Posted by: Beverly Dale | February 22, 2010

The Politics of Abstinence

Although a year ago Bristol Palin told us that sexual abstinence was not very realistic for teens, now, as a new mom estranged from her child’s father, she has become a spokeswoman and advocate for abstinence-only education.  In addition, she has “guaranteed” she will abstain until she marries.

It is telling that she does not use the word celibacy–for that, in the Christian tradition, would mean a carefully chosen spiritual path to bring the full measure of one’s time and energy to one’s spiritual calling. The word “abstinence,” on the other hand, has come to infer obedience to the “no sex until marriage” rule, the violation of which leaves one dirty, shameful and is a sin according to ab-only supporters.

In addition, the recently released study by husband-and-wife Penn professors John and Loretta Jemmott has hit the headlines, using the word abstinence and showing that teaching this to 12-14 year olds does delay sexual exploration. (But this is misleading, since no responsible educator of comprehensive sex education would suggest that middleschoolers should be having sex either.) It should be noted that their model of “abstinence” fails to to meet the guidelines as defined by the Bush administration for federal funds.  No matter. The ab-only supporters are crowing about how they had been right all along. Suddenly the politics of the culture war are in full play.

The downside of all this squabbling about whether to teach age-appropriate and medically-accurate information to young adults is unfortunately reflected in the rates of HIV/AIDS. Those who have had either ab-only sex ed or no sex education have higher rates of HIV/AIDS, a fact now documented by UPenn officials. (See our dvd.) Not surprisingly then, there is an incredible amount of sexual ignorance on this Ivy League campus.  Unfortunately, what we don’t know can indeed hurt, if not kill, us!

In a recent workshop with fraternity pledges, I called what mostly passes for sex in the ‘hook up’ culture “bad” sex.  This is an objectification of each other as simply and solely as body parts and not as whole people. This kind of experience usually leaves one feeling empty and often with the question, “Is this all there is?” When combined with the inevitable drug and alcohol usage, “bad” sex can too easily turn into “ugly sex” when doctors, police, or lawyers, (and University personnel!) become involved!

As a result of this presentation, one young man confessed that he now believed he had been a victim of bad sex the night before. When I asked him how he knew that he responded, “Because I feel like I was used.” If only he had been more prepared in his thinking. Ah, but we don’t encourage that in a culture promoting only abstinence.

So Bristol gets national coverage on both the Today Show and Oprah’s show, gets a job as in the ab-only industry, and helps her mother’s political ambitions. The Jemmotts’ thoughtful research gets published, then is distorted and misused. And meaningless sexual encounters by sexually uninformed young adults who are disconnected from a moral decision-making process remain the norm. Yes, my friend is being used, far more than he knows.


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