Bane of the pro-choice community William Saletan decided to use his Roe v. Wade anniversary essay to scold pro-choicers for our perceived unwillingness to be very sad about abortion. It's a song he's been singing for a long time — that pro-choicers would automatically win over anti-choicers if we agreed to work towards a goal of zero abortions by encouraging contraception use and extending social services, as if pro-choicers didn't already do that. We mostly would like a world with zero abortions, zero heart surgeries, zero root canals, and zero bad break-ups, but being grown-ups, we mostly accept that perfection is a pipe dream.
Saletan's pipe dream also ignores the fact that the organized anti-choice movement opposes contraception and STD protection as well as abortion. To echo what Scott Lemieux is always saying in his responses to Saletan, we have to deal with the reactionaries that we have, not the idealized ones in our heads.
But in this essay, Saletan goes beyond the empty moralizing about abortion and makes a statement that shot eyebrows up all over the decadent liberal blogosphere.
To pro-choicers: Talk about abortion the way you've been talking about teen sex, embracing an ideal number of zero.
Knee-jerk reactionary say what? Arguing that the ideal amount of teen sex is zero could quite possibly be the most empty, hypocritical moral posturing imaginable in our culture. It might even be worse than getting on a high horse about pot-smoking, which is something that the vast majority of Americans have done at one point or another without any ill effects to show for it. But teen sex posturing may be even worse, because while pot-smoking doesn't cause much harm, it's not exactly a super-positive thing to do, either. But most of us had sex as teenagers, and most of us will admit to being glad of it in private. I can count on one hand the number of people I've known over my life who waited until their twenties to start having sex, and the number who did so on purpose is even smaller. I will happily say that my biggest regret about adolescent sexual experimentation is that I didn't start earlier. (Seriously, I was such an anxious teenager that I bought all the scare stories about losing your virginity. Turned out that it wasn't that big a deal, and I regret that I lost out on a time in my life that could have been more fun. If my high school sweetheart is reading this, I offer my sincere apologies for mishandling that issue.) But most of us feel this pressure to condemn teenage sex in official, public circumstances. With such a huge gulf between public belief and private belief on this issue, it appears we have a Big Social Lie on our hands.
Why do people so eagerly jump at the chance to be giant hypocrites on this issue? Or, at best, they are self-congratulatory egoists who think, "Well sure, I was ready to have sex at 17, but I don't think kids these days can handle it." I suspect it's because of parents, and the way your children's emerging sexuality makes you uncomfortable and reminds you that you're going to die. And for some others, I suspect there's a dose of jealousy that we don't have the stay-up-all-night-doing-it passion that adolescents easily command. Let me take a moment to sympathize with this dilemma. I also hate facing my morality, the effects of gravity, and the urge to nap instead of do more interesting things. And I'm only 30. I'm sure it gets worse from here. But extrapolating that into shaming and controlling teenagers in blossom is neither inevitable nor healthy.
In fact, it seems that the goals of reducing the abortion rate and stopping teenagers from having sex might be in opposition to one another. In a post by Virginia Rutter on these issues, she links a cross-cultural research study done on American and Dutch parents to see why Dutch teenagers, who have sex at the same ages as American teenagers, do better on the common indicators of sexual wellness. They change partners less frequently, they get pregnant less often, they use birth control more consistently, and they don't contract STIs as often. The interviewers decided to measure parental attitudes about teenage sex by asking parents if they allow the romantic partners of 16- and 17-year-old children to sleep over. American parents almost universally recoiled at the idea, and Dutch parents almost universally accepted it.
From there, the interviews went into more depth, discovering that Americans and the Dutch conceptualize teenage sexuality and love much differently from each other. Dutch parents tend to accept that teenagers fall in love and generally have the expectation that teenage sex is a legitimate expression of love. Americans, meanwhile, to put it bluntly, reject the idea that teenagers can love each other.
The reasons are resoundingly sexist. Conservative and liberal both, Americans tend to think boys are incapable of loving girls (and are just "using" them for sex) and that girls are too feather-brained to realize that their intense feelings aren't real somehow. (Not sure how a feeling can't be real if it's really felt.) And teenagers, being human, will live up to the expectations put on them. Dutch teenagers are expected to have sex in a responsible, loving manner expected of adult relationships, and they do. American teenagers are expected to have sex under semi-criminal and dirty circumstances, and they all too often do.
At the Sex Tech conference, we were treated to a panel of young winners of the sex ed video contest. All of them were demanding a sex education that was more holistic, where there was talk about relationships and love alongside the more dry information about the physical mechanics of sex. If the Dutch successes are any indication, then these kids were on the right path. It takes five minutes to show someone how to put on a condom, but it takes a lot more to teach kids how to get into the respectful situations necessary to make sure the condom is in fact used.