Commentary Sexual Health

When It Comes to Abstinence-Only Education Battles, Let’s Fight Anecdotes With Anecdotes

Amanda Marcotte

It is tempting to laugh at Texas Rep. Stuart Spitzer, whose argument for abstinence-only education for everyone was that waiting until marriage worked for him. But the cold fact of the matter is that anecdote is often more persuasive than data.

Abstinence-only education is an idea that seems like it will never die. It’s been discredited, disproved, poll-tested, and laughed at for years, but Christian conservatives just keep dusting the asinine idea off and presenting it like it’s not 15 kinds of idiotic. The most recent example, as reported by Rewire’s Andrea Grimes, comes to us by way of Texas, where state house Republicans have decided to divert $3 million from a program to prevent HIV infections to a program telling teenagers to wait until they are married to have sex, a choice that more than 95 percent of them will reject.

It is tedious debunking the fantasy of abstinence-only education over and over again, but at least this time there was some entertainment offered alongside the usual tedious prudery spilling out from Texas Republicans. State Rep. Stuart Spitzer told the legislature that his goal is “for everybody to be abstinent until they’re married.” His justification: “What’s good for me is good for a lot of people.”

This created chaos, of course, when Democrats pointed out that he needed to prove that it was good for him instead of just asserting it. But what struck me about the comment, beyond how hilariously stupid it was, was that it perfectly encapsulates why exactly it’s so hard to kill this abstinence-only ideology off completely: Because the argument that it could work somehow gets confused with the idea that it will work or even that it should work.

Because the most obvious, repeated, well-sourced objection to abstinence-only education is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when it comes to its ostensible goal of persuading people to wait until marriage. It doesn’t even work to scare teenagers off sex until they’re a little older. It seems to backfire when it comes to teen pregnancy rates and STI transmission rates—which is why it’s so devastating when funds are diverted from effective, comprehensive prevention or education programs to these abstinence-only failures. When you look over the data, abstinence-only is the equivalent of trying to kick a soccer ball but instead falling directly on your ass.

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The problem is that anecdotes are often more persuasive than data. Research shows that this is true when people are considering tragic events too: We feel worse reading about a single person’s suffering than reading a statistic that says it happens to thousands. But it’s also true where less traumatic issues are concerned. Personal accounts powerfully shape what we think is possible or even desirable, even in the face of massive amounts of evidence showing that they aren’t telling the full story.

In this way, people who are in a small minority can distort the narrative, distracting others from the numbers and convincing them to treat an outlier experience like it’s not just normal but normative. Think of anti-vaccination folks, for example. They have seen the data showing inoculations are not dangerous. But they heard a story about someone who thinks their own kid’s autism might be related to the vaccine. The latter has more persuasive power in a lot of cases, enough to bring back the measles when we thought we had it licked.

So while Spitzer sounds like a total idiot to pro-choicers, his kind of rhetoric is sneakily effective. To all your data showing abstinence-only education doesn’t work, he replies with a story—one you can’t refute without accusing him of being a liar—of a man who did wait to have sex until marriage, thus showing that it’s possible to do so. And it’s this possibility that persuasively captures the imagination, particularly of people who are easily caught up in the romantic spin anti-choicers put on the idea of abstinence before matrimony.

Data has a hard time competing with anecdote. You can say that the data shows that telling people to wait doesn’t work, but all a man like Spitzer has to do is say that it worked for him. In reality, no one opposing abstinence-only education was saying that it’s impossible to wait for marriage—just that in the aggregate, people will not make that choice, no matter what you tell them. But most people don’t think in aggregate. The choice to have sex, in particular, is an individual one, and so it’s really hard not to think of it on a case-by-case basis.

This isn’t just the case when it comes to convincing ordinary citizens to agree with faulty logic, for that matter. This kind of distortion affects the decision-making of people in power—beyond the Republicans who are passing this kind of legislation. Consider how Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his decision for Gonzales v. Carhart, completely ignored the overwhelming data showing “abortion regret” is not generally a real thing, instead zeroing in on the few individuals the anti-choice team was able to dig up. A couple of well-rehearsed stories about “abortion regret” trumped the experiences of millions of women who are glad they had access to abortion care.

All of which is why I think that the best way to kill off abstinence-only education—and similar movements trying to ban abortion and restrict contraception—is to really embrace the power of the anecdote. Conservatives like Spitzer want to suggest that abstaining worked for them, so it should work for everyone. And while we, as pro-choicers, are never going to buy into the conformist mentality that everyone should be the same all the time, there’s a lot of value in telling our stories about why premarital sex, in all its messy but wonderful diversity, worked for us and therefore should be treated like a legitimate choice that deserves to be included in sex education. Data certainly shouldn’t be disregarded, but when data isn’t working, meet anecdote with anecdote. They’ll run out long before we do, since almost no one actually waits until marriage for sex, statistically speaking. Seriously, people are probably more likely to hate ice cream than wait for marriage. (In my heart, I’ll always be a data nerd, I guess.)

So with that, my story: I didn’t wait for marriage, and thank goodness, as I never want to get married, which means I would have had to wait forever. My first boyfriend will be annoyed to read this, but if anything, I waited too long out of a misplaced fear that it was going to be a bigger deal than it was. As I immediately learned, sex is really fun and not all that dangerous if you take very basic precautions that can easily be learned through comprehensive sex education. (Which I didn’t get in school, but I’m a reader, so I learned.) If I had been snookered by abstinence-only education and tried to wait until marriage, my life could be full of regret and misery. Not only would I have missed out on some of the fondest memories of my youth, I probably would have gotten married young out of obligation. And then gotten divorced, because I was so not ready to make that kind of lifelong commitment in my early 20s.

Or, if I had attempted to hold off, I probably would have had sex anyway in the heat of the moment like most abstinence-vowers do. But I wouldn’t have used protection, because I likely wouldn’t have been as willing to prepare for this possibility as someone who is unashamed about having sex would be.

However, because I unapologetically and gleefully had—and I guess continue to have—sex outside of the bounds of holy matrimony, my life has been more fun, more adventurous, and way more fulfilling than I imagine it would have been for me personally. And abstinence-only feels like it’s trying to steal the opportunity to make that choice from our youth, which is the main reason I oppose it.

That, and the data says it doesn’t work anyway.

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