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Abstaining from the Idiocy

One of my favourite state-of-the-feminism pages, Feministing, had an interesting post about a week back on an article in the New York Times about an abstinence advocacy group at Harvard.  Do read the comments; there are some excellent thoughts contained therein. 

I should state up front that I have no objections to abstinence as a lifestyle choice. When a person has sex is something that only they should be deciding on, and abstinence as a concept deserves support. Where the majority of the abstinence-supporting groups and I part ways is in the thinking they use to promote abstinence. I consider choosing abstinence a legitimate ideal, along with choosing to be sexually active. We should each make that choice for ourselves, and everyone should be supported in their decisions on what they do with their body.

As one of the commenters said: "But I would feel better about abstinence as a free choice if its proponents said things like "I'm not ready for sex," "I just don't want to have sex," or something like that, statements that make it clear that this is a personal, individual choice. But instead, they always couch their choice in the rhetoric of a self-righteous, objective morality that elevates them at the expense of the rest of us. That makes me suspect that they don't see abstinence as a legitimate free choice, but as something that people should be coerced and frightened into. And that makes me question the legitimacy of such a choice."

You know what? Me too. 

Many abstinence promoters seem to favour a heavily moralized, misogynist and misandrist rhetoric that demands total obedience from everyone. If you don't follow their rules, you're wrong. Worse, the focus is heavily skewed towards women's subjugation to the men in their lives. The focus is on purity balls, purity pledges, and the idea that if a girl puts out before marriage she's a slut, and if she won't put out after marriage, then she's denying her man the thing that is rightfully his. Women as possessions, in fact.

But they don't stop there - they paint men as sexual predators, monstrous animals who cannot control themselves, so women are responsible not only for their own sexuality, they have to be responsible for men's, too. And if the men can't control themselves? Well, it's because the women weren't "pure" enough. Whichever way you slice it, men and women are both demonized by this way of thinking. We are apparently nothing more than our basest urges, and only the "pure" will survive.

This thinking scares me. Women and men should make their own decisions about what's right for them, and no-one else should have a say. In matters of sexual and bodily integrity, the owner of the vessel gets to say what happens to it. Why then, do so many abstinence supporters reduce females to vaginas on legs, and an unbroken hymen to the essence of their worth as human beings?

There are lots of good arguments for abstinence - STDs are rampant like crazy, and while single motherhood is no longer stigmatized (rightly so), it's still really hard to raise a kid while you're in high school. Abstinence should be part of a full sexual education, but only part. Keeping our children in ignorance of all the practical ramifications of sex is doing them a grave disservice - like embarking on a major undertaking without getting as much information as possible beforehand, uninformed sex is likely to put a person into situations they cannot handle.

Abstinence should be talked about without the intense moral slant it has today - it is a good thing, but not because God thinks you're dirty if you have sex, little girl. I want kids to wait to have sex. I want people to go through life without ever feeling forced to have sex to keep someone's "love", but more than that, I desperately want tolerance for all lifestyles. Reducing sexual behaviour to a question of "pure/not" simply turns girls into possessions of men, and suggests they're valueless if they've already been "used". Where is the moral superiority in that way of thinking?

It frequently reduces me to paroxysms of rage just thinking about it.

Women are not put on Earth for the convenience of men, but you wouldn't know it from the way some abstinence-promoting groups talk - "no man will want you", "you need to keep yourself pure for your husband", "they won't buy the cow if the milk is free" - these are phrases that show how deeply ingrained the idea of women as chattel is (literally, in the case of the last quote). This thought process is incredibly damaging to men, too - how small a step is it from "she's keeping herself pure for me" to "I want her, so I'll take her"? These ideas of women as the only moral force holding men back from their rampant sex drive implies it's not men's fault if they rape - it's the woman's.

The idea of men as unable to control themselves has been used in rape trials, to show that the woman was "asking for it" (a phrase that makes me see deep blood red). The idea that women should be "pure" has been used as an excuse to dehumanize women who choose to enjoy their sexuality. And forget about equality - when girls are judged solely by the state of their hymen, how can there be any hope of parity between the genders?

I'll say it again: Abstinence Is Good. Sexuality is a scary and intense experience, and the overt sexualization of younger and younger girls in our culture is possibly in part to blame for the fact that more and more children are having sex long before they're ready for the consequences - forget about pregnancy and AIDS, how about the old-timey STDs that are still all over the place?  Hello, herpes, gonorrhea, syphillis, hepatitis - good to see you!  Forgot you were still around!

Couching sexuality in moral terms also gives young boys a reason to pressure their "girlfriends" for sex, then dump them with a free conscience, because they're "sluts" for putting out. I seriously thought we left that kind of thinking behind in the 1950s, but it seems to have made a comeback.

You all know me - am I really just what's between my legs? My intellect, my sense of humour, my musical talent, my work - does it all mean nothing without my virginity? Some men would say so, and the heavily moralized nature of abstinence teaching encourages them. 

(Okay, okay - I'm married.  I'm allowed to have sex.  But I've been married before, and I definitely wasn't a virgin before I got married.)

No rational, intelligent person should ever think of another person as a possession. No rational, sane person should consider a woman worthless because she isn't a virgin, or think of men as barely-controlled rapists.  

(We are not into Dworkinism here.) 

And before the other side jumps on me, I don't agree with the idea that abstinence is bad (I think I said that *sarcasm*, but I'm saying it again.  And again.  And again). Pressuring someone else to have sex before they're ready is (say it with me, everyone!) a violation of their bodily integrity. Making fun of people who choose not to have sex for legitimate reasons (i.e., reasons other than fear, indoctrination, and patriarchal brainwashing) is stupid, and shows a marked lack of tolerance for other people's decisions. My readers are not ignorant bigots, dammit!

Take the "morality" out of abstinence teaching, and substitute some humanity. Common sense, good sense, and a respect for individual choice would be good, too. If we can't get away from the "virgin/whore" dichotomy, we'll all go down in flames, and deservedly so. Women are not biblical madonnas or whores. Men are not rapists, controlled only by the refusal of a "pure" woman. We're all just people. Some will want sex, some won't (some will want you to hold the goldfish bowl over your head while reciting Hiawatha, but it's cool if you say no). 

And no-one should be telling our children anything about sex except how to stay safe, happy, and healthy.


( 32 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC)
What is this, the fucking 1950s? Someone needs to be pointed to a calendar.

Rage! RAGE!!!!!
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:20 pm (UTC)
We, being smart, clever people, tend to draw smart, clever people to us. I don't know about you, but I simply do not run into this kind of misogyny in my daily life - but that doesn't mean it's not out there.

What is really bad is how it hurts everyone - men are pigs, and women are sluts, unless the woman is "pure" and can "save" the man who chooses to own her. *eye*roll*
(no subject) - kass_rants - Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:21 pm (UTC)
"But they don't stop there - they paint men as sexual predators, monstrous animals who cannot control themselves, so women are responsible not only for their own sexuality, they have to be responsible for men's, too."

This is the thinking behind the burqa.


I'd like to kick them in their purity balls.

Edited at 2008-04-03 03:22 pm (UTC)
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:27 pm (UTC)
Heh. Yes, one of the feministing comment threads got into a huge argument with someone who said basically that men could not control themselves, so women had to be covered at all times.

(no subject) - kass_rants - Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - herveus - Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - molly_world - Apr. 3rd, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)
I've put a lot of time and energy into edumacating my TeenBeast(tm). Hopefully he's making some sensible choices. I've had no phone calls or visits from irate parents, so he must be doing something right.

Some of it has rubbed off on some of his friends, and I've always been willing to answer their questions, which has helped. I've also delivered a few smackdowns in response to some of their misogyny and general asshatery. However, I'm just one guy ...

But it's not the 1950s or even the 1960s and those attitudes hurt then and they're just as painful now.

Edited at 2008-04-03 03:25 pm (UTC)
Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
You are not alone, you are not just one guy... you have an ally.

My house is the "open door" house. All the friends are welcome and all the questions are answered in honest and intelligent ways. That maybe why I knew about the one friend's pregnancy scare before anyone else and why the gay, bi-racial couple came to me to ask for advice on telling thier respective parents and why they all ask me to give the explanation for terms they have never heard. I figure if they can't/won't have this dialogue with thier own parents then they need to talk to someone.

So far this all seems to be paying off since I have 2 - 18 year old virgins. Amazingly my son and my step-daughter have both chosen to absain from sex (so far anyway) because and I qoute "you and Dad told us way more than we ever needed to know and it's not something I need to do right now and potentially screw up my life before I finish college" Thank God!!

On the other hand we have also taught them that sex is good and that they shouldn't care what anyone thinks of their sexual choices except themselves. I'm all for being happy and having self-respect screw what anyone else thinks.
(no subject) - firehauke - Apr. 3rd, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:27 pm (UTC)
Amen, sister
>>But they don't stop there - they paint men as sexual predators, monstrous animals who cannot control themselves, so women are responsible not only for their own sexuality, they have to be responsible for men's, too

This is what really bothers me about the concept of "hijab" (apologies for the probable incorrect spelling). The premise is that men can't control themselves, therefore it's women's responsiblity to keep men from temptation. Grr.

I agree, sex is all about choice. Whatever 2 (or more) consenting adults choose to do, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody else (e.g. cheating on a partner if you are in a monogamus relationship), is OK.

Thus speaketh the San Francisco Bay Area Native. ;-)

Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Amen, sister
...and if the "man" rapes the woman, it is clearly the woman's fault in a legally culpable way.
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
I agree. Everyone should be able to make their own choices without fear, coercion, or pressure from the media.

The arguments that women must be responsible for the sexuality of men as well as their own because men can not control themselves have always upset me. Not just because of what it says about women and the position it places them in but also because of what it says about men. This way of thinking highlights all of our worst vices and none of our virtues.

I wish that tolerance got as much promotion and media attention as intolerance. The world would be a better place.
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Amen! I really like the men in my life. The idea that they are uncontrollable beasts is just galling to me.
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:54 pm (UTC)
*shakes head*
People can be so damned stupid. And the part that really gets me is that the stupid can lead so many others. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? Oh, that's right, that was never in fashion.
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:58 pm (UTC)
Joining the chorus here.

Abstinence is good for the right reasons. It should have nothing to do with morality or religion.

I have always objected (since adulthood anyway) to the concept of "pure". "Pure" what? It is a question of experience or not.

The other phrase I don't like is "lost virginity". I didn't lose mine - I know exactly what I did with it.

Thanks for starting my day with a good think.
Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC)
So this is a hard one.

To someone with reasoning skills, its easy enough to say "Look, sex can be fun, but there is a gigantic risk that you need to understand." How do you get a teenager that hates their parents and thinks they are clueless? Logic is not going to work there. I have trouble getting simple things across like "Do your homework, or you will not be allowed to go out and play."

While I don't agree with shame, I do empathize with those that are using it to keep their kids from having sex.

I like to think of myself as a reasonably smart guy, but I have no idea how to handle this with my kids. The normal issues are even more compounded by "the other parents" that have ... interesting views on a number of issues.
Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC)
Actually, it's best when it's a concerted effort from all people involved with the child. As one of the links talks about, a study showed that teenagers given proper sex education in schools wait longer and have less unprotected sex than ones in abstinence-only schools.

You just keep drilling it into their heads in a non-judgemental manner. If they know they're not going to piss you off, they're less likely to get a thrill out of it.

My mother got me birth control and told me that weed was okay, but the hard drugs were bad, so try to stay away from them. I turned out okay, but the girl I know who had been told nothing - nothing! - by her parents except "sex is dirty" had two pregnancy scares before I finally sat her down and showed her how to use a condom, and gave her my stash.
(no subject) - bdeb - Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - attack_laurel - Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bdeb - Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, like so many of these things, it boils down to religious agenda.

Sin, as a concept, is nothing more then something that was made up in order to control a population. The things that were declared sin were targeted as thoughts, activities, systems of ethics which could threaten to take attention away from the message religion wanted/wants to promote. Much of the religious message is about establishing the order of things and that order is well defined putting women pretty much at the bottom of the list. As you say, not much more then property.

This is why we have things going on like "abstinence programs", "intelligent design debates" and "faith based initatives." Logic and reasoning is systematically being attacked and the best place for that to happen is in the schools. Get them indoctrinated to these ideas and this way of thinking as early as possible, and never mind the facts or the necessary logic and reasoning skills one needs to just get by in this world. Nor should we be teaching self-esteem and self respect, since those things would mean one need not turn to outside authorities for moral and ethical guidence, but could instead simply figure out right and wrong on their own.

Guilt and uncertainty are powerful tools in manipulating a population. Disguising it as "moral choice" and "moral superiority" is just the sugar coating that makes the "medicine" go down.

(Why yes, I do feel strongly about such things... why do you ask? *smile*)
Apr. 3rd, 2008 05:18 pm (UTC)
But they don't stop there - they paint men as sexual predators, monstrous animals who cannot control themselves, so women are responsible not only for their own sexuality, they have to be responsible for men's, too. And if the men can't control themselves? Well, it's because the women weren't "pure" enough. Whichever way you slice it, men and women are both demonized by this way of thinking. We are apparently nothing more than our basest urges, and only the "pure" will survive.

Isn't it ironic that many fundamentalist religions in the Middle East freely embrace this thinking? How sad that it's also being embraced here. It totally removes the prospect of "personal choice" from the vocabulary of women. You are expected to abstain from sex for moral reasons, but not because you "just feel like it".
Apr. 3rd, 2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
Sorry...that first paragraph was supposed to be in quotes. :(
Apr. 3rd, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)
'and while single motherhood is no longer stigmatized. . .'

It's gotten better, but there's still a stigma in some parts of the country, especially if the mother is young. It's cool and hip if you're a city-dwelling 30-year-old who uses a sperm donor because you want a baby regardless of whether there's a man in your life, but it's definitely stigmatized in the crowds that promote abstinence-only sex ed.

The whole abstinence-only movement is pretty much solely about *control* over people's sexuality. They don't care if the scientific evidence shows that their kids get STDs at higher rates than kids who got real sex ed classes. They use the threat of STDs and pregnancy to keep their kids in line. They're not interested in promoting birth control even though it reduces the need for abortion (if they were really more interested in protecting unborn babies than in controlling women's sex lives, they'd be passing out condoms in every church and school, but we won't go there - that's a topic for another rant).
Apr. 4th, 2008 06:43 am (UTC)
I agree, the stigma against single mothers is alive and well. My little sister was born when I was 13, and I got the dirtiest looks I have ever seen when I pushed her stroller or took care of her. I would often walk up to the mean old biddies and ask them if they believed in abortion, the answer was always no, I would then ask how they expected young women to go thorough with having a baby when they would be treated so badly, and would end with a little "by the way, this is my sister and our mom is right over there." It was both satisfying and frustrating at the same time. I think out of 5 groups of women I did this to only one reached an understanding of what I was saying.
(no subject) - gianetta - Apr. 4th, 2008 10:52 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 4th, 2008 06:51 am (UTC)
I am always infuriated by the whole issue of male control of women's sexuality. I found my SCA name in an article on the underbelly of Seville, a Mariana was taken to court for selling herself directly without a male protector (go girl!). I then looked in to the history of prostitution and found that, in many cases, it was allowed, but only if men were involved, a woman operating on her own was nearly always illegal (yes, I am generalizing hugely, if I got into detail this would be a 20 page post :). I wonder if that is why the porn industry is legal in America when prostitution is not. Women prostituting themselves can (if it is legal and safe) control their own bodies, but in the porn industry they are controlled by the producers.

We are thankfully in a society where women are gaining more and more control over their own bodies. I really hope that this trend continues. I wonder, why so many men feel threatened by women in control of their selves? What is it that motivates so many men to control women? And why do women in so many cases go along with it (the stories of mothers forcing their daughters to undergo "female circumcision" even when the father is against it are terrifying!)
Apr. 4th, 2008 01:00 pm (UTC)
As a remedial high school biology teacher in a VERY liberal district, I am always staggered to see how many of my students blanch when I tell them that they can still get STDs from oral sex. We have a LOT of work to do.

Honestly, the part of this spectrum that I see most often - the "well, I've had sex, lots of it, and now I'm seen as a slut, but if I have a *baby*, then everyone will take care of me, and I'll always have someone that loves me, and the government and my parents will give me money to stay home and dress it up in cute outfits and show it off to my friends." Oi.

On the other hand, my telling my students lots of the nitty gritty of what pregnancy is like, and about life with two small children, has gotten them to rethink the whole 'having a baby to love me' thing. I've actually been told that "[I am] very good birth control." :)
Apr. 5th, 2008 01:15 am (UTC)
Dear God
Although I must say I love the feminist header.....I want it as an icon....
Apr. 9th, 2008 09:17 am (UTC)
To my knowledge the 'purity ball' hasn't caught on in Australia yet, but to my mind the whole idea of pledging one's virginity to one's father smacks of incest. (Even though my father got all hot under the collar about me staying overnight with a man a couple of years ago - when I was 38.)

I was also rather taken aback by the quote in the article that "girls are entering marriage with 12 sexual relationships". In that case, assuming that the relationships are heterosexual, so presumably are boys. Isn't that an issue? Or is abstinence only for women? Are there mother and son purity balls? Somehow I can't see it being nearly so popular.
( 32 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )

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