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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.

Comments

brian_murray
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.
attack_laurel
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.
bdeb
Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
"her how to use a condom, and gave her my stash."

Of weed or condoms? ;-) I can imagine needing the weed after a graphic (first time) sexual discussion...
;-)

Is anyone really going to disagree with this thread? There is just so much bullshit in the world, I am getting the strong urge to shoot my TV and move to the country.
attack_laurel
Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:46 pm (UTC)
Condoms. She was too afraid to go buy any.

There are always people who would troll this thread for the hell of it, or disagree violently with ym conclusions, but most of them don't know this journal exists.
bdeb
Apr. 3rd, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah, of course there are Trolls out there, I mention of your SCA membership....those that would actually read this blog. Your post and position is pretty reasonable IMO no matter there you are on the conservative/liberal scale....

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