Doctor Science Knows

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Mom Against Abstinence

Mom against "abstinence" here.

I think "abstinence until marriage, faithfulness afterward", far from being "the only 100% safe approach", is a proven formula for disaster.

As far as I can tell, "abstinence" in this sense includes never having any orgasm-related contact with another human being before marriage. That is, it encourages ignorance, clumsiness, and lack of knowledge of self and others. For women in particular, this means that they are much more likely to find marital sex unsatisfying, as neither half of the sketch has enough hands-on knowledge of female sexual response to get her where she wants to go. Unsatisfying marital sex is a Bad Thing, not least because it leads to more divorces, a Really Bad Thing.

Abstinence-until-marriage also naturally leads to earlier marriages, as young people get married so they can legitimately have sex. Early marriages lead to more divorces, which, again, a Really Bad Thing.

Abstinence-until-marriage also encourages the mindset in which certain behaviors are labelled "sex" by adults, and so teenagers indulge in other behaviors because they "don't count", but without taking appropriate precautions either medically or emotionally.

For instance, oral sex is a *really* effective contraceptive, but there are still disease risks -- which is why teenagers could stand to learn about flavored condoms -- and it has emotional/relationship risks if it doesn't go both ways, if it just becomes a power trip. Exploitative sex is also a Really Bad Thing.

One of the worst things about "abstinence until marriage, faithfulness afterward" as an educational program is that it is so patently hypocritical. Kids aren't stupid -- they look around at the behavior of the adults they know and the ones depicted in movies, TV, and ads, and they will infallibly conclude that AUMFA is not standard, normal adult behavior. "Do as I say, not as I do" is a Bad Thing, because it leads kids to assume adults are always lying, even when we say "don't mix downers and alcohol" or "don't drive 70 on that twisting road". And those are Really, Really Bad Things.

AUMFA makes adults feel good, but it is a disservice to young people on multiple levels, and I'm against it.

Contraception For Life

I had a LTE published in the Trenton Times yesterday. The editors gave it the title: "Contraception Averts Murder". I think this can be a wedge right through the "pro-life" movement (PLM hereafter, because I'm lazy). Think about it, re-write it, make it your own, spread that meme.

Here's the text of my letter as I wrote it:
If you look around the world, abortion rates are lowest not where abortion is illegal, but where contraception is widely available and there is social pressure to use it. Even with all the division in the US over the abortion issue, I know quite a few individuals who consider themselves strongly "pro-life" and who are also very strongly in favor of contraception.

Yet, I have not been able to find any "pro-life" organization or group that is pro-contraception. "Pro-life" groups are willing to say that abortion is murder, that pro-choice advocates are baby-killers, that Roe v. Wade is like the Holocaust, that abortion is the defining moral issue of our time. This is extremely strong language, and only acceptable if you really mean it.

If you do mean it, you have a moral imperative to promote contraception. If you believe that birth control pills and IUDs are also infanticidal, that only increases your moral obligation to promote barrier methods such as condoms.

Pro-life groups don't approve of contraception, but surely it isn't worse than what they characterize as mass slaughter. If the lesser evil of contraception prevents countless murders, you'd better encourage it for the sake of the greater good.

The Times' editors changed "you" to "we" from paragraph 2 on, which makes it sound like I'm a member of the PLM.

The ideas for this letter grew out of various discussions around the blogosphere, especially The Thread That Wouldn't Die at Slactivist's. I owe a lot to the posters there and to people posting and commenting at Pandagon and Alas, a Blog.

I think this letter's approach can be used as a wedge into the PLM, which I believe can be divided into 3 subgroups:

->A. A considerable number of individuals who are both pro-life and pro-contraception, who feel alienated by the rhetoric of both the usual pro-life and pro-choice sides. These people are ready to get on the "contraception for life" boat as soon as they see a skipper.

->B. People whose basic, unconscious motivations are opposed to women's rights and to sexual expression, but who have enough of a conscious committment to logic and justice that they will go for the just & logical alternative, even though it makes them uncomfortable.

->C. The Anti-Sex League. As far as I can tell, *all* the PLM leadership is in this group, and they don't even realize how many of their followers are in groups A&B.

Because the Trenton Times, like other daily newspapers, has a strict word limit on LTEs (200-250 words), I didn't include any supporting documentation or pre-emptive answers besides "but the Pill kills babies!" Here are some likely objections to "contraception for life" and ways to rebut them, with links:

- What do you mean, abortion is rarest where it's legal: the best current study seems to be The Incidence of Abortion Worldwide, form the Guttmacher Institute. The countries with the lowest abortion rates are The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland -- all places where abortion is legal and easy to obtain, especially early in pregnancy, but where a variety of methods of contraception are readily available and widely-advertized, sex education is explicit, and there is social pressure to use contraception. It's not just that these countries are rich; Tunisia is a very poor country with a low abortion rate, low fertility (it's not just that women are having a lot of children), and widespread use of contraception.

- But what about Ireland and Poland? They have no abortions because they're illegal! Ireland has no abortions because they have the ferry to England instead. Abortion has been illegal in Poland since 1993. Under communism abortion had been one of the most common methods of birth control in Poland; since then the legal abortion rate has falled to almost zero, and is often touted as a triumph of "pro-life" legislation.

It's difficult to tell what is really going on in Poland. Access to and knowledge of contraception is shockingly poor, and women's health statistics are not well reported. Annectodal evidence suggests there is a substantial underground abortion industry in Poland and considerable "abortion tourism" to other countries. The most telling fact is that the Polish birth rate did not go up when abortions became illegal. Under communism there were probably on the order of 100,000 abortions per year in Poland; making abortion illegal did not "save" lives, because we don't see 100,000 extra lives showing up every year, even though increasing the birth rate was one of the rationales for banning abortion.

- We can't compromise our anti-contraception principles! Adults compromise our principles all the time, it's called "picking the lesser of two evils." If you call yourself "pro-life" but think that sometimes wars are necessary, you're clearly willing to make huge compromises: terrible things happen to innocent people even in the most just of wars. Is contraception truly worse than war?

My guess, BTW, is that for a substantial number of people in the PLM the answer is "yes", because they don't think about the horrors of war much, but they think about sex and why it's bad bad bad *all the time*, and so it's much more present to their imaginations. I think a good many of these people will be able to rise above their gut reactions if the case for logic and justice is made gently but firmly.

- Contraception is bad because sex should have consequences! Motorcycle helmets are bad because they protect cyclists from the consequences of going too fast. Clearly, the way to encourage motorcyclists to drive slowly and carefully is to make it very difficult to buy helmets, to never show cyclists on TV wearing helmets, and to not let helmet manufacturers advertize where children might see. Besides, when California enacted its mandatory motorcycle helmet law they had an organ transplant crisis due to lack of "donorcycles", so clearly motorcycle helmets cost innocent lives.

In other words, everything has "consequences", if by that you mean "downsides", and normally we let -- and even encourage people -- to act to protect their own health and safety. It's called "personal responsibility" and conservatives are supposed to be all for it.

"Pro-Life=Pro-Contraception" has two purposes. In the first place, to stimulate the "Group A" part of the PLM to get up on their hind legs and tell their leadership "You're wrong!", and maybe even break away to form their own organizations. These organizations would have enough in common with flagship pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood that we could work together to do things like get real, solid sex education into our schools or to get condom ads on TV.

I honestly don't know what has stopped the "Group A"s so far, since my incredibly unscientific guess is that there are huge numbers of them, at least 25% of the US population. It's definitely time for them to get their act together and step onto the public stage.

The other purpose of "Pro-Life=Pro-Contraception" is to get the "Group B"s to think about what they're doing. It's a tricky business because so much of what's driving "Group B"s and "Group C"s is repression in a very Freudian sense. The thing about repression is that it's a strategy for *not thinking*, so anything that forces you to think about the forbidden topic will be deeply resented and feared. I think that's why these people spend so much energy trying to get sexual images out of popular culture. They're really trying to *not think* about sex, and then they see images that make them think about it, which makes all this repressed stuff try to boil out, so naturally they blame the image-makers for the boiling-over state of their own feelings. Because the fact is that seeing sexual images, or same-sex couples, or frank discussions of sexuality brings out feelings that truly are frightening and painful for them -- they just don't realize that the pain and fear are inside them, not being inflicted on them from outside.

In any event, what "Group B"s (and salvageable "Group C"s, if any) need is the political equivalent of therapy. No yelling, no screaming, no capslock, no calling them names like "woman-hater" or "repressed jerk" even if you think it's true. Just steadily pointing out that their actions consistently rate contraception as worse than murder, and some of them will eventually get used to thinking about sexuality more rationally and without head-exploding emotional upheaval.

Since I've wanted to post this yesterday but didn't get it done and I don't want to wait till tomorrow, I'll post now. Please, suggest other lines of argument and turns of phrase, try it out on people around you, write your own LTEs, spread it around.

Cross-posted at DailyKos, where comments are threaded.