Last month I wrote a post that mentioned a Christian abstinence-promoting teen dance group that plans to travel to Uganda to help Ugandans find God and swear off sex until marriage (please ignore the maddening formatting-that-didn't-quite-take and just read). I was less than optimistic about their chances of success and more than a little cynical about the entire aggressive abstinence movement as a whole.
The founder of the Tucson chapter of the group, one Aimee Short, took the time to leave a lengthy comment on the entry, so I'll return the favor and respond to the points she raised.
I was a virgin on my wedding night. If you knew what happened with my marriage you would feel like a jerk for even attempting to presume I did anything wrong. And just so everyone knows, I will not have sex again until I am married.
I respect Ms. Short's intention to not have sex until she gets married again, and am genuinely sorry for whatever hurt she experienced that makes this even more imperative for her than just religious conviction. I know too many women who have experienced sexual and emotional abuse to ever belittle someone's personal experience, so I do apologize for seemingly callous remarks.
Nobody is trying to deny any young person of having fun or "getting their freak on" as you put it. We ARE trying to help young people avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, STDs, and the emotional heartbreak associated with pre-marital sex.
I am not even going to try and convince the readers of this blog (which I am sure already share your viewpoint, however uneducated it may be) that what we do helps teenagers and that it is effective.
My viewpoint may have come across as a bit snarky, so I'll try to explain it clearly. While I simply do not believe that all people need to abstain from sex until they're married, I do believe that it's a big mistake to be sexually active before you're emotionally mature enough to handle it. Our brains are hard-wired to go, go, go, and what seemed like a great idea at the time can come back to bite you in the ass the next morning, or even five minutes later, if you went into it thinking true love and the other person was just looking to get off.
Sex can be a powerful, powerful thing and has the potential to create emotional trauma. It can be bad enough when you make a mistake that's just centered on you (damn, that was stupid, he/she was just using me; crap, I was drunk, I hope she doesn't call me back). It can be a hundred times worse when your mistake also means you broke a sacred vow you signed your name to, let down your parents who thought you were great because you were a virgin, and pissed off your god.
And it can be a million billion gazillion times worse when all of the above happens and--because your abstinence education didn't provide it and your personal abstinence pledge gave you a compelling reason not to research it--you either didn't use protection or used it incorrectly because you had no idea how it works. And that's where the problem lies. Ms. Short says she's trying to help kids avoid pregnancy and STDs, but offers no solutions beyond "don't have sex."
That advice is golden in a perfect world, but does exactly nothing to protect people who get caught up in the moment, or in situations they have zero preparation for because they were told--and told themselves--that they simply would never do that. The membership of Short's own group belies that assumption; at least one guy, quoted anonymously in the original newspaper article this story came from, admitted to losing his virginity at 14, although he's since re-committed himself to abstinence. Did he use a condom? The paper didn't say. If any of the other BreakDown dancers get carried away at some point and have a sexual encounter, will they know how to protect themselves? Look at the numbers of abstinence-pledge kids who engage in oral or anal sex because they don't think it's the "real sex" that their pledges proscribe. I don't think those activities are inherently immoral, but they are risky from a physical health perspective and carry the same potential for emotional trauma good old penis-vagina sex does.
The other problem I have with the abstinence movement is the need of its proponents to formalize the decision and cover it with so many symbolic and ritualistic trappings that it moves into the realm of the sacramental--which comes with its own attendant problems (my, I'm feeling self-referential today). I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of kids wearing jewelry serving as a prominent statement about their sexuality. Deciding you're not going to engage in sex for recreation is admirable, but wearing the locket or ring every day seems, in my heathen opinion, to put an inappropriate emphasis on a kid's sexuality, to draw more attention to it--even when it's in the negative sense--than is warranted. But that's just me.
Where this becomes troublesome in my mind is when the kid who has made such a huge deal about being abstinent stumbles and does something. When the girl who's gone to the Purity Ball with her dad, or done the Silver Ring Thing and made her pledge in front of the group and wears the ring ends up having sex anyway. Hard enough to wake up the next morning after doing something you feel violates your own personal principles, your own private promise to yourself. Throw in betraying your community and all hell breaks loose.
I suppose that's the point; fear of tribal approbation keeps most people in line to some extent. And, the Abstainers might argue, if there's no threat of shame or other consequence hanging over your head, what's the point of making a promise in the first place? I simply prefer to see more holistic approaches taken that do not require perfection in order to be effective, and that includes acknowledging, accepting, and being honest about realities that don't conform to your ideal world. Vaginal sex doesn't always result in pregnancy or STD--but it can, so you need to be prepared. Oral and anal sex don't always result in STD--but they can, so you need to be prepared. Pre-marital sex does not always result in heartbreak--but it can be very messy indeed, so yes, you need to be abstinent if you're not emotionally mature enough to handle the potential trainwreck.
The last point the Abstince Movement regularly fails to acknowledge is that a marriage license and minister's blessing don't magically make you immune to either STDs or heartbreak. A woman can be a virgin who's never been with a man unaccompanied and still end up with a nasty virus on her wedding night if her husband was neither "pure" nor careful in his youth. Sexual abuse still happens within marriage, as does sexual incompatibility. In short, human sexuality is maddeningly and wonderfully complicated. Just saying no before marriage will solve some problems, but it ain't a magic fix for everything, and it isn't free of its own unintended side effects.
Endnote: My concern that BreakDown's message is overly simplistic for Uganda stands. Emphasizing self-esteem and self-worth as reasons to decline sex outside of a committed relationship, especially for teenagers, and especially for girls, is a praise-worthy goal. But it's hard enough to make that kind of thinking stick in America. I'm not sure that trying to transplant that model wholesale onto another culture will be hugely successful without simultaneously (or first) addressing the issues of gender inequality, the sexual expression of male power and dominance, and poverty.