I was going to write about this last week, but Prince Charles dissed Ronald McDonald at the last minute, which was both an irresistible target and made my job of ranting much easier. (Incidentally, McDonalds seems rather unfazed by Chazza’s offensive, considering that they are apparently planning to unveil a bigger, fatter burger – chapeau-tip: Andrew Sullivan.) In any event, the topic comes by way of a series of tangents: there I was reading a Times article from a week or so ago about how the Christian Right was having trouble finding a suitable candidate for the presidential election (Sam Brownback’s negatives make baby Jesus cry) when the following quote from a Republican activist caught my eye: “It’s called secondary virginity; he said. It is a big movement in high school and also available for politicians.” Devout Christians, it seems, are opposed to a second coming.
In fact, the activist in question was tax-cutting fanatic Grover Norquist and the renewed abstinence he was referring to was that of formerly tax-hungry Republicans who could still sign his no-tax pledge. But – and here’s the further tangent – Norquist’s blather got me pondering. Why is refraining from sex now a political statement, and why should it be considered admirable or virtuous?
As a matter of personal choice I have no objection to abstinence. How could I? Self-imposed sexual frustration can’t be anybody’s business but one’s own. But as a social movement, a prescription, a societal ethos – this is where I start to get a little frustrated myself. For one thing, such a movement can only be premised on the idea that voluntary sexual intercourse is somehow bad or impure. And I reject that premise out of hand. (It’s a testament to the grip of sex on the human psyche that every single phrase I use as I’m writing this could be bent toward innuendo – you see! It just happened again). Sex, as a rule, is enriching. There may be individuals for whom this is not the case and they certainly shouldn’t be mocked for abstaining. But for most of us, sex, for lack of a better word and with apologies to Gordon Gekko, is good. Sex is right. Sex works. Sex, in all its forms, has marked the upward surge (ahem) of mankind.
Man’s desire, however, isn’t necessarily the issue. From what I understand many of those who turn their nose up at coitus do so because they believe God wishes it so. Having never met the Fellow, I can only say that it must be nice to know His thoughts. But why a supreme deity would be interested in the specifics of one’s sexual shenanigans is, to me, the ultimate mystery of God (that and why He desired that parts of my genitals be sliced off shortly after birth). An argument based on divine will is impossible to refute of course, but there seem to be plenty of people who are quite religious and yet have no objection to pre-marital sex. Interpretation on this question is decidedly divided. I’d be curious what the theological and biblical arguments are for stressing abstinence but ultimately those who make them can offer no compelling reason for their reasoning separate from their faith.
Harm, then, could be a more reasonable basis for discouraging sex and promoting abstinence. It is often suggested that sex before or outside of marriage exposes participants, particularly the young, to physical and emotional harm. As to the latter, I just have to say that the prolonged absence of sex from my life during my formative years inflicted untold emotional damage on my tender psyche. I’d be curious if there’s any coherent empirical research to suggest that engaging in sex, in and of itself, is emotionally harmful to young people. No doubt quite a few young people suffer from emotional disorders that cause them to seek out self-destructive behaviour such as unprotected promiscuity, but in such cases sex itself is not the culprit.
As for physical danger, sex does indeed present a risk, even when sensible precautions are taken. But so does life. So, in fact, does almost anything worthwhile. The risks of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease can be greatly reduced by practicing safe sex. Marriage vows provide no guarantee against either. And while a monogamous sexual relationship no doubt reduces the risks, I wonder if marriage itself is any safer a proposition than “living in sin.” Given the nature of human infidelity, I’d wager a condom is a safer bet than a covenant.
Risk, in and of itself, is not not enough to proscribe sex. Teenagers are permitted and encouraged to engage in far riskier practices than making the beast with two (or other multiple) backs. I see no champion of abstinence calling for teen driving to be outlawed or discouraged. 3,467 drivers age 15-20 died in car crashes in 2005, and another 431, 870 were injured . In the same year, fewer than 1,500 people under the age of 19 were estimated to have been diagnosed with HIV. What with condoms being 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when used properly, those teens practicing safe sex would have accounted for only 12,000 of the approximately 600,000 annual unplanned pregnancies among women under the age of 20. Giving kids the keys to the car rather than the chastity belt seems a far more dangerous proposition, but abstinence proponents remain fixated on the collective sex drive.
Abstinence promotion itself may do rather more harm than good. As is now well known, almost 90 percent of teenagers who make “chastity pledges” end up breaking them, contracting STD’s in precisely the same proportion as those who do not make the pledge while being far more likely to be unaware of their infection, and so much more likely to transmit the infection to others. Abstinence-only programs breed nothing but ignorance, and perhaps a few more babies (and social diseases) thanks to all those repressed, misinformed youngsters flinging themselves into early marriages and unprotected sex. Champions of these programs are in fact advocating unsafe sex, and then have the gall to condemn schools for promoting promiscuity when they hand out out free Trojans. (By the way, why are Trojans named after something notorious for being breached? Is the implication that those who use the product are hung like Hectors?)
The only other claim for abstinence I can think of is that it raises self-esteem. Maintaining one’s chastity by resisting peer pressure is considered an act of self-confidence. But I’m skeptical. Surely self-esteem based on chastity must be as brittle as that based on promiscuity. And by telling youngsters to “think for themselves” by turning against the raging tide of hormones and schoolboy jeers the largely Christian abstinence movement is selling conformity as rebellion. Rejecting peer pressure and asserting one’s own desires are all to the good. But that still leaves the matter of one’s own desire. Suppressing it in obedience to an organized religious doctrine is hardly akin to a leathered Marlon Brando roaring down the highway on his Triumph.
On that high-decibel note, I should probably make my exit until next week. I shall fight the urge to engage in further polemic. And if in making these arguments I have set up a sex-starved straw man (distinguishable from other types of straw men in that it stays erect even after you knock it down), I apologize to my potential antagonists for distorting their position, to which I’m sure they hold with missionary zeal.
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