Studies have shown that when you feed children they grow up, and when they grow up, there is a very high likelihood that they will have sex. If they have sex and don’t think it has to result in pregnancy, be associated with punishment or pain, take place in a heterosexual marriage, or relate to sinful shame, they apparently grow up to be Democrats. Who vote. Which may explain why some conservatives aren’t too keen on real sex ed. Ninety percent of American parents believe that teens should be taught about contraceptives. And yet, 25 percent of teachers are prohibited from teaching kids about them and we continue to pay the social and economic costs of lack of education and access about sexual health.
The U.S. teen birthrate of 40 live births per 1,000 teenage girls is the highest among developed nations. Our country also has some of the highest rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, teen maternal mortality, HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses in the developed world because there are guys in Congress who think women should pay for original sin and labor in pain and darkness. This is how a small and bullying minority, aided and abetted by media’s privileging of religion, has ensured that their pre-modern, fundamentalist social policy agendas affect all of us. But, there is good news! We get to pay for it.
With your tax dollars and mine our country spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only sex education between 1998 and 2008 (it went from $73 million per year in 2001 to $204 million per year in 2008 under George Bush). Since 2010, the Obama administration’s, Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), has undertaken a broader-based comprehensive sex ed approach, but states—like Florida and Texas, are not obliged to use it in public schools. Even during Obama’s tenure, Republicans managed, in 2010 to negotiate $50 million dollars of abstinence–only sex ed funding into the Affordable Care Act and another $5 million into a 2012 appropriations bill. Unplanned teen pregnancies costs $10 billion dollars a year.
Like sex ed, a lot of what we call “social issues” could simply be called “sex issues:” gay marriage, abortion rights, birth control, and even issues like stem cell research. As Amanda Marcotte put it earlier this year, “More than most campaign seasons in the past couple of decades, this most recent election serves as a reminder that the gap between sexually progressive and reactionary pockets of America persists. If anything, it’s growing, with progressives forging ahead and reactionaries making increasingly stringent demands for laws and policies that punish and control sexuality, especially queer and female sexuality.” There is the party of “sex is natural and good” and the party of “sex is sinful and wrong.” “Sex is natural and good” won and that’s got to count for something.
A blogger at the Christian Men’s Defense Network made a similar point albeit with a different conclusion. Apparently “The Slut Vote” did the GOP in. You know, “The right to slut. Or more precisely, the right to slut without the responsibility of consequences.” He goes on… through the goal posts and off of the field! “Democrats have won the black vote because the black community is dominated by illegitimacy.” Which is, after all, all about slutty black women, as opposed to the “rich white sluts” in the suburbs who have now caught the dread irresponsible slut-virus, S. Flukophilium. “However, this election cycle shows that the Slut Vote is real, and Republicans lose because they discount the existence of original sin in women.” I love this stuff!
What he is talking about isn’t just the decoupling of sex from procreation, but the “irresponsibility” of women who cannot think “rationally,” insist on acting without male guidance and don’t want to pay for the consequences of their wantonness. But, it’s not really about consequences and irresponsibility and “who pays” at all. What it is about is who gets to say who has sex and what its function is in society. From this perspective we just went through what could be seen as a national referendum on whether or not sex is a good thing in and of itself and the election was our most recent rejection of shame- and faith-based regulation of other people’s sex lives and reproduction. If not, good Christian men and the people they elect would be spending trillions on comprehensive sex ed that teaches teenagers all about responsibility, consequences, and “who pays.”
Maybe a lot of Team Rape’s political suicide could have been avoided with a simple 12 week comprehensive sex ed class. But, beyond my complete lack of pity for any losses that conservative rape qualifiers and apologists and their surrogates suffered in the election, I think failing to teach young people about sex and healthy sexuality, denying them access to facts about their health and sexuality is a kind of abuse.
Take Texas. It is one of the top five teen pregnancy rate states in the country. More than 94 percent of schools in Texas teach abstinence-only “sex ed.” Not only is it ineffective in terms of preventing, well, anything undesirable, and often involves outright lying to children, but look at the results:
- Teenagers in Texas engage in sex more than the national average
- They engage in risky behavior in greater numbers than average
- Texas has the fourth highest rate of pregnancy in the nation
- It also highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy
The CDC estimates that in Texas 825,000 students in grades 6 to 12 are having sex each year. An estimated 775,500 OF THEM GET NO MEANINGFUL INFORMATION ABOUT SEX FROM SCHOOL ‘SEX ED” PROGRAMS. It turns out that comprehensive sex ed is one of those “higher order thinking skills” that the Texas Republican State Platform banned (I’m not being sarcastic, they banned it, read it and weep). For example, as Gail Collins wryly points out in her excellent and timely book, As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Highjacked The American Agenda ”an abstinence-only program used in three districts assures them that “if a woman is dry, the sperm will die”—which harks back to Colonial-era theories that it was impossible for a woman to get pregnant unless she enjoyed the sex.”
The problem conservatives have with other people’s choices about sex are profoundly related to ideas about shame, control, and other people’s bodies and autonomy— especially women’s. And those problems are tied up, “bound” you might even say, with what people know or don’t know about sex, autonomy, biology, and reproduction. Turns out the temptress-busting Purity Bear is a bit more Machiavellian than it appear on its soft and fuzzy surface. Abstinence-only programs are all about gender rules and not breaking them—the way single women and LGTB people do. For a good, corky read, I strongly suggest Legal Momentum’s study of abstinence only program materials: Sex, Lies and Stereotypes.
Given the lack of birth control options, and Texas’ insistence on shutting down Planned Parenthood and erecting instead frothy pink “clinics,” the state’s abstinence-only regime should be renamed The Texas State Compulsory Pregnancy Program for Teen Girls.
And it is not just Texas, per above.
Eighty-two percent of babies born to teens are unintended and born to girls whose prefrontal cortexes are not yet fully formed because they are too young. Not educating them, expecting them to “just say no” is more than irresponsible and often callous.
Take the 14-year old girl in Florida who gave birth by herself in a bathroom at home and then, not knowing what to do with the baby and not wanting to upset her mother, strangled it to death and hid it in a shoebox in her room. Her mother found it days later and called the police. This is a tragic and awful situation. I cannot even imagine what was going on in this girl’s head or in her home. From an article in Alternet: she “did not know what else to do about her pregnancy and didn’t have the adult support she needed, from either family or school, to weigh her options.” The writer went on to point out that Florida “has historically been resistant to any kind of sex-education reform that promotes or mandates comprehensive education over abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula. In fact, the state returned $4.5 million in federal funds as of 2010, awarded under the Obama Administration’s Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). Instead, the state accepted Title V funding , originally established in 1996, to promote sexual abstinence until marriage as the primary means of preventing pregnancy and STDs.” This girl might serve a life sentence.
In her 2006 book, When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex and Sex Education Since the Sixties author Kristin Walker concluded that students will do what they want to do regardless of what teachers teach them. So, it turns out that parents who talk to their children about sex (or conversely, don’t) have great influence on behavior. And the major difference in how parent think about sex is whether or not they consider it sacred or not, fundamentally dangerous or fun.
This goes some way to explaining some good news: Recent and notable declines in teen pregnancy in the United State show that our teen pregnancy rate is declining. We now have fewer teenage mothers than at any time since 1946. It turns out parental attitudes are meaningful and kids are getting information and contraception in spite of systemic attempts to deny them this information.
Amy Schalet’s Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and The Culture of Sex compares the ways in which American parents differ in their approach to those of parents in the Netherlands. In broad terms, sex, more often than not portrayed here as dangerous, is forbidden by parents and educators to teenagers in the United States and not to those in the Netherlands. In practical terms, parents in the Netherlands, talk openly with their children about the meaning and mechanics of sex and often allow their teenage children to engage in sex with their partners in their homes. Here’s how Schalet, in a New York Times article she wrote, describes two of the cases from her book:
Kimberly and Natalie dramatize the cultural differences in the way young women experience their sexuality. (I have changed their names to protect confidentiality.) Kimberly, a 16-year-old American, never received sex education at home. “God, no! No, no! That’s not going to happen,” she told me. She’d like to tell her parents that she and her boyfriend are having sex, but she believes it is easier for her parents not to know because the truth would “shatter” their image of her as their “little princess.”
Natalie, who is also 16 but Dutch, didn’t tell her parents immediately when she first had intercourse with her boyfriend of three months. But, soon after, she says, she was so happy, she wanted to share the good news. Initially her father was upset and worried about his daughter and his honor. “Talk to him,” his wife advised Natalie; after she did, her father made peace with the change. Essentially Natalie and her family negotiated a life change together and figured out, as a family, how to adjust to changed circumstance.
Respecting what she understood as her family’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Kimberly only slept with her boyfriend at his house, when no one was home. She enjoyed being close to her boyfriend but did not like having to keep an important part of her life secret from her parents. In contrast, Natalie and her boyfriend enjoyed time and a new closeness with her family; the fact that her parents knew and approved of her boyfriend seemed a source of pleasure.
In this scenario there is more openness and parents get to know their kids’ partners. It’s complex, emotional and intimate, but has its benefits. Teenagers in the Netherlands tend to wait longer before having sex, have fewer partners and use easily acquired birth control consistently and correctly, resulting in much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion. In defiance of socially conservative mythology, parental and school approaches that are positive about sex do not lead to licentiousness, STDs, abortions and despair. On the contrary, the more you teach children about healthy, responsible sex, the more likely they are to treat sex in healthy, responsible ways. In general, they are more knowlegable, more emotionally mature about it and “safer” in the scary-sex way. It goes a long way to understanding why the rate of teen pregnancy is the US is four times that in the Netherlands, for example.
So, if you aren’t comfortable with your own sexuality can you teach your kids to be comfortable with theirs? Do you know what your real attitudes about sex are? Would you rather teach your kids that sex is dangerous and forbidden or that it is permissible and…well, awesome? Are you a “responsible-sex-is-good” parent, or more in the “scare-them-silly” camp? This issue, of how you think about sex, is relevant for men and women. But, for women, it is not only more fraught, but also much more tied to shame.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Here’s a bonus! Enter the excellent Jaclyn Friedman, whose book What You Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, is about this very subject. The book contains a quiz at the beginning that you might want to consider taking, if only for fun. But, seriously, she touches on the important question of how women internalize shame and understand the threat of sluttiness – both of which can be transferred to children.
“Being perceived as a woman who “wants it” comes with terrible, dehumanizing social costs,” explains Jaclyn Friedman. In conservative families and communities, and for many conservative women the word “slut” is a weapon. It – and all of the associated ideas that come with it – is also, as we witnessed during Slutgate earlier this year, just about the worst insult a conservative thinks they can hurl at a woman. Recently, after I wrote about women’s reproductive rights and the election, I was subjected to a pile on of online abuse from conservative women who disagreed with me. Their worst commentary on my ideas? Not that they were sloppy or inaccurate. But, that I was “whorish,” “slutty” and a “skank.”
I’m hoping that if people read these books and talk to their kids we might even end up with a presidential ticket made up of two women sometime in the next 500 years! Or, at the very least, that the Clinton-Warren 2016 Facebook Page picks up serious steam.