One ring to rule them all
I read about this site in a book that I'm currently reading. I thought I'd check it out for myself. I think the content of your site is terrible. You think that you give teens all the information that they need so they can make informed decisions about their sex life. What bologna. The only decision that teens need to make is to not have sex until they are married. Certainly we all need to be informed about our physical health, our bodies, and how to have a healthy sexual relationship. But what about talking to teens about abstinence? And not even for religious reasons. But because it's physically healthier to have only one sexual partner for a life time. No STDs etc. It's emotionally healthier to have one sexual partner for a life time. You talk about separating sex from love. What terrible advice for anyone. Sex is love. Sex should be the most high expression of love. Not just some way to get your jollies. No wonder society is going in the crapper if this is the advice we are giving our children and teens. - Carolyn
You know, sometimes, I think the people who send me emails like this forget that this is my job: that I am an international sexuality educator for my living, and what I know about the sexual realities of people -- more often from their own tongues than from any other source -- and what your average layman knows are not likely to be at the same level. I don't expect someone who isn't a full-time sexuality educator to have the same level of knowledge about sex and the realities of people's sex lives as I do, just as I don't expect I could have the same level of knowledge about apples, however much I have loved and enjoyed them, as someone who has grown groves and groves of apples all their lives has.
But I do expect someone to afford me the respect -- especially given how long I have done my job for, and for so little personal benefit -- of not telling me things which anyone for whom this is a longtime job would know to simply be patently untrue, and expect anyone investing the time to send me a complaint to do their homework, even if it's just earnestly reading my own work. (I also expect people to be a bit more realistic in assessing what power I have when it comes to the downfall of civilization, however flattered I may be at what they sometimes imply is my great and omnipotent power, but that's beside the point. )
I don't get letters like this every day, but I have had a recent rash of them, due to the recent release of Girls Gone Mild, by Wendy Shalit. In her book, Shalit culled a few select bits of the Sex Readiness Checklist here out of context, including ditching the opening material of that piece, to draw "her own" conclusion about those bits that nearly WAS my opening material.
"Scarleteen offers a "sex readiness checklist" for young girls to help them gauge whether they should plunge into the fun. Among the items: "I see a doctor regularly," and "I have a birth control budget of $50 per month." The emotional readiness a girl should demonstrate is "I can separate love from sex." Shalit notes, "Those who can separate love from sex are mature, like jaded adults. They are ready to embark on a lifetime of meaningless encounters."
In fact, Shalit argues, all of this advice and deprogramming aimed at women is necessary because women do not by nature thrive on casual, meaningless sexual encounters. They crave emotional intimacy and fidelity -- desires the women's magazines are at pains to quash in the name of maturity." - Mona Charen
It very intensely misrepresented the content and message, likely because it was important to provide an "enemy" in order not only to make her points (and to give the impression they were ONLY her points), but to make it HER point so we could stay all cozily us vs. them about all of this, which is a pity when so many of us on all "sides" share the same concerns. Perhaps ironically, we've actually gotten more criticisms of the readiness checklist from folks Shalit would likely consider her enemy because it asks a good deal of people, far more than a gold band around one's finger. I've had adults say, "Well, I don't have $50 a month," or "I can't talk with my partner about sex," to which my response is that from all I know, in the work I do, if they DID have all of those things in place, their sex lives would likely be healthier and more satisfying for everyone involved. It's a long list, that page, because sexuality and sexual partnership are complex and multifacted. neither are binary nor simple, and we have far more than two choices -- do it or don't -- and far more than two contexts in which to make those choices -- married or not married -- and most of us have to make those choices far, far more than once in our lives, and every time we make them is just as important as the first or last time we did.
Like I said, it's an odd take on an article whose first five solid points, bulleted clearly include that the ability or choice to have sex does NOT equal maturity, but then, all in all, an awful lot of adult takes on young adult sexuality are pretty darn odd, which is one of many reasons why we try and keep most of the volunteers at Scarleteen in the same age range as those we serve. Considering that there is a plethora of items on the list about emotional readiness which were intentionally omitted, not merely the one listed, it is -- as is much of this sort of take on comprehensive sex education -- purposefully misleading. It's a larger point for a later day, but it should be added that the conclusions strike me as odd, as well. They certainly don't speak to scores of heterosexual married women who, for the life of them, can't figure out why being married hasn't equaled meaningful or satisfying sex for them, as they're promised it will by people like Wendy, Carolyn and Mona. They also don't speak to the scores of people who are and have been having sex they experience as meaningful outside the context of marriage. The list is also represented as only being about girls, when, in fact, it's designed for use by all genders. But when these conversations hinge only on marital or premarital sex, they always leave an awful lot out of the picture.
So, let's ditch all of the party lines and the oversimplification and really get down into the nitty-gritty for a change. So often, I see these conversations start with "Tell them to wait until marriage," and end with "But preaching abstinence doesn't work," as if that were a productive discussion or somehow all there is to it. Every day, I see teenagers and young adults who know there's more to it than all the adults who claim to know better than they do. Suffice it to say, brevity will not be the spirit of this piece.
I'm going to start as I end here, by saying simply this: even if there really was any ONE right age to have sex at, one right type of relationship to have it in, any one right way to have sex, the very moment at which someone else tells you what YOUR right choice must or should be, it doesn't really get to be your choice anymore.
I and my volunteers talk with (not to or at, if I'm doing it right) young people about waiting until they are ready for partnered sex every day at Scarleteen. Young adults also electively read any number of static articles that I have written or provided for them at the site, based expressly on their own needs and their own desire to read them. I talk with them, one-on-one, as well as in group discussions, about an awful lot of things, and when I do, they -- not I -- are usually those initiating the discussion, and the discussion we have is based around what they are asking me for, and what they express their feelings and experiences to be, to me, not what I decide they are, for them, or based on my own. I'm an alternative educator, and my methods come from methods I used in the classroom when I was a general educator: methods derived from or like those of John Holt, Maria Montessori and A.S. Neill. I do an awful lot of observation by reading their own words and interacting with them -- affording them the respect of valuing their words, not second-guessing them -- and what I tell them and write for them is based on those direct observations of them combined with observations of broader cultural topics, issues and trends, and what information they are directly presenting a clear need or desire for. I pay close attention to what results I have over time, since a great many of our "students" stick around, many even coming back as full-fledged adults, either for more information or because they want to help others the way they were once helped here themselves. Really, Scarleteen is a pretty substantial study in how this all works, because at this point in time, we've served millions of teens and young adults -- most of whom found us themselves, by choice -- so we can get a pretty darn good read on what works for our users and what doesn't. The vast majority of email and feedback that I get from young adults usually simply starts with a capitalized THANK YOU. Often, it's followed by many exclamation points. This comes from all genders, all orientations and it also comes from young adults who do and those who do not choose to be sexually active.
When I or my volunteers do have discussions with them about waiting for sex, it's based on clear signs of a lack of readiness -- like those on that checklist, or issues brought up in this piece, or this one, or that one, or this or this -- and/or on that given young person voicing that they, themselves, do not FEEL ready (or do not feel partners are), or are not feeling good about the sex that they're having or being asked for.
In those discussions, I do all I can to provide tools for determining both readiness and a real and realistic desire for partnered sex which can be used by as diverse a population as possible, applied to as many different situations as possible, and which I know, both from our users experiences, as well as from sound and reliable broad study, over time, HAVE really proven to be effective to best safeguard their physical and emotional health, and to best assure that sexual partnership and their own sexuality is most likely to be beneficial and positive for them and for us as a global culture. When I do have those discussions, unless they bring it up themselves, marriage or sole partnership -- or waiting for that per sex, as if we could guarantee either -- isn't part of the equation, for a whole host of reasons.
For one, the teens I talk to are not all heterosexual (nor am I, the person talking with them and who you've emailed, thanks). Some of the teens I talk to have been sexually abused or assaulted and weren't even given having one "sexual partner" as an option. The marital status of the young people I counsel is also a non-issue for me, as a sexual health and sexuality educator, simply because we know, historically and from current data, that while limiting partners (though not necessarily to one), as part of safer sex practice (which also includes barrier use and testing, something which often very much falls by the wayside or is altogether absent in most marriages) makes a difference, that neither hinges on marriage, nor has marriage ever unilaterally offered people -- especially women -- the kinds of protections against STIs, unwanted pregnancies, sexual disappointment or sexual or emotional health which its proponents like to pretend (or wish) it does. That doesn't even touch on the matter of me not wanting to push anyone into a very intense and binding legal contract with another human being so they can get laid the "right" way, nor the fact that plenty of people have very much WANTED one lifelong partner, only to simply have that person, or any one person, abandon them or in no way treat them like a bonafide partner.
It'd be one thing if abstinence-until-marriage approaches earnestly worked, and by worked, I mean DID not only result in people forestalling sexual activity and ALSO "worked" when it came to having positive effects per unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission and also did, in fact, leave people feeling better about their sexuality as a whole, through the whole of their lives. But we know that it doesn't. We've historically seen far better results with the advent, increased education about, access to and legalization of contraception, with the development of safer sex practices, greater awareness and protection given when it comes to rape and other sexual abuses, acceptance of sex in far more contexts than heterosexuality and marriage, and with work to advance and support the equality via gender, race, orientation and economic class.
However, even if it did work -- and worked better than all of those things, which is salient since abstinence-approaches often are at odds with many of those matters, and our federal money to abstinence-only programs right now not only limits how much we can do those things practically, but takes funding away from many of those arenas to operate -- "wait until marriage" doesn't include everyone in the first place (heck, it sure wouldn't have included me), so it practically cannot even be unilaterally applied, and there are also other issues at hand.
For instance, a majority of our global and local STI epidemics have started and proliferated among married couples, largely because a) marriage or sole partnership in and of itself does not mean bacteria and parasites (they don't look at people's ring fingers before leaping in, they're crafty, but not that bright), b) some sexually transmitted infections -- including one of our most prevalent -- are not first contracted via sex and c) a marriage contract not guaranteeing fidelity, by any stretch of the imagination.
To state that if everyone only had one sexual partner there would be no sexually transmitted diseases is entirely inaccurate: if in doubt, talk to an epidemiologist. To state that marriage -- or virginity -- protects people against STIs is also to ignore or dismiss entire continents and large countries right now -- if you can't deal with talking about these issues in Africa (especially since they tend to show up some of the dangers in conservative thought about sex and sexually transmitted disease), then you might start by just looking at some of Mexico.
The night before her wedding, a girl kneels down to pray. She prays for 3 things:
"Dear God, please make my husband faithful to me.
"Dear God, please keep me from finding out when he is unfaithful to me.
"Dear God, please keep me from caring when I find out he is unfaithful to me."
- Joke told in Degollado, Mexico, summer of 1996
I've said it before and I'll keep on saying it: we have a pretty funny habit in the States to try and dismiss or revise history, including our history with STIs (and let's not even get started with the times we have used STIs and other infectious diseases as biological weapons). We have a "chastity campaign" -- what we used to call abstinence campaigns -- to thank for one of the first big waves of STIs in the states, of syphilis and gonorrhea, which occurred among married people first, due to every other countries soldiers in WWI being given condoms, knowing full well that no matter what you told them, they were going to cheat on their wives. But in the U.S., because as is the case now, somehow we convinced ourselves that "Just say No" was a workable, more morally sound option, it was OUR soldiers who came back home giving their wives the wonderful gift of VD -- we DID learn our lesson that time -- a very different approach was taken with WWII, with much improved results. You can guess, too, how much the shame and "You bad, bad boy!" attitudes about extramarital sex contributed to a lack of prevention and testing -- which have always safeguarded everyone far greater than marriage contracts -- to, as is so again now, an increased spread of disease, and greater complications from sexually transmitted infections which went undiscussed, unknown and untreated.
With around 1/3rd of just U.S. women alone who abort now being married (and abortion, through much of history most often being MORE prevalent among poor, married women who already have children; abortion historically has often been more about economic class and poverty than anything else,) we know that marriage in and of itself does not prevent unwanted pregnancy. With spousal and partner rape being far more prevalent than stranger rape, and domestic violence effecting a minimum of 10% of the population in America alone -- and let's not forget that for pregnant women, a leading cause of death is homicide by a spouse or intimate partner, and that around 1/3rds of all homicide cases with a female victim are at the hand of an intimate partner or spouse -- we know that marriage does not, in and of itself, protect anyone from emotional hardship or pain, nor guarantee a healthy, happy and mutually considerate and beneficial sexual or emotional life.
It also always seems to be diminished or dismissed that we all have only so much control over if we have sole sexual partnership. Not even bringing rape and sexual abuse into the equation, from a sexual health standpoint, any time any of our partners takes another partner -- including the no less than 25% of married men and 15% of married women in the U.S. alone shown in nationally representative samples who do so extramaritally -- we have no longer had one sexual partner from an infection and disease standpoint, and we have no longer been in a lifelong monogamous relationship from any standpoint. Marriage or the promise of lifelong sexual partnership does not come with a guarantee. This is a particular issue when we're talking about very traditional marriage approaches which often have pretty serious sexual double-standards, as well as in approaches to marriage in which one or both partners are considered property of any sort, sexual or otherwise. Suggesting that in those scenarios sex is healthier for both partners, and more likely to have positive results is simply ridiculous.
With my mailbag, anytime I'm doing heterosexual adult sex ed, it's overflowing with letters from married adults, usually women, who are seriously unsatisfied with the sex they're having with their spouse, in both the physical and emotional departments. In fact, one of the reasons I stopped doing sex ed for older people and decided to focus on young adults was simply because it was incredibly depressing to read my mail. Denying that these people are real and exist is futile: just take a look at book sales for sexuality self-help books for marrieds. Someone is buying them, after all, and it sure isn't those of us who are not married -- why would we care?
What might someone who is adamant that saving sex for marriage and only having sex within marriage tell the woman who writes in after 20, 30, 40 years of marriage, who internalized all of this hype about marriage guaranteeing a positive result when her husband is sexually abusing her or even "just" having sex with her in a way that has nothing to do with her own pleasure, comfort or with love? Little or nothing is going to change in most cases once a dynamic has gone on for so long, so besides telling them to leave -- which isn't something social conservatives are likely to suggest -- what would you say? Do those people not exist? Are they imagining sexual and interpersonal problems, and if so, how are we defining what is problematic, and whom are we privileging in that determination? What do we make of elderly people who tell us that they DID have but one sexual partner in their life time and that it was NOT emotionally or physically satisfying for them, and did NOT result in their sexual health and happiness (translation: have you talked to even one grandmother about sex honestly, ever)? Do their experiences not matter or are somehow invalid? Might we even take an extra step and consider the fact that after just a couple of times with a partner sexually, we can generally get a good read on what our sexual dynamic with them will be like?
Is it, somehow, practically better to wait until after signing a binding contract, especially in communities or systems where dissolving that contract in unacceptable, to find out that your partner could give a hoot about the other partner's needs, wants, limits, about their own anatomy and sexuality, about what roles are going to be in play? Implicit in the "saving sex until marriage" argument is the notion that a marriage is and must be a sexual relationship, and that that is no small part of that relationship. If it's important and reasonable to find out in advance of marriage, for instance, that a potential spouse is kind to children or capable of resolving a financial conflict without striking anyone, how is it unimportant to try and determine in advance if the sex you're signing up for, feasibly, the whole of your life, isn't going to consider you, or your own separate sexuality and body, as a valid and equal part of the equation? I'm not stating everyone need do the opposite here as some sort of essential edict: I'm not saying that premarital sex is going to guarantee health or happiness any more than forestalling sex until after marriage is. However, I am saying that if you're going to make sex something which is about marriage, and which marriage is about, suggesting that such a critical and large element should be a complete surprise, knowing that partnered sex does carry so many physical and emotional risks -- and knowing and applauding how very binding a marriage contract can be -- is a pretty bizarre suggestion if you're going to posit that it is in the better interests of women.
As well, until we can NOT have marriage be both exclusive AND about the sexual ownership of one person by another -- and that does not mean monogamy, per se, as that is only one approach to monogamy -- I don't think we can even have aspects of this conversation. Until marriage law unilaterally and internationally not only does not privilege one group of people over another, but also one partner OF a marriage over another, stating that it is sexually most healthy for anyone to forestall sex until they marry is lunacy. Much of the underpinnings of these arguments for sex-after-marriage not only dismiss the exclusivity of marriage, and the numerous places -- including some parts of the U.S. -- where the gender of a partner gives them lesser rights in marriage, but they also often champion very traditional gender roles/status and religiosity in marriage, two issues which have been shown in many studies on marital sexuality and relationships to play a part in greater sexual and general dissatisfaction and health.
Marriage is no safeguard of sexual health. It is more difficult for married women to negotiate safe sex and condom use than it is for single women. - part of "The Lancet's" Sexual and Reproductive Health Online Series
Here's one bit that no one wants to talk about: the part where half the time someone is telling you it's better to wait, that same person is a sexual non-entity in their marriage. That during all of this all-about-love sex, often enough, one partner is hammering away on -- not with -- the other while that other is harboring silent resentment and some pretty deep disdain or even just resignment, not love. One partner has sexual wants and needs which not only won't be fulfilled, but which the other partner refuses to even address or uphold as important. That in many, many male-female marriages, sex -- as it culturally has been for most of our history -- still starts, stops and ends with the only one partner's genitals, and not even the whole of his genitals, at that. This is not an absolute: there, too, are marriages where these are not issues, but these are common issues and complaints which create real conflict with the idea that marriage = sexual health and happiness, especially when we're talking about women, but hardly exclusively for women.
We often hear that it's so important for a child to have a same-sex role model or a parent of their same-sex around. But most of us are not so foolish as to dismiss that WHO that person is and what they are like is no minor factor. Having a same-sex parent around who is a terrible parent, a poor role model or an awful person isn't likely to net positive results, and we can generally agree that in those cases, it would be better NOT to have that person around. When it comes to marriage or sole partnership, stating that having that relationship in and of itself is going to be beneficial completely ignores and denies that the quality of that relationship or marriage, and WHO your spouse or sole partner is matters a great deal. How could a sole partnership or lifelong marriage with a lousy partner somehow net more positive results than having, say, four utterly amazing and wonderful partners?
So, people can keep saying marriage or sole partnership affords physical and emotional protections, and is more likely to create a healthier, happier sexuality all they want, but reality -- sometimes even their own married reality -- often flies in the face of that assertion, and quite profoundly.
* * *
An aside: I'm really bothered by what's intimated about love in the email up top there. You know, PLENTY of married people, and plenty of people who love one another, DO have sex sometimes when it's just or primarily about "their jollies." If we care about and respect the person we're doing that with, and their "jollies" are as important as our own, and if love is all its cracked up to be, then it shouldn't be at all problematic for us to have sex as the same sort of fun sometimes -- or even always -- that we have playing a game of touch football, or sharing a joke, with a partner is. Obviously, we have a huge cultural mandate that says that for married women, still, sex is about duty and obligation and while it may be about male jollies, his are always privileged over hers, and we have, as ever, a huge cultural problem, still, with honoring pleasure and supporting sex AS pleasure and joy, especially if that is "all" -- because these things are so meaningless, apparently -- it is about.
Suggesting one be able to separate sex from love isn't about saying that sex shouldn't be loving, or that there is some sort of extra status when it is not. That suggestion is about realizing that sex, in and of itself, can't create love that isn't there already, nor repair it, and that we need to understand that sex is NOT always an expression of love, and certainly not when we mean "love" in the way many young people understand it and have been sold it, which is more about romance or possession than respect.
* * *
I often feel like supporters of abstinence, when talking to sex educators, forget that most of us who work in the field, and are bringing far more than out own sexual experiences, that of a few people we know, and what we read about in disreputable media sources, know a lot more about people's sex lives than the average joe. I used to do a lot more adult sex ed than I do now or instance, and I know full well, from what married people have told me and asked of me, that while it has net positive results for some it has been negative for others. We regularly get advice queries at Scarleteen from unhappy, unhealthy young adults who waited until marriage, and of late, the numbers of those queries have been increasing pretty vastly. For sure, it needs to be noted that people who are 100% satisfied with their sex lives are not going to be filling my mailbag, and that's the case with the waiters and the non-waiters alike. but the point it, that just like NOT waiting has been positive for some and not for others, the same can be said for those who waited.
Really, you don't even have to have the gig I do, or read/counsel as many people as I do to do the math, here. Perhaps my circle of friends is simply more diverse than those who write me these sorts of letters, because even just among the people I have known in my personal life, when I'm off-duty, I know that both of these two choices (for those for whom they are available AS choices), sex-before-marriage or sex-outside-marriage, and sex-after-marriage and only until marriage, net some pretty widely varied results between people.
Nearly two-thirds of teenagers think teaching "Just Say No" is an ineffective deterrent to teenage sexual activity. - Roper Starch Worldwide, Teens Talk About Sex: Adolescent Sexuality in the 90s
What else do I know? I know that a majority of people telling this generation to wait until marriage didn't wait themselves, and that the age of first intercourse or first sexual experience has been slowly climbing downward since the turn of the century -- not just of late -- which is likely due to many changes, including access to effective contraception, women being ever-so-slightly more allowed to even have and drive a sexuality of their own, lower age of physical sexual development, an increase in leisure time, delaying marriage until later ages, and a great big list of issues, many of which are positive changes.
Sure, some of these abstinence mandates are just sanctimonious blather, but some of it is based on the strange logic that says "I Did X and I wasn't happy with the results, so one must need to do Y to get the right results." That'd be sensible in an equation in which there were but two options, but that’s something we can't say about sexuality and sexual partnership.
This is also about hypocrisy and awareness of projection. I have not only had more than one partner in my life, I have had far more than one partner. My circumstances, personality, and the unique conditions of my upbringing and time and place were such that I'd expect that a majority of the young adults who read Scarleteen would be gobsmacked if I shared how many partners I'd had before I was 20, because for most of them, their situations differ in many ways from my own. I also know from listening to and working with them that what worked for me likely wouldn't work for a majority of them; what was positive for me then may not be for many of them now. Certainly, I make a darn good guinea pig when it comes to showing how well safer sex works, and that it's totally possible to have more than one partner and feel great about it and be a happy, healthy person. Certainly, I could compare my one set of experiences to those of any other one given young women who waited until marriage for sex, and had but one partner who is sitting nursing the STI she isn't supposed to have, who is feeling terrible about sex, and who isn't sexually happy or healthy. In doing so, I could easily draw the conclusion that I sex before marriage with multiple partners in one's teen years must be the right choice, and hers the wrong one. But not only would doing so be beyond unintelligent and socially irresponsible, it'd be idiot logic.
Because I am aware that my positive or negative experiences are just that, mine, and that I am not Everywoman, and because I am also aware that we, as people, have a strong propensity to project our own experiences unto everyone else, to be a socially responsible sexuality educator and a good teacher, I've got to do my level best to be responsible enough not only to qualify my experiences as being mine, and I need to make sure that I'm also not being a ginormous hypocrite. For me, personally, to tell any one of them that there is one choice that is best for all of them, knowing full well -- especially the older I get and the more I know myself -- that it by no means would have been the best choice for me (or heck, just not having made that choice myself, so having no idea at all what results it would have had) would not only be complete bullshit, it'd be incredibly disrespectful, and not just because it isn't my job to tell them what choice to make, nor do they often ask me to make their choices for them (and when they do, I decline).
Additionally, one of the toughest things I experience in doing my job is remembering to try and always keep in check that generational differences -- even just by one generation -- are often far wider than we perceive them to be, especially from the vantage point of those of us who are elder, and feel we have already lived the experiences the generations younger than us have had. We haven't, see: we've had our own adolescence, and there may be some commonalities, but our adolescence is just that, ours, and there often tends to be less commonality than we'd like to think. I often feel like when I may err, I likely err on the side of conservatism or overprotectiveness, which is saying a lot for an anarchist, feminist, queer rabblerouser like me, but I think it's something that's always very easy for any of us to slip into, even when our intentions really are good.
If, indeed, sex is love, than the way we sexually educate also has to be loving and thus, full of respect. It's not sensible, no matter what, to dictate or cheerlead a choice for someone else just because we know or suspect it was/would have been the right choice for us, but it's beyond insult to do so when we have absolutely no way of knowing what that choice would have been like for us whatsoever, or when we're flat-out lying. Given the statistics on marriage and marital sexual dissatisfaction -- especially per issues of lack of orgasm and sexual arousal among women, widespread complaints of a simple lack of affection among partners, sexual obligation, prolific complaint from all sides about vaginal intercourse being more often unsatisfying than not, female complaints about the frequency of sex being determined only by the male partner's libido -- and given the proliferation of those pushing abstinence-until-marriage with unfounded promises, an awful LOT of people are knowingly lying to our youth.
A survey by Northern Kentucky University revealed that 61 percent of students who made abstinence promises broke them. And of those who said they kept their pledges, 55 percent indicated they participated in oral sex. The survey queried 597 Northern Kentucky students, 16 percent of whom made pledges not to have sex until marriage. The study noted, however, that pledge-breakers delayed sex for a year longer than nonpledging teens--until an average of 17.6 years old. But pledge-makers who became pledge-breakers were less likely to use protection, such as condoms, when first having sex.
Heck, even if abstinence-until-marriage DID result in all the things it claims to and really COULD include everyone, while I'd be fine getting behind it, I'd still be honest with the youth I counsel and tell them that myself and others didn't do that and are still having positive results.
We can certainly see negative the results, and the purposeful dishonesty, with a lot of abstinence-based approaches. One very common facet of abstinence-based sex education is fear. I talk to an awful lot of youth who have been reared with this stuff daily, and from that work alone, I can assure anyone, with great confidence, that this approach isn't making them any smarter, nor is it resulting in any of them having healthier sex lives or feeling any better about their sexuality: it's resulting in most of those I have encountered being incredibly scared and also incredibly challenged in things like limit and boundary setting, safer sex practices (which, to work, need to be used with ANY new partner for at least the first six months, even in marriage), birth control negotiation, acceptance of personal sexual orientation, a real understanding of the sexual and reproductive anatomy, as well as realistic expectations for what sex is once they do choose sexual partnership. I have young adults literally terrified to shake someone's hands for fear they have recently toileted, and could thus cause a pregnancy. I have young adults so completely sold on the fact that so long as everyone is in love, or says they love them, or marries them, that the betrayals they experience when sex very much is NOT love in the kinds of relationships they're assured it will be cause them incredible emotional pain. I have students of abstinence-only programs in droves who have so taken to heart that intercourse is the only real sex, and that that's where the big risks lie, that almost daily, and sometimes more than once a day, we have to explain that even if one doesn't include receptive anal sex or giving oral sex as a loss of virginity, that doesn't make them automatically physically or emotionally safe.
For a lot of teens, even if they DO intend to wait for sex -- be it until marriage, or by some other criteria -- they come here or come to me because they need, and are asking for, someone to tell them not just the facts -- the real ones -- but that they are OKAY, they are still or will still be good people even if they do choose to have sex outside some sanctioned context or other. And sometimes, that they aren't insane in noticing that everyone telling them to be abstinent is often talking out of both sides of their face. Too, adults forget that young adults don't need us to tell them what is going on with themselves: they know better than we. A lot of this focus on yelling in everyone's face to wait for sex is good, old fashioned sex panic, because plenty of teens ARE waiting, because they WANT to wait. Some are waiting for marriage, some are waiting for a certain amount of time to pass in a relationships first, and some have other criteria for waiting -- for all or certain kinds of sex -- entirely. half the turn-off many teens have to abstinence approaches is because they feel like they're being falsely accused of having or wanting sex when they flat-out don't.
Look, if this "wait-until-marriage" stuff really DID work, so far as earnestly reducing rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancies, as well as guaranteeing that partnered sex and interpersonal relationships were always or even almost always a positive for all those who wait, AND it didn't usually include gobloads of misinformation to incite fear into the burgeoning sexuality of those it addressed, I'd sign unto this in a heartbeat.
It's my job to do what I can to do my level best to have partnered sex and sexuality become as positive an experience for everyone, with as few negative consequences as possible. Needless to say, if all my job needed to consist of to be effective was me saying "no," it'd sure make my life a whole lot easier, and my workday a lot less stressful. Heck, I could easily cut my work hours down to almost nothing, simply by developing a nice auto-script to just say "wait" to everyone writing me a letter. But my job has NOT been made any easier by abstinence only approaches. I have more misinformation to correct than ever before, coming from more and more sources claiming to be credible, and backed by people who really SHOULD be trustworthy. For a while there, it used to be that most sexual information was spread peer-to-peer, but now we've got it coming right on down from our governments, who carry a high credibility, however undeserved. I've got good girl/bad girl good boy/bad boy stuff to deal with that my parents thought finally, thankfully, ended with their generation. Over the years, our traffic has only increased and increased -- despite us still never having done any advertising -- which not only creates more and more work for me, but costs me more and more to host. Suffice it to say, every time I file my taxes I am even crabbier than most because I know that I am literally giving money from the little I make to mandates which create more work for me and which cost me money to try and repair. I am having to fiscally contribute to a system which I professionally protest, and which does harm to those I seek to help. Given that this wave of abstinence-only began in 1996, and it's now more than a decade past, if it was working, and it was so positive for everyone, I think it's reasonable to surmise that I should be having less and less work over the years, don't you?
With letters like this one I usually end up scratching my head wondering why, exactly, it's so difficult for us as a people -- because this isn't a behavior that only belongs to conservatives -- to simply accept that when it comes to sexuality, it's often a multiple choice test in which there are an awful lot of combinations that can be the right answers, an awful lot of the SAME combinations that can be the wrong answers, and it's not the answer which dictates which will be right or wrong, but the individual involved and their very specific situation. This isn't rocket science: this is simple observation. Let's say Carolyn DID wait until marriage for sex, and Carolyn is pleased as punch. I didn't (nor did I even include ideas about marriage in any aspect of my sexuality or sexual decision-making), but I'm sitting here happy, healthy and satisfied, too.
So, who's right, then? We both are... per our own, and only our own, choices All we need is but one -- and suffice it to say, I've had far, far more than that -- letter from someone who DID wait for marriage or lifelong sole partnership and did NOT have the promised positive results, or one person who did NOT wait and has had positive results, to know that the idea that any one choice is best for everyone is flawed.
And this is why it's so vital to just freaking quit it with this one right choice mishegoss. Not just because it doesn't work, and because it isn't sensible, but because it doesn't honor the individual in any way, nor honor our diversity as individuals with widely varying sexual wants, needs and desires. Sure, there are some basic issues we really can apply to everyone -- issues of consent or of sexual health, for instance -- but hinging anything on something so also varied as marital status, sexual orientation, gender or age has shown us up historically, time and time again, as at worst, a grave error which does great harm to many, and as an utter waste of time and energy, and an incredibly effective distraction, at best. This is a distraction in that it very much does keep us from having to look at, address and try and develop strategies for sexuality issues which impact everyone, married and unmarried alike, issues which we often prefer to avoid or deny: sexual abuse and rape, domestic abuse, unwanted pregnancy, reproductive rights, homophobia and sexism, ignorance about sexuality and sexual response, the gross inability to sexually communicate, the works. This "one right choice" stuff is especially pernicious when addressed to women (and not only is most casual discussion on this issue about young women, most abstinence-only strategies make it very clear that sexual policing is the responsibility of women), who have spent nearly the whole of human history having our sexuality and sexual choices mandated and dictated to and for us by someone else.
We KNOW a lot of what works: we do, whether we like it or not, or feel comfortable with it or not. Sexuality education IS still a relatively new endeavor, and we are all still very much learning how to do it. I'm not comfortable all of the time either -- who is when it comes to sex? -- nor can I say that I am 100% certain 100% of the time that my approach with any given person or group is the right one. But I know that I'm a lot more comfortable wondering, questioning, and feeling out what might or could be right than I am when I'm somehow completely certain that I'm absolutely correct about a topic as huge, as loaded and as diverse as human sexuality.
We do, however, know that giving people as much accurate, unbiased, inclusive and compassionate about human sexuality as we can has helped people to figure out what the best choices they can make for themselves are, even when they make mistakes. We know that when we have seen board declines in rates of unwanted pregnancy -- such as one we saw here in the states between 1995 and 1998 -- it has resulted from comprehensive, not abstinence-based, sex education and from greater availability of effective birth control methods, and that areas with only abstinence-based sex education don't tend to show the promised positive results (not counting the undeniable positive of activists like Shelby Knox who step up in those areas, mind). We know both because they tell us it helps them, and because since we have started to do so, we have seen some important changes more broadly. We know that doing so in a way in which we do our level best to honor the diversity of those choices, to do so without privileging ANY one choice is not only the way that information (which you acknowledge is vital) is best heard and absorbed, as is the case with any kind of real education, it also, just in that respect, gives people something many people and our culture, historically, something which they are rarely given and which may be, as far as I can gather, the single most important thing anyone can have for a healthy sexuality: a positive acceptance of their sexuality and the clear given that their sexuality is theirs to own and inhabit -- not mine, not yours, not anyone else's.
See, I -- we -- can't do that if and when we tell someone that any one choice is the only right choice. If and when we say or mandate that, "the only decision that so-and-so needs to make is...", particularly about a population which we not only are not a member of, but one whom we have any power over (and we've plenty), we are usurping that person's or population's full ownership of that decision.
I got another letter (it's been a doozy of week for these) from a woman telling me that I just do not tell girls to say no to their boyfriends often enough. Not only do I often feel like that's what I spend half of every day doing with new users, that letter, like the one from Carolyn, like many of these kinds of sentiments, speaks volumes. If we really are -- really and truly -- invested in helping young people to make sound choices, and in them having a healthy, joyful and fully-autonomous sexuality and positive sexual relationships, then the way we educate them has to be in support of them actively making those choices, has to be primarily concerned with enabling that process, for them, not in directing it. Because when we seek to direct choices, not inform them, we enable exactly that which I hear folks like this saying they want to cease. Whether it's me, a boyfriend, or someone else, telling someone that there is only one sound choice for them based on our ideas, our wishes or our experiences, and abusing the influence we know we have with them to do so, isn't loving or respecting them, nor is it educating them.
Again, even if there really was any ONE right age to have sex at, one right type of relationship to have it in, any one right way to have sex, the very moment at which someone else tells you what YOUR right choice must or should be, it doesn't really get to be your choice anymore. It's theirs, and for all the big talk about sex being love, denying someone's full ownership of themselves and their own sexuality isn't loving. The very minute that we present anything in a way that is knowingly dishonest and seeks to prevent individual critical thinking and decision-making, we are not acting out of love, but out of control, which in and of itself, makes love -- in sex or anything else -- impossible.