Good Girls Do

Amanda Marcotte

If women could accept that having sexual desire, and sex, was natural and right for them, then perhaps they would plan for it -- and make it safer.

Before I get into any of this, I want to completely agree with my fellow Offsprungians that in terms of "tragedy," famous little sister Jamie Lynn Spears having a baby at 16 doesn't really qualify. Our culture does provide a narrow view of the acceptable parent–white, middle class, married, college-educated, heterosexual–and most people who want to be parents don't qualify. It's safe to say that the ideal functions less as the prescriptive happiness formula that it's advertised as and more as an oppressive tool to mark some people as superior to others, for unfair reasons.

That said, the entire incident has been marked by Spears's utter passivity and unwillingness to take ownership of her choices that led to getting pregnant. She and her boyfriend have used the phrases "unexpected" and "completely shocked." She's also mouthed the same empty phrases about how it's best to wait for marriage for sex, though it's clear at this point she's just saying that and has had little intention of living it. The focus on maintaining empty appearances of chastity and prudence while continuing to indulge the same pleasures as less hypocritical people is endemic to this country, at least on the right. See: Larry Craig, Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich, Ted Haggard, etc. It's why you see so many people piously intone about being all for abstinence and against abortion, and yet when the chips are down, they'll quietly support comprehensive sex education and abortion rights.

Dan Savage nicknamed some of his letters the HTHs, short for "How'd That Happen?" These were the letters where the letter writer couldn't face up to the fact that he'd done something like masturbated in his own urine or engaged in sexual activity with a dog, so would concoct this story about how the sexual activity just happened, without any initiative on the part of the person who did, in reality, initiate it. Spears and her boyfriend are invoking a classic HTH defense: She's pregnant! How'd that happen, when we're such moral citizens?

This two-facedness about sex leads directly to unplanned pregnancies, especially in teenagers. Jesse Wendel at Group News Blog explains:

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The problem with being a good girl is, you can't use birth control. To have birth control is to admit you were prepared for sex, and to admit you were prepared for sex is to say what a little slut you are. That's worlds apart from being swept off your feet and onto your back, carried away in the moment by how good it feels, than to cold-bloodedly, like, you know, do it.

'Cause only sluts do it.

Good girls sometimes get carried away and make love. That can happen to anyone; who can help being overcome by loooove and passion. But just doing it?

Slut.

Jamie Lynn was raised a Baptist. She's a good girl.

Knocked up. But a good girl.

And even if it didn't happen exactly like that for Jamie Lynn Spears, it happens to millions of other girls like her in just that way. Some girl out there is talking herself out of adequately preparing for sex, because to do so would be tantamount to admitting that she plans to have sex, that she wants to have sex, and only sluts and men want sex. We reproductive rights activists talk a lot about education and access to improving contraception use, but it's harder to talk about attitudes, because there's no government policy that can substitute for a change in social attitudes.

I have a pet theory as to why, out of all the various agencies and clinics dedicated to furthering sexual health and reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood gets the most abuse from the anti-choice set–it's all in the name. By putting the word and concept of planning in the very name of the organization, Planned Parenthood frames women's agency as a positive value, which social conservatives take as a direct assault on their belief that women are passive objects. The anti-choice steadfast refusal to accept female agency explains the stammering discomfort from anti-choicers when asked how much a woman should be punished for abortion. Legal punishment for abortion upholds the idea that women have agency like men. It's not that they're against punishing sluts, but the punishment is about returning the slutty, agency-possessing women to her rightful passive state, and the proper method of doing that is putting her body at the mercy of the pregnancy. Every other possibility is just upsetting.

Considering how much unwanted pregnancy results from inadequate birth control use, and how much inadequate birth control use results from women's fear that they relinquish their womanhood if they take control over their own bodies, it's safe to say that even on those rare occasions when an abstinence-only program can be shown to delay teenage sexual activity by entire months, in the long term the programs will just promote unplanned pregnancy. How could they not? In lieu of teaching people how to use contraception safely and effectively, the programs spend most of the time on teaching "relationship skills," i.e. pushing old-fashioned ideas about gender roles. Which means teaching girls that good girls don't, and that means not just "don't have sex" but also "don't want sex," "don't take initiative," and "don't take control." Sure, maybe some of the girls in an abstinence only course will have sex at 17 or 18 instead of 15 or 16. But when they do, will they be more afraid that bringing birth control along will mean that they're not good girls? It's not more fun to be pregnant against your will at 17 than 15.

As we close out the year, I'd like to resolve to keep always in mind that empowering women to really own themselves and their decisions is central to the struggle for reproductive justice.

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