Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Problem With "Abstinence" Education Programs

The messages coming out of the "abstinence education" programs coming out of the United States are beginning to really bother me. This particular little gem struck me as particularly tasteless, as well as underscoring the problems with the whole "abstinence" movement.

First, understand one thing - I don't think abstinence is a bad idea - in fact I think it's a very prudent idea. But I'm also a realist. Teenagers are not fully rational human beings - they are walking, breathing collections of hormones whose rationality is suspect. Throughout the ages, once human adolescents reach a certain point in their development, they will start to experiment sexually - no matter what taboos society has established around the topic. Society is deeply mistaken if it naively believes that artificial taboos will make that behaviour change.

The photograph above really irritates me for a number of reasons - first, consider the message for young women especially. Sex becomes a tool of exchange - you exchange sex for a commitment (marriage). Pregnancy is shameful otherwise; sexual behaviour is a woman's problem - after all, men don't get pregnant. Oh yes, above all, sex is for procreation. (We won't go into the biology of why sex is wired into our brain's _pleasure centers_, will we? That might actually lead to some kind of logical understanding of reality)

While advocates of abstinence only approaches to sexuality like to claim that abstinence is the only "guaranteed way" to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of STIs, organizations like Planned Parenthood are quite right to decry this trivial truism.

In a perfect world, perhaps the arbitrary prohibitions of society would be followed by all its members. History has shown that this is seldom, if ever the case in any society larger than a small village. Teaching teenagers about sexuality in a calm, rational manner is not immoral, nor is it giving them a license to engage in sexual activity. I'd much rather have them aware of the consequences of their actions; knowledgeable about condoms and other contraceptive devices for one basic reason - parents cannot be there every time a teenager makes a decision - the best that they can do is make sure that the teen has the best possible knowledge, and hope that the teen makes a good decision on their own. In an era where AIDS exists, a bad decision can be fatal; a bad decision made in ignorance is not only fatal, but it becomes society's failure.

Abstinence programs don't teach about sexuality; they don't teach people about contraception and family planning (and no, the rhythm method is not contraception, no matter what the Catholic Church claims). Instead, they retreat into the shadowy world of making sexuality a taboo in the vain hope that they can shame people into "behaving". Honest knowledge does not guarantee good behaviour, but it makes it a lot easier to for people to make better decisions. We do the generations coming behind us no favours by denying them access to knowledge because it is seen by some as "immoral".

Besides, a society where people aren't ashamed of their sexuality is ultimately going to be much healthier than one where the topic is buried in the mire of taboo and shame.

I wonder where Stephen Harper and the CPC come down on this issue? (I can guess - anyone for a little candidate baiting?)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The other problem with Abstinence Only education programs is they flat out don't work. The statistics are clear, teens begin having sex later when they've had a comprehensive sexual education that includes information on a variety of birth control methods.