rarely engaged this last lie, which is a pretty big one. Abstinence-only programs were big on suggesting that contraception was not only not a factor in minimizing emotional fallout from one’s adolescent romances imploding, but that it made it worse. If you think about how big a lie this is, it’s stunning—at the end of the day, they’re suggesting that your adolescent love affairs will cause less emotional damage if you get an STD or unintended pregnancy. Or, I guess the claim was without contraception, you won’t do it, but that’s also a giant whopping lie, as the vast majority of human history demonstrates, as does our teenage pregnancy rate today. The truth that the sex-phobes are trying to squish is that contraception does help protect you emotionally, because your body is you, and bad things happening to it can be emotionally devastating.
Anyway, Douthat’s argument is a classic incoherent one: Abstinence-only is irrelevant, so we should get to have it. Or, that Alabama should teach their kids not to use condoms, but those hippies in Berkley can do what they want. At its core, this “local control” argument is fundamentally about arguing that women and children are property, as you can see with the “leave it to the states” crap with abortion. And that if men in Alabama want to force their women to have babies, but men in New York are softies who want to give the women a little more power, then that’s a state-by-state decision. But at all costs, we should avoid suggesting that women themselves have rights. That’s crazy talk.
And it’s the same discussion with “local control” over the “right” to lie to children in order to convince them not to use contraception. It presumes children are property, and that different states should be able to dispose of children how they see fit. But I don’t think children are disposable! A child in Alabama should have the same right not to get an STD as in New York. And that’s what is at stake.
Of course, Douthat denies this, suggesting—using really poor logic—that abstinence-only doesn’t effect teenage pregnancy or STD rates.
Predictably, the rare initiatives that show impressive results tend to be defined more by their emphasis on building social capital than by their insistence on either chastity or contraception. A 2001 survey published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, for instance, found that “most studies of school-based and school-linked health centers revealed no effect on student sexual behavior or contraceptive use.” The exceptions included an abstinence-oriented program with a strong community-service requirement, and a comprehensive program that essentially provided life coaching as well as sex ed: participants were offered “academic support (e.g., tutoring); employment; self-expression through the arts; sports; and health care.”
Note that this is prior to abstinence-only education becoming the functional law of the entire country, pushed on schools by the Bush administration, and based mostly on texts put together by Christian organizations that have very little respect for basic reality. But honestly, I’ll be the first to say that for most kids, choices are made from values and culture, due to influence from parents, religion, and peers. But Douthat is being dodgy—”very little” impact on teen pregnancy is still impact. A “very little” bump in the teenage pregnancy rate can mean tens of thousands of girls nationwide. And it’s really rich to suggest that kids who are straight up told in school that condoms don’t work aren’t going to remember this lie when they’re doing what kids do, which is finding excuses to go without condoms.
What Douthat is trying to deny and avoid is that after years of telling kids that condoms don’t work, some of them are beginning to behave as if they believe condoms don’t work, and the result is a rise in teenage pregnancy and abortion. As someone who claims abortion is life-taking, you would think that Douthat wouldn’t write off this uptick as meaningless, as he does—a 3% rise in teenage pregnancy means many thousands more abortions. If he actually thought that was baby-killing, he’d be demanding comprehensive sex education in every school and condoms in every bathroom. But if he was motivated by hostility towards sex and women’s liberation, he’d write this incoherent piece trying to defend a system that’s raised the percentage of teenage girls who get pregnant every year by 3%.
But I think my favorite lie he tells when trying to conceal how likely it is that abstinence-only education causes this is the “blame it on Clinton” gambit.
In reality, the numbers show no such thing. Abstinence financing increased under Bush, but the federal government has been funneling money to pro-chastity initiatives since early in Bill Clinton’s presidency. If you blame abstinence programs for a year’s worth of bad news, you’d also have to give them credit for more than a decade’s worth of progress.
Sure, if abstinence-only looked the same under these administrations. But it didn’t! The Clinton initiative, while shameful, was a relatively small amount of money that went to various programs here and there, but was not intended to replace comprehensive sex education. The Bush administration required every high school in the country to replace comprehensive sex education with abstinence-only, on pain of getting this huge funding cut. Many states were so devastated by the rising teenage pregnancy rate that they finally said no to the money, which is nearly unheard of in federal grant-giving.
Functionally, what Douthat is arguing is that if someone steps on your little toe and then someone else comes along and crushes your foot with a sledgehammer, the first guy hurt you just as badly. It doesn’t compute. If Douthat wants to quote the Guttmacher, he should look at the extensive research they put in to looking at why pregnancy rates declined in the 90s. The research on this shows that the most important factor in the declining birth rate was improved use of contraception, followed by a greater willingness to use abortion and a small dip in the amount of sexual activity, because kids are delaying first intercourse. But anti-choicers shouldn’t take credit for that last one! As Mark Regnerus’s research shows, the kids most likely to delay first intercourse are the very kids who are least likely to be told to abstain until marriage—atheists, Jews, and mainline Protestants waited the longest. Evangelical Christians had sex at younger ages. The abstinence message in religion is actually linked to younger intercourse, probably for the mundane reason that kids who don’t get respectful sex education aren’t equipped to delay sex until they’re ready by fooling around.
It’s absolutely true that most kids’ decisions are based on culture and family values. I agree—which is why I can’t help but repeatedly point out that anti-contraception values lead to younger sex and more pregnancy. But what you hear in school has a small influence on your decisions, and the funny thing about pregnancy is it only takes one time. One time when you don’t have a condom and you think about how you heard in school that they don’t work anyway. Plus, sex education in schools helps send signals about larger community values. Comprehensive sex education signals, for instance, that girls are valued for their minds and their health, not just as life support systems for reproductive functions. And we know that girls that feel valued are more likely to make future-oriented choices.
*One of the biggest problems with this claim is that it’s situated in a culture that fetishizes female virginity. Very few women who wait for marriage marry men who did, as anyone who grew up around evangelical Christians could tell you. But they’re encouraged to think the ring protects, but as their husbands have had sex before, they’re probably going to give them HPV. The virus is so common, remember, that all women are assumed to have it and get annual screenings for HPV-caused cancers. And that includes virgins-when-married.