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Christian Queer Sex Radicals?
Earlier this year, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development released the results of a study showing that teen virginity pledges can effectively delay sexual intercourse until later in life. Virginity pledges, for those who've been too busy screwing around to notice, are public promises made by young people—usually Christian youth— to abstain from having sex until marriage. But the devil (as usual) is in the details; in this case, it lies in what the definition of “sex” is. It is a biological fact that teenagers—whether or not they engage in sex—are hard-wired with sexual desires. So it's no surprise that many of them have found ways to have sex even if they want to remain virgins. How? In what may be a major legacy of the Clinton administration, teens have redefined abstinence. A 1999 study of midwestern high school students between the ages of 12 and 17 showed that they shared no common definition of the word— which, according to the dictionary, pretty clearly means “to refrain from something by one's own choice.”
Maybe it was the vagueness of the word “something” they had trouble with. In 1998, a survey of first year students and sophomores at Southern colleges showed that, according to the New York Times, “a quarter considered anal intercourse as abstinence and more than a third surveyed did not consider oral sex to be sex.” The figure rose when no one involved had an orgasm. Numbers were similar for masturbation with another person. If you think this is surprising, hold on to your hat: a 1999 survey disclosed that nearly a third of health educators believe that oral sex constitutes abstinence.
The tragedy here is self-evident: you can still contract sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes, through unprotected oral sex. Likewise, unprotected anal sex is highly conducive to HIV transmission. But there's also a delicious irony: by insisting on abstinence, the “just say no” culture of Christian conservatism is producing a generation of youth who've embraced sexual acts that not only are traditionally considered “deviant,” but are illegal in 18 states. This is no mean feat for a political movement that is doing its damnedest to inculcate, if not mandate, a standard of “normal” and “responsible” sexual behavior in its young people. Not that young adults (and older ones, too) shied away from anal and oral sex before the rage for virginity pledges took hold. But there's a startling connection between the right wing's tenacious definition of “real sex” as heterosexual and reproductive (and permissible only within the confines of marriage) and the new, widespread belief that anal and oral sex fall squarely outside the definition of “sex.” It seems that these young people are ignoring St. Paul's injunction, “It is better to marry than to burn” and following Edna St. Vincent Millay's dictum about burning candles at both ends—literally.
Nancy Reagan's solution to the country's drug problem became a joke minutes after the phrase Just Say No passed her lips. But her delusional misunderstanding of human nature, coupled with her profound denial of the realities of drug use, sparked a revolution, of sorts, that has endured. The infamous slogan and its peculiarly shallow assumptions lives on in the massive anti-sex campaign of recent years. Thanks to the virginity-pledge study, we now know the results. Although its findings were ambiguous at best and disingenuous at worst, the study received bright, bold, and not-very- critical attention in the press. Remarkably, most of the press has paid no attention to the virginity-pledge movement's distinctly conservative religious roots.
Founded in 1993, the abstinence program that promotes virginity pledges, True Love Waits, is a mission organized by the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board. By 1995, more than 2.5 million adolescents had taken the pledge and pledge organizers estimate that more than three times as many have done so since. Other conservative groups, too, have promoted virginity pledges in schools and youth organizations. To attract new pledgers, they often hold rallies, complete with public witnessing, led by celebrities—usually Christian artists such as Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and Petra, as well as conservative politicians (Alan Keyes) and media personalities (Lakita Garth, Miss Black America 1995). Organizers require pledgers to state publicly (often in writing) that they will refrain from all sex until marriage. Just say no, and no, and no, and no, and no.
But a close reading of the National Institute report, which was based on responses from 6,800 students in 141 schools, betrays deep and troubling flaws in the study. True, it showed that the average pledger refrained from sex for 18 months longer than the average nonpledger. The report not only failed to consider the possibility that the young respondents might not have been entirely truthful (gee, think teens lie about sex?), but it also portrayed an astonishingly limited “success.” Pledge movements were found to work best with 15- and 16- year-olds and were not very effective with older teens; they worked best when there was limited peer support; they fell apart when more than 30 percent of a school's students pledged. The most alarming finding was that when pledgers did break their troths, they were far less likely to use birth control than teens who had not pledged.
Virginity pledges are the tip of a far more dangerous trend: the proliferation of high-school sex- education programs that teach sexual abstinence as the only sure way to avoid pregnancy, STDs, and AIDS. The New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for reproductive rights, has noted that 23 percent of high school sexuality educators now focus their curricula narrowly on promoting abstinence, up from 2 percent in 1988.
How could this happen? Well, in 1996 Congress passed a little-noticed amendment to the Welfare Reform Act—introduced by conservative Republicans and vigorously supported by the religious right—that offered states $250 million over a 5-year period to support programs that would promote abstinence as the only way to avoid pregnancy, STDs, and AIDS. The bill's conservative grounding is made explicit in its bold language. It states that sex outside of marriage is “likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” To qualify, states have to match $3 in cash and services for every $4 received in federal funds. The bill does not bar state recipients of federal funding from teaching birth control and disease prevention in other health-education programs, but opponents fear that many states are using their limited sex-education funding to match funds for federally sponsored abstinence-only programs.
The Welfare Reform Act amendment was a startling departure from a 1981 federal program that provided funding for secondary-school “abstinence plus” programs that discouraged sexual activity but gave teens information on birth control, disease prevention, and safe sex. The truly shocking news, however, is that the 1996 amendment's budget is more than three times the allocation for HIV and AIDS education—which amounts to only $30 million a year. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, like curricula that promote the teaching of creationism, abstinence-only programs amount to educational malpractice—they put students at risk for disease by denying them access to basic health information. Since every state now accepts federal funds provided by the 1996 Welfare Act amendment, abstinence-only programs are national in scale. Each state may design its own program, but all share one common thread: they teach teens about sexuality by declaring that chastity until marriage is the only way. Some states use the money for billboards, pamphlets, public speakers, or bumper stickers, but many use it for classroom instruction—where teachers are forbidden to discuss issues of biology, sexuality, STDs, contraception, AIDS and HIV prevention, and safe sex.
Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. A committee on HIV prevention at the National Academy of Sciences has called abstinence-only programs “poor fiscal and public-health policy” (people under 25 account for 50 percent of all new HIV cases in the U.S.). Until the recent virginity-pledge study, three major studies of abstinence programs showed almost no convincing evidence that they delayed the onset of sexual activity among teens. According to a 1990 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 54 percent of all high-school students are sexually active by the time they reach 17, and in 8 national polls taken over the past decade, 80 percent of parents of high-school students say they want their children to be taught how to take precautions against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence programs, of course, deprive students of this necessary heath advice.
Abstinence-only programs— along with the absurd virginity pledges that work only as long as pledgers are in a small, sex-free clique—completely underestimate young people's capacity to make informed decisions and become responsible adults. They also misunderstand the sexual and emotional drives that make human beings, well, human. Christian doctrine has long held that the body is God's temple and must be respected as such. By funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into “health” programs that do almost no good, refuse to address the basic physical, emotional, and psychological welfare of young people, and deny teens vital information they need to maintain their bodies in a healthy manner, abstinence-only zealots are causing irreparable harm to those they claim they want to save. Z
Michael Bronski's writings have appeared in the Village Voice, Utne Reader, LA Times, The Advocate, Out, and Z Magazine. He is the author of Culture Clash (South End Press) and The Pleasure Principle (St. Martin's).