No Sex For You
- No Sex For You
November 06, 2006
The Bush administration's recent decision to fund programs urging
unmarried 19-to-29 year-olds to abstain from sex has unleashed a storm
of indignation around the country. When I was asked to comment on the
policy on two radio talk shows, I was surprised to find that I was
actually less offended by this right-wing initiative than were my
conservative hosts and their audiences. Callers overwhelmingly
expressed their outrage at the idea that the Feds should be paying
people to advise grown adults on how to conduct their sex lives.
My own reaction is, in the words of our president, "Bring `em on."
Here's why I welcome the attempt to target older men and women with
the abstinence-only message: It's so ludicrous it's almost harmless.
I'm even willing to offer the religious rightists who have gradually
taken over America's sex education and reproductive health programs
some free advice.
Wade Horn, the Bush administration's point man on family issues,
argues that the focus of abstinence-only campaigns needs to shift
toward older singles because more births are occurring among unmarried
women aged 19-29, and "the only 100 percent effective way" to reduce
such out-of-wedlock births is to practice abstinence until marriage.
But Horn is behind the curve on this issue.
If he wants to target the age groups where unwed childbearing is
increasing the fastest, he should drop the 19-year-old category and
raise the upper end of the age range even more. After all, the
percentage of babies born to women 24 and under dropped by nearly 6
percent between 1991 and 2003, while the number of older unwed mothers
has been climbing steadily. Today, nearly 30 percent of unwed mothers
are between the ages of 25 and 29 when they give birth, and the number
of unwed mothers aged 30 to 44 has risen by nearly 20 percent since 1991.
So I would urge the administrators of abstinence-only programs to get
out there and tell those unmarried women in their late twenties and
thirties to abstain from sex until they find a husband. And I wish
them lots of luck.
No society in history has ever been able to convince young adults
living on their own to remain celibate. Furthermore, many births to
women aged 25 and older are not accidents. Such women don't end up
with kids because condoms or diaphragms failed. They have kids while
still single because they haven't yet found a worthy life mate. There
are many reasons why women who want a child in today's world may feel
that entering motherhood outside of marriage beats marrying a man who
can't or won't offer them a firm emotional and financial commitment.
Among the different reasons that women choose to go it alone, or not
to marry even if they are living with someone (40 percent of unwed
births are to cohabiting couples), are the declining job prospects of
young men with a high school education or less; high incarceration
rates in African-American communities; and the ticking biological
clock of more educated women who have postponed marriage and
motherhood and then find themselves with a failed relationship on
Whatever we think of their decisions, the greater willingness of women
to have children on their own is part of an ongoing, worldwide
revolution in gender roles and the place of marriage in personal and
social life. We might be able to increase some couples' willingness to
marry by providing men and women with better educational opportunities
and living wage jobs, or by lessening the strains on couple
relationships through family-friendly social policies. But a certain
amount of unwed motherhood is clearly here to stay, and preaching
abstinence will not change that.
So I welcome the diversion provided by this campaign. For if preaching
abstinence to adults is ludicrous, targeting teenagers with
abstinence-only propaganda is downright dangerous. Indeed, it often
backfires. Look at the teen virginity pledges promoted by many of the
very same religious groups pushing abstinence-only sex education
programs. A long-term study at Yale and Columbia compared teens who
took virginity pledges with those who did not. They found that nearly
9 out of 10 of those taking the pledge ended up having sex before
marriage. The pledgers generally began having genital sex several
months later than the non-pledgers, and they had fewer partners before
marrying. But before losing their technical virginity, they were six
times more likely than their non-pledging peers to engage in risky
practices such as unprotected oral and anal sex. And once the teens
started having sexual intercourse, males who had taken the virginity
pledge were much less likely to use a condom than males who did not
take the pledge. In consequence, there were no statistically
significant differences in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases
among pledgers and non-pledgers. In fact, in communities where
abstinence-only values were so prevalent that 20 percent or more of
teens took the pledge, the rate of STDs was higher than in more
permissive communities where less than 7 percent of teens took the pledge.
We have many examples of how, in the real world, moralistic "values"
campaigns interact with ignorance and denial to produce the very
opposite results of what their proponents hope to achieve. Divorce
rates and unwed childbearing are higher in the Bible Belt than in more
liberal parts of the country. And although Americans as a whole
(including teens themselves) are much more disapproving of teen sex
than people in Canada and Western Europe, on average, U.S. teens begin
sex earlier, have more partners, and are much more likely to get STDs
than their counterparts in countries where acceptance of teen
sexuality is widespread and teens have easy access to comprehensive
sex education and contraception.
Yet the right-wing stranglehold over policy-making on these issues has
been so effective that in many regions, so-called "faith-based"
programs threaten to replace scientifically-designed programs to
improve the sexual and reproductive health of teens. In 1988, only 2
percent of American students received "abstinence-only" classes as
their sole source of sex education. Today, this is true for more than
a third of all students. When a congressional committee examined these
abstinence programs in 2004, nearly 80 percent were found to present
incorrect information, such as the false claim that condoms fail 31
percent of the time, or that "sex outside of marriage increases [the]
risk of mental illness, depression and suicide."
The abstinence-only movement does not protect the reproductive and
sexual health of American teens. And when it is incorporated into
international policy, as in the attempt to promote abstinence instead
of condoms in programs to fight AIDS and curb unwanted pregnancies in
the undeveloped world, the abstinence crusade directly threatens the
well-being of millions of people. Calling this movement "faith-based"
is an insult to the majority of religious Americans who combine their
faith with respect for scientific study. These are not "faith-based"
programs. They are fantasy-based programs. If we can't awaken their
proponents to reality, by all means let's encourage them to focus
their efforts on the least vulnerable population: the millions of
unwed American adults who have the maturity and self-confidence to see
these programs for the shams that they are.
Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at Evergreen
State College in Olympia, Wash., and is director of research and pubic
education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent
book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Viking Press).
NOTE: It might be useful for those truly serious about promoting
abstinence among the unmarried to study those cultures who are
relatively successful in convincing young people to wait until they
are married. Clearly, creating an economic basis where marriage is
possible for young people would have to be the key. An example would
be a shift of social values to where young adults would be encouraged
to get married and move into the home of their spouse's parents.
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