Marriage Promotion Trumps Effective Prevention Strategies In Abstinence-Only Programs

Martha Kempner

Abstinence-only-until-marriage program have always been more about marriage than they are about sex. Though they are often billed as replacements for comprehensive sexuality education or as teen pregnancy or STD prevention programs, in truth, they are more focused on promoting marriage than preventing anything.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage
program have always been more about marriage than they are about sex. Though they are often billed as
replacements for comprehensive sexuality education or as teen pregnancy or STD
prevention programs, in truth, they are more focused on promoting marriage than
preventing anything.

SIECUS reviewed
the five curricula in the Choosing the Best series as well as a new
supplemental curriculum produced by WAIT Training and found that the marriage
mandate is pervasive. a

According to
these curricula, everybody wants to and should get married. Choosing
the Best SOUL MATE
starts by asking students “Why do over 80% of teens have
a goal of being happily married?”

The author never
does say where he gets that statistic. Instead, the curriculum goes on to
explain why marriage is good. It describes marriage as the “super-glue that
holds a relationship together as it matures” and says it reduces abandonment
issues, fosters trust, and encourages resolving conflicts and disagreements.

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Maybe this is
true in some marriages but there are certainly married couples who still
grapple with trust and abandonment issues for example. Moreover, given the high rate of
divorce (which the curriculum readily acknowledges), it is clear that marriage
in and of itself does not necessarily encourage couples to resolve conflicts or
disagreements.

WAIT Training gets even more
specific in handout titled “The Good Stuff of Marriage” that includes such
assertions as:

Married couples
seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabitating couples

marriage
is associated with better health and lower rates of injury and disability for
both men and women

Healthy
marriages appear to reduce the risk that adults will either be the perpetrator
or the victim of a crime

Note the abundant use of qualifiers: “seems to build,” “appears to increase,” and “is associated
with.” What the authors deliberately
fail to include is a discussion of how these benefits may be linked to other
variables besides marriage and how other relationships may generate some of the
same benefits.

Marriage
is also hailed as the solution to unintended pregnancy and STDs. In the unit on
HIV, Choosing the Best LIFE says
this: “The only way to eliminate 100% of the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS
sexually is to be abstinent until
marriage, marry an uninfected partner and both people must remain faithful in
the marriage relationship.

There
is certainly truth to this statement; if two individuals enter into a
monogamous relationship when they are uninfected, stay faithful to each other,
and both avoid contracting HIV through other means such as infected needles,
they will remain HIV free. The key
to this arrangement, however, is the lifelong monogamous relationship. Whether
or not these two individuals are legally married is irrelevant from a public
health perspective.

Even some of the stories used in the curricula prove that a wedding ring
is not sufficient protection.

I
was rushed to the hospital with intense abdominal pain. Emergency surgery
revealed such an extensive infection that my uterus, tubes and ovaries all had
to be removed. My husband of six months had infected me with gonorrhea, which
he had contracted from a ‘one-night stand’ prior to our engagement. Our dreams
of biological children will never be realized.

It is entirely
possible that the narrator of this story followed the advice given by Choosing
the Best LIFE
and remained abstinent until her wedding night. Her exposure
to gonorrhea proves that she would have been better served by a curriculum that
provided her with information on how STDs are transmitted, how they can be
prevented, and the need for all partners to get tested. Moreover, both she and
her husband would have benefited from skills-based lessons on communications
around sexual health.

Instead, the curricula focus on marriage. Choosing the Best SOUL
MATE
includes exercises designed to help kids be good at marriage. For example, students are asked to pack
their “marriage survival kit” by selecting five items from a list of 18. Possible items include “a commitment to working to maintain
and improve your relationship,” “set of cookbooks,” “framed copy of marriage
license and best wedding photograph,” “Book: ‘What Wives Wish Husbands Knew
About Women,’” and “phone number of the nearest florist.”

The lesson here,
that communication and commitment are critical to a healthy marriage is not a
bad message for young people to learn.
Still, given that these students are a decade away from the average age
of first marriage, it seems silly to focus a lesson on communication solely on
marriage. These are skills that
young people should learn because they can help them in future friendships and
relationships regardless of whether they ever marry.

Unfortunately, the only
time the curricula discuss other relationships is when they are explaining why
such relationships are inferior.

SOUL MATE includes a lesson on living together
called, “Cohabitating: Sex without strings, relationships without rings.” It begins the lesson by saying “A
majority of young people feel it is a good idea to live together before getting
married to find out if they are really compatible and thus avoid the risk of
divorce or being ‘trapped in an unhappy marriage.’” It never does say exactly why this seemingly reasonable
opinion is not.

Instead, it just
reiterates that cohabitation is wrong, that couples who live together will not
have happy marriages, and even suggests that those who choose to do so have
inherent character flaws: “Unwed couples living together may have problems
making and keeping commitments.”

WAIT Training takes aim at
some other family structures and suggests that nothing but two-parent marriage
will work: “Teens in both
one-parent and remarried homes typically display more deviant behavior and
commit more delinquent acts than do teens whose parents stayed married. Studies show that two married,
biological parents have the means and the motivation to appropriately monitor
and discipline boys in ways that reduce the likelihood that they will pose a
threat to the social order.”

Let’s just put aside the fact that the authors called half their
class a potential threat to the social order —this quote reveals the rigidity
of WAIT Training’s ideas about marriage because it asserts that families with
parents who have remarried or parents who adopt or foster children, for
example, cannot successfully raise boys.

While these discussions are aimed at directing the future life
choices of young people, many students will likely see the implications toward
their own family structures. It is unfair and potentially harmful to suggest to
young people—who as children have no control over their current familial
situation—that their families are any less valuable than others.

This discussion on family structure brings us to the curricula’s
complete failure to acknowledge gay and lesbian students and families.

A number of the Choosing the Best curricula actually have as their
purpose helping young people develop healthy relationships with members of the
opposite sex. And, WAIT Training uses its lessons on brain
development to explain why young people feel a “strong attraction to the
opposite sex.” All of the
curricula simply ignore the possibility of same-sex couples or homosexual
individuals; all stories, video clips, references, and activities revolve
around heterosexual relationships.

In Choosing the Best JOURNEY,
for example, a lesson on “Developing the Best Relationships” starts with videos
about heterosexual couples.
Students are then divided into separate groups of guys and girls: “Ask
the guy group to write down the top five qualities they are looking for in a
girl and what they think the girls are coming up with [top five qualities they
are looking for in a boy].” The
girl group is asked the reverse.

This exercise leaves no room for young people who are attracted to
members of the same sex. There is
no reason for such discrimination, the same brainstorm could occur simply by
asking young people in mixed-gender groups to come up with a list of what they
are looking for in a romantic partner.

By refusing to be inclusive, the author is showing a clear bias
against same-sex couples, and curricula written exclusively for heterosexual
students are not appropriate for a classroom setting.

Contrary to the curricula’s presentation – the marriage imperative is
not a universally held value.
There are 98 million adults in this country who are classified as single
because they have never married, are divorced, widowed, or cohabitating. It is not the place for educational
programs to tell these adults that their relationships are inferior any more
than it is their place to tell young people that they must marry.

Students would be better served by programs that allow them to think
critically about relationships, make decisions based on their values and the
values of their families, and learn skills that will help them regardless of
what relationships they chose.

Commentary Race

Black Lives Matter Belongs in Canada, Despite What Responses to Its Pride Action Suggest

Katherine Cross

Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada's history or present ignores the struggles of Canadians of color, including those who are LGBTQ.

As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.

For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.

There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.

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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.

Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.

Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.

In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.

Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.

Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.

Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”

This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.

We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.

The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.

Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.

A 2015 Toronto Star special investigation found hundreds of Greater Toronto Area officers internally disciplined for “serious misconduct”—including the physical abuse of homeless people and committing domestic violence—remained on the force. In 2012, the same outlet documented the excessive rate at which Black and brown Torontonians were stopped and “carded.” The data is staggering: The number of stops of Black men actually exceeded the number of young Black men who live in certain policing districts. And according to the Star, despite making up less than 10 percent of Toronto’s population, Black Torontonians comprised at least 35 percent of those individuals shot to death by police since 1990. Between 2000 and 2006, they made up two-thirds.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.

Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.

One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.

It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.

If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.

Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.