Sexual abstinence, carried to its (il)logical extreme

Why don’t Republicans make love standing up? They’re afraid it might lead to dancing.
Under new federal funding guidelines, adolescents have to be told that only married heterosexual couples should engage in any activity leading to “sexual stimulation.”

Why don’t Republicans make love standing up? They’re afraid it might lead to dancing.

Yes, it’s true: your money is being spent to tell schoolchildren that no one should engage in any activity leading to “sexual stimulation” except within a monogamous heterosexual marriage; in fact, it can’t be spent on telling them anything else, according the funding guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. “Sexual stimulation” doesn’t seem to be defined in the regulations, though it’s explicitly not limited to “genital contact”; read literally, it would apply to dancing, kissing, hugging, and even holding hands. (Authorities differ on whether foot massage constitutes “sexual stimulation.”)

As Amy Bryant points out on the Planned Parenthood website, this message has the clear implication that non-heterosexuals should never engage in “sexual stimulation” with anyone, ever. Of course, that’s always been the logical implication of the combination of “no sex before marriage” and “no gay marriage,” though the somewhat expansive definition of “sexual activity in the new regs does seem to break new ground. (I’ve remarked before on the astonishing capacity of the current ruling clique to assert the major and minor premises of a syllogism without asserting the conclusion.)

In addition, the regs forbid children to be taught anything useful about contraceptives and requires that they be taught about contraceptive failure rates and side-effects. The result, according to the published evaluations of such programs: slight delay in the age of first intercourse, and increased risk of pregnancy and STDs.

Volokh Conspirator Dale Carpenter quotes an email from Walter Olson of

It seems to me that a classic bait-and-switch has gone on here. The federal government has devoted more than a billion dollars to “abstinence-only” education programs in schools. These programs have commanded fairly broad public support or at least tolerance, I think, because people who disagree on many other things will often agree that youngsters are better off postponing sexual experience until they are old enough to handle the consequences. Now it turns out that the message wasn’t “teens are better off if they wait” but “let’s reverse the sexual revolution.”

Glenn Reynolds agrees.

Actually, on the age point I have a tiny bit of sympathy with the people writing the regs. If your intention is to get teens to wait, telling them “Sex is for grown-ups” might well prove counterproductive, by reinforcing the connection between sexual experience and adult status. After all, the only thing the average teenager wants more than his/her significant other’s body is to be a grown-up.

I say “a tiny amount” of sympathy because I have a strong, principled objection to lying to schoolchildren, and the claim that the currently operative social norm, outside a few religious minorities, is “no ‘sexual stimulation’ before marriage,” is false-to-fact.

The anti-contraceptive propaganda lacks even that thin justification. Of course this crowd doesn’t want to tell the truth about contraception, but the obvious alternative is to say nothing.

Politically, this may be a bridge too far for the fundamentalist anti-sex league. If I were a Democratic candidate in a swing district, I don’t think I’d make this an issue; but if I were in the party-building business, I’d try to make sure that every potential voter under 30 heard about and was laughing at it. Not having done the polling, I don’t want to be dogmatic, but I’d bet this would play very poorly indeed among the Gen X/Gen Y crowd. Don’t bother discussing it seriously; just make fun of the fact that Republicans don’t anyone to get any.

Footnote The regs seem to have been issued more or less stealthily, rather than being trumpeted; they came out in January, and we’re just hearing about them now, from a source opposed to them. That says something about what the Bushies think about the appeal of this sort of thing outside the theocrat wing of their base, as well as something about the dependency of the professional news media on press releases.

Special note to my Republican friends and readers If you don’t want the whole country laughing at Republican jokes, try changing your party’s leadership. When that doesn’t work, change parties yourself, and help us change our party’s leadership.

Update This just in: A Republican legislator in South Carolina wants to make the sale of sex toys a felony. The devices are already outlawed in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas.

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:

6 thoughts on “Sexual abstinence, carried to its (il)logical extreme”

  1. Let's see… that should also eliminate looking at most advertisements, watching movies, wearing perfumes or cosmetic "product." After reading a long horrible article about the Phelps hate cult, I'd say that leather, belts, whipping and, um, preaching would also be off limits…
    Tell the truth to children.
    Maybe Condoms to Go can start hosting birthday-parties for teenagers…

  2. When you're fifteen, everything is sexually stimulating. Next, the anti-sex fanatics will want to drug children sensless from puberty to the age of consent.

  3. I definitely don't understand the obsession with abstinence, but it does occur to me that "abstinence only" education must be especially disorienting for children of single parents. In those communities where the majority of children are born into never married families, what does the teacher say in response to a question of whether he thinks that most of his students should not have been born? Is this a form of cultural hegemony with racial overtones dressed up in the acceptable clothing of middle class morality? Because I just don't understand this obsession on its own terms.

  4. Remember, this is a country that didn't have real women modeling bras in commercials until about a decade ago.
    There's a lot of prudishness out there. It's declining, I suppose, but still enough remains for the Republicans to take advantage of.

  5. I think the GOP (1) wants to please the base, which really does believe that all non-hetrosexual, non-marital, or non-procreative sex is flatly prohibited, and (2) figures most suburban parents are so tied up in knots about their teenagers hearing about sex so much that they will favor an approach that lies to the kids and takes a categorical "no sex nohow nowhere" approach.
    That said, whether or not this works as an issue for Democrats, I still think they should raise it. The fact is that Republicans have been able to hide all sorts of extreme religious and patriarchal views behind what they claim to be a simple principled opposition to things like abortion and a desire that parents be able to choose what they tell their children about sex.
    People need to understand that there's bite behind the rhetoric about Republican "theocrats". And that means playing up that these people think that gay people and 45 year old widows should never have sex, that nobody should ever use contraception, that nobody should masturbate or buy a sex toy to spruce up their marriage, etc.
    At the very least, getting this stuff out in the open might force the Repubs to deny it and take a hit from their base.

  6. "Abstinence education": bait and switch?

    The Bush Administration recently issued regulations that tighten the definition of what must be preached in federally funded "abstinence education" school programs. At Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter relays some thoughts I had about the process…

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