Sunday, June 18, 2006

Massive Sunday Morning: A Response to Aimee Short

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.

4 comments:

cfrost said...

Oh boy. The virus is spreading to England. See the Guardian article on "purity rings" at:
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1800271,00.html

I remember reading an interview with Frank Zappa in which Zappa was asked why he didn't record any love songs. His answer went something along the lines of: lots of kids listen to his songs and it would be a disservice to them to fill their heads with notions of romance and true love which are more properly an adult matter. Notice that Zappa never recorded any songs about abstinence.

I think Zappa's is a much healthier attitude towards the understanding of sex and romantic love. Sex is for love and commitment and procreation, but it's also for fun - we're hardwired that way. If sex in humans were for procreation only we'd be like many other animals in which there is a short period of oestrus where a copulation or two gets the job done and we'd move on to the business of raising the kids.

Sex in humans cements relationships but it also has the function in adolescents (and adults) of helping teach about relationships. Sex is a normal part of human, particularly adolescent human, development. Ask any anthropologist. We don't tie up a baby's legs until on their fourth birthday they have a church-blessed untying ceremony in which the child suddenly walks without having ever crawled or stumbled about on unsteady toddler legs.

Sex has inherent risks, romance has another set of risks. Serious, committed relationships such as marriage combine those risks and a host of others much more complicated than any adolescent can possibly comprehend or envision. To ask people to forego learning about sex until marriage is, in essence, to ask them to enter marriage crippled. And that, I believe, is evil.

Homer said...

Hmmmm, people who spend so much time pushing abstinence on other people obviously have some issues. Yours in "uneducation."

Aimee Short said...

Homer, Homer... HOMER. I do not understand how people can truly think that abstinence is being PUSHED on anybody. Have you listened to the radio lately, turned on your television, driven by a billboard, watched a movie or a commercial for that matter? If you paid attention you would realize that it is SEX that is being pushed on people... YOUNG people to be more specific. Do you have any idea how difficult it is for a teenager to abstain from sex these days without being teased, mocked or misunderstood? Trust me, it is very difficult. And if 1 in 10 people encourages a teen to abstain from sex and helps them to see past the moment and look towards their future we are called radical and pushy. Wow. You can say I have "issues" all you want, but someone has to stand in the gap for these kids. To offer them a different choice (because the truth is that many young people do NOT really know that abstinence is a viable option because they have been raped, abused, disrespected, or raised in an environment where they are expected to be sexually active and pregnant by 15). You are right. I obviously have issues. I have issues with people who do not respect young people and believe the best for them. I have major issues with people who disrespect the very difficult job that I (and others) have in offering hope to teens. You bet I have issues.

Now about the blog posted on June 18th in response to my comment. It is encouraging to know that the blogger is not heartless and has the ability to step away from her strong opinions and see not just the values of another person, but the PERSON behind those values. It's easy to put another person into a box that they do not deserve when you know very little about them or what they really do. I have been guilty of that myself from time to time. But, I do not, nor does BreakDown as an organization fit into the "abstinence" box.

There is one major difficulty that I have with this blog. It is stated as a fact that "Ms. Short offers no solution beyond don't have sex." Now how would you know that? Have you been to a high school classroom with me anytime over the last 6 years while I am teaching a 5 hour course on sex, abstinence and relationships? How can you be so sure that I say "just say no" for 5 hours and throw a ring or a pledge card at the students as they are running as fast as they can from my class? Let me answer my own question. Because you put me, and the entire "abstinence movement" into a tiny little box. It's not as simple as that. We do not believe or teach that if you wait until you are married to have sex that your life will be great and that you will never get divorced or that waiting equals a healthy relationship or marriage. In fact, I talk about REAL LIFE with the students and we get down to the nitty gritty issues and talk about the tough questions.

You would probably also assume that I disagree with everything that you wrote in your blog, which I do not. Abstinence is not a perfect little, simple package. It's rough to live out, especially in this society. I know. But, it would save a whole lot of people out-of-wedlock pregnancies, STDs, emotional turmoil, divorce, unhealthy relationships and a whole lot more. You are correct when you say that sex is a powerful, powerful thing. I agree wholeheartedly. That's why I do what I do. Because sex is so powerful it has the potential to be so painful. 2 minutes of sex can destroy a lifetime. Young people usually find this out the hard way. I just want to be the voice of encouragement that inspires some young people to avoid the consequences all together, possibly even save their lives. People can write what they want and criticize, but I for one do not want to be remembered for sitting back and allowing the young people around me to have the accuse that nobody cared enough to tell them the truth and that they are worth more than our society gives them credit for. I want to be one who offers hope of a better way, inspires young people to believe in and value themselves, their bodies and their futures.

These views may not fit nicely into your little box, but I hope they at least offer a different perspective that you may not normally consider. But, if you must lump "us" all in one box, at least throw into that box compassion, hope and love. That's what the abstinence movement should be about, but few people see because of all the propaganda. Broaden your view a little and you may begin to respect what you see.

Yours truly,
Aimee Short

Jasmine said...

That's RIGHT Aimee! Let 'em know the truth! There is no substitute for the truth either it is or is isn't! and what you say IS truth! You let 'em know and i'll let 'em know and together we will help our nations youth.