“Abstinence only” vs. “abstinence never”

The mainstream media’s constant promotion of sexual irresponsibility doesn’t justify the BushCo attempt to enroll teenagers in the Anti-Sex League, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

Commenting on my complaint about the BushCo guidelines on “abstinence-only” education, a reader points me to this astonishing bit of filth that was on the CNN/Netscape front page last night. As my reader says, it shares with the “abstinence-only” document a reluctance to mention contraception amounting to indifference about the consequences of sex. (It also seems to suggest, astonishingly, that if your current sexual partner doesn’t have any other current sexual partners, the resulting activity is safe as far as STD transmission goes.)

Of course, the two documents have opposite valences: instead of insisting that desire should never lead to consummation until the union has been officially blessed, the CNN/Netscape piece assumes that desire should always lead to consummation as long as the desire is strong enough:

We all use kissing as a barometer of whether or not you’ll mesh in the sack. But for many, it also clues us in to when it’s time to do the deed. Those first few smooches might have been generic, but after a few dates you start figuring out what works for both of you. And once your kisses can deliver that weak-in-the-knees feeling and the fireworks behind your eyes, you know it’s time to take things further.

(Note the “you know” &#8212 as opposed to “you’ll want to consider whether” &#8212 in the last line. It’s repeated further down the story; once you’re no longer reluctant to take off your clothes, we’re told, “you know” you’re ready for intercourse.)

Remind me to add Laura Snyder to my “do not date” list.

Yes, the mainstream mass-media culture can fairly be described as sexually corrupt and corrupting, and not just from a fundamentalist perspective. The advertising is even worse than the editorial content. So it’s hard not to sympathize with the TheoCons, and with Tipper Gore, in their concern that the media are making parenting, or even maintaining one’s own decency, harder than necessary. We shouldn’t let our opposition to the TheoCon remedies blind us to the underlying reality.

By the same token, acknowledging the underlying reality should not lead us to embrace as a remedy the deception of schoolchildren in ways that promote sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion.

As Bill Bennett no doubt mentions somewhere in The Book of Virtues, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on ““Abstinence only” vs. “abstinence never””

  1. Your complaint makes about as much sense to me as the complaint that McDonald's doesn't serve fine wines. In a column that is written to be read by consenting adults you won't always find the same level of information that you ought to have the right to demand if the school is going to give it to your child. Its not a technical manual for children–and it doesn't treat adults as t hough they were children.
    Your attempt to make this equivalent, in some way, to the abstinence only education guidlines is misguided. The two documents don't have "opposite valences" except in this: one doesn't accept desire and sex as a natural part of human relations and the other does. *Even* if you think that children should not have sex or not have sex before marriage whatever education they do have should include all relevant information for when they do have sex. In the same way if we were teaching driver safety to children who are too young to have a liscence we don't forbid them to learn about the car or about driving *until* they have the liscence–in fact they cant get the liscence without knowing the facts.
    The article takes for granted that the two people are adults and not involved with other people–though its a bit mushy on when and whether the individual should insist on exclusivity. The article doesn't say that desire should always lead to sex–it says that desire in a committed, exclusive relatinship IS NORMAL and that sexual satisfaction is an important part of human relationships. In fact it cautions the reader not to assume that sexual satisfaction is either not necessary or to be taken for granted. Recently the Times published a long article about a good christian woman from the heartland (TM) who makes a nice living selling sex aides and sexual information to women who have been taught, or misled, into believing that their bodies and their desires should remain completely unexplored and unexplorable even within the confines of marriage. Frankly, to this reader the article (except with its lack of information on STD's and contraception) reads like any other piece of fluff from a women's magazine and simply extends to the sexual realm the can do and lighthearted attitude that women's magazines have always taken towards flower potting, curtain making, and de-cluttering. You could write a nice parody of Martha Stewart's version of these sex-tips-from-heloise.
    But condemn them out of hand as the obverse of the actively anti-pleasure and anti-child abstinence only sex miseducation that the right wing is forcing on our children? Please. This is not by any means "sexually corrupt" and its not even "sexually corrupting." Who on earth in reading it will be corrupted?

  2. Mark is dead on, here. The article in question assumes not only that people in committed relationships often have sex, but that *it is the only reasonable thing to do.* That it is totally wrongheaded to consider waiting until marriage for sex, and then once you have reached a certain level of desire, sex must follow as naturally as breathing.

  3. Recommended reading : Jared Diamond's "Why is Sex Fun?" It's not an obvious question. Your pet dog doesn't think about sex for weeks at a time, until he meets a female in heat. Humans are one of the comparatively few species, along with bonobo chimps and I think mole rats, that use sex for social purposes other than procreation,and therefore have it a lot.
    Diamond lost me somewhere in a complex discussion of the evolutionary track to current human sexuality, with the biological oddities of concealed estrus and the menopause. I gathered we don't easily fit into any of the three main sexual styles of sccial mammals, which are harems, promiscuous troops, and, more rarely, pairs, with or without adultery: the third pattern is more common in seabirds that nest in colonies. None of this tells us how to behave, but it does make some pseudo-biological arguments for moral stances incredible. The traditional Catholic line that sex is only for procreation is factually wrong.

  4. huh? what article were you reading? and how was this targeted at schoolchildren? and where did it say you must have unprotected sex? and what power does this person have to write legislation or teach these ideas, inasmuch as there are any in this very slight piece? compared, say to teaching pure misinformation in schools, like abstinence only sex ed? misinfo which leads, per various studies, to greater incidences of teen pregnancy and STDs?
    let me put it in a way the blogosphere will understand (per the WSJ article)–what the &@$# are you talking about?
    if there is anything lamer than the liberal desire for "balance", i'll be thrilled to hear about it (wait, that may be an example of what i'm talking about right there. my head hurts.)

  5. I don't think that's true about dogs. They will often mount inanimate objects, apparently becuse they enjoy it. Mounting also seems to be some sort of dominance ritual, with females sometimes doing the mounting and males sometime being mounted, which seems pretty social to me.

  6. Bill Bennett and Mark Kleiman should realize that you can't add up two completely different discussions and come to a mid point that is correct–not only don't "two wrongs make a right" but you can't add up two arguments and get a single answer. Or, to put it in another cliche, you are comparing apples and oranges.

  7. Even as a middle-aged parent, I think this post is a little over the top. Especially the gratuitous do not date comment.
    We live in a world of changed and conflicting mores, and people – especially 20 somethings – are in the process of renegotiating the norms of interaction around dating and sex. This article seems like just another inelegant step in that difficult process. There's been some interesting discussion of modern hooking up/courtship in the comments at unfogged and bitchphd.

  8. Or do the short form- anyone who needs an article like that…isn't ready to have sex.
    Now that we probably won't be leaving an inhabitable world to our children, it's time to get past the simplistic "procreation" model.

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