Monday, March 20, 2006

Your Biological Destiny
Last Saturday I taught a class at a high school in a nearby town, and we happened to be in the health classroom. Remember health class? The one where you learned that smoking is bad, eating healthy food is good, and drinking alcohol is bad--often taught by an overweight football coach who could often be spotted having a smoke behind the building?

In the 21st century, health class is also where you learn that abstaining from sex is good. There were more abstinence posters on the walls of this particular classroom than anything else, splashed with colorful graphics and photos of obviously cool kids, all attractive and well-dressed, all happy and filled with purpose. (I'd like to think you could see behind their eyes a horniness that dared not speak its name, but that's a stretch.) One poster touted something called "2nd Virginity"--pledging not to do the deed again after having done it previously. Another text-heavy poster waxed lyrical about the wonderful gift you give your spouse when you wait for your wedding night. The most effective one was, "If you think it's hard talking to your parents about sex, try talking to them about grandchildren." That's one that would have worked on me back in the day.

You probably know enough about abstinence education to know that it doesn't work as well as its proponents think it does. That it gives kids strange ideas about what constitutes "sex"--there's so much focus on avoiding genital-to-genital contact that kids don't consider alternate uses of the equipmment to be sex at all. That it leaves kids who don't abstain without any useful information to keep from getting pregnant. That it is, in the end, the ultimate designed-by-clueless-adults program for kids, one that ignores the hormonal reality that human beings, especially young ones, live with every day.
What you might not know is that I'm for it, up to a point. When I was student teaching, I had a student in one of my classes who, at age 16, already had two babies. She wasn't in class very much--which was entirely understandable. The Mrs. has a cousin who raised a close-knit, churchgoing family of five kids in a rural area of the Midwest. Despite receiving the sort of classic Leave-it-to-Beaver upbringing that the wingnuts think we all should return to, two of her cousin's daughters got pregnant during high school. A little abstinence would have been a good thing for all of these kids. Of course, a little education about how to use a condom would have helped, too. The only mention of condoms in the classroom I was in last Saturday was a poster that said, "Condoms don't protect the heart." (That one strikes me as potentially rather effective, too, especially with teenage girls.)

Abstinence education proponents talk about "waiting until kids are ready," but that usually means "waiting until kids are married." Thus, abstinence education reinforces the cultural norm of marriage, and the idea that the only place in which sex is appropriate is within that institution. That was the prevailing view in the United States for a long time; it's only within the last 40 years or so that we've readily entertained alternate views. Lest you think that the norm of the last 40 years is here to stay, however, get this: There's a report at Salon this morning about a fledgling movement with the goal of eradicating birth control entirely, for everybody, as a means to an even more spectacular end: forcing women to fulfill their biological destiny as mothers, by banning abortion, banning birth control, and also putting obstacles in the way of families getting out-of-home child care. To these people, sex is for procreation only, and if you're not having babies, you shouldn't be having it at all. They're not interested in simply turning the clock back to the 1950s, they'd like to turn it back to the Victorian Era. And they're succeeding, in the same way the wingers have succeeded in putting Roe v. Wade on the brink--by taking incremental steps that remain out of the glare of the public spotlight until the project reaches critical mass. At that point, the deal is nearly done before most people know the deal is being made.

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