“Abstinence Plus”: Soothing to Parents, or Still Lying to Teens?

Amanda Marcotte

With a narrow focus on teen pregnancy prevention, will new sex ed programs provide contraceptive info while preserving abstinence-only tactics of slut-shaming and virginity-fetishizing?

As expected (or at least Obama promised during the
campaign), the process of zeroing
out funding for abstinence-only programs
has begun, and there’s even an
emphasis in the new appropriations bill on using evidence-based evaluations of
the programs to receive federal funding for sex education, instead of the hope
and tweaking method used by the religious right to evaluate their own
abstinence-only programs.  While this is
all very good news, however, sexual and reproductive health advocates have
every reason in the world to be cautious and skeptical of the new standards. As
Jodi points out in her report on the new bill,
the narrow language of using
teen pregnancy as the sole standard for evaluation leaves out the various other
important aspects of sex education that also need to be considered, such as STD
and violence prevention. 

On top of that concern, I’d like to also argue that the
skittish emphasis on abstinence shown by legislators might cripple the efforts
to even achieve the stated goal of reducing teen pregnancy. With such a narrow
stated goal like "reducing teen pregnancy" instead of something more
comprehensive, there’s a lot of room for programs that, while teaching
contraception, still engage in slut-shaming and other shaming and scaring
tactics.  Could that mean there’s a risk
that abstinence-only programs could make minor changes to their sexist,
retrograde, ineffective programs and continue to get funding to scare and
misinform your kids about sex?

These aren’t idle fears. 
I’ve been fascinated by the evolution of the National Campaign To
Prevent Teen Pregnancy into the newer, shinier, but appallingly conservative  National Campaign To Prevent Teen and
Unplanned Pregnancy, a name change that suggests the very real expansion of
their focus to include young women who are legal adults.  There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this,
except that while the Campaign isn’t anti-contraception like abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs are, they also are not particularly realistic about the likelihood high
school and college aged students will experiment with sex, nor are they willing
to be positive and upbeat about sex, even though most human beings actually
have pretty positive feelings about sex (for themselves, though the popularity
of scare programs shows that people are willing to be negative about sex for
others).  And by being sex negative, the
good information the Campaign has to offer will fail to get through to their
intended audience, which will be turned off by the horror show tactics. 

On
the podcast,
I’ve been having some fun with the National Campaign-funded
website Sex, Really, which I find representative of some of the major issues I
have with the National Campaign’s tactics. Even
a casual perusal demonstrates
that the site is more about throwing a temper
tantrum that dating styles are different for young people now than they were in
the 1960s, and just generally promoting male dominance over women than it is
about finding realistic strategies for women (who seem to be the only intended
audience, because of course Sex, Really doesn’t seem to know or care that men
can take contraceptive responsibility) to take control over their sexual
health.  Site manager Laura Sessions Stepp’s
real mission is more about persuading young women to date according to a
specific plan Sessions Stepp has than about helping young women make the best
decisions for them.  According to
Sessions Stepp, there is only one real way to date, and that’s what I like to
call the baiting method.  It assumes that
men have no natural ability or desire to spend time with women, and so in order
to extract love from men (which is all that women are supposed to want), women
have to manipulate men using the only thing men think we’re good for, which is
sex.  You’re supposed to give the man
small tastes of what sex might be like, but not have sex with him until you’ve
extracted a commitment from him after a long dating process. 

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Sessions Stepp justifies flogging the hell out of this
model–and shaming women who follow their own sexual star by having sex
because it feels good when they want to, and not because they’re trying to
trick a man into being their husband–as a matter of protecting women’s mental
health by shielding them from heartbreak. 
And that would be a legitimate argument, if there wasn’t a honking
logical error in her system, which is that if a man’s interest wanes after he’s
had an orgasm inside your body, then it probably will if you’ve dated him 10
days or 10 months, and that getting dumped after 10 months instead of 10 days
actually hurts more.  Oh yeah, and none of that has anything to do
with pregnancy, because sperm swim just as well on your 50th date as
on your 1st.  Or that not all
women are straight, or that not all straight women are interested in securing a
commitment and getting married as soon as they can.  Or that men actually might like women’s
company, and that’s why people aren’t lying when they say they had sex right
away and ended up together, because they discovered they loved each other for
real, not because they’re manipulating sexual desire to secure
commitments.  Or that women may not all
be needy and easily broken-hearted, but are perfectly capable of having
fulfilling lives regardless of relationship status.

Sex, Really, and the entire National Campaign is what I fear
we might be getting with the new funding guidelines.  Which means that while they may have real
information about contraceptive use, you’re still getting a dose of shaming,
anti-feminism, and just plain old nose-wrinkling fuddy-duddyness that will
cause the students to tune you out at best, or at worst, absorb the ideas that
will erode their own willingness to reason and make decisions for
themselves.  In the latter case, this
will merely continue the long-standing problem of young people not taking basic
safety precautions because they don’t feel they have the right or the power to
demand what they know is right for themselves and their own health.

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