Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bad abstinence journalism: the conservatives

I started subscribing to Google news watcher for the phrase "abstinence" and for the past few days, I've seen some really terrible journalism on both sides of the issue.

For instance, what planet is this this conservative editorialist living on where she thinks that comprehensive sex education encourages kids to "[use] grape jelly as sex play lubricant" and "to take showers together"? As the editorialist pithily writes, "They're not learning about the birds and the bees any more, they're talking about dental dams (for safe oral sex) and plugs (for anal sex)." Can anyone find a sex education curriculum that mentions butt plugs? I really can't imagine this. The major use of the word is for comic effect: living in Chicago (home of improv), I find that "butt plugs" occurs often in improvisational comedy and almost always gets a laugh, but does the term appear in any sex education curricula?

Is there any curriculum that encourages kids to use grape jelly in foreplay? Or even orange marmalade? What would they do with it, anyhow? What do adults do with it? Googling "grape jelly" and "porn" turns up some really lucious pictures of fresh figs and other food blogs ("food porn" being the term for close-ups) and conservative commentators repeating the line. From the conservative commentators' further context, if there is such a curriculum, it appears that it is aiming to make sex as unpleasant as possible by suggesting the use of honey, maple syrup, and grape jelly as lubricants; plus, these are all more expensive than generic K-Y, and could cause yeast overgrowth. It's a brilliant strategy. Seriously, I have no idea why they would suggest grape jelly as a lubricant. Clearly, it's a bad idea, and fortunately it's hardly fundamental to comprehensive sex education. Condoms, on the other hand, are. And, for that matter, dental dams.

The research shows that no sex education curriculum increases sexual activity. It's possible that (as she says) some sex ed curricula assign kids to go to the drug store to look at condoms, but it's highly unlikely that any sex education curriculum literally assigns kids to engage in any particular sexual act. As funny as it would be to read, "Exercise: Find a partner and follow the instructions given in the previous section." as if it were a math textbook.

The editorialist does have a point that some sex education curricula may raise questions that kids hadn't thought of themselves. She doesn't discuss the implications of the point, but it does deserve further discussion. When I was a camp counselor for 5th grade girls, some of the girls were interested in boys and others weren't, and the differences were stark. Some kids are talking about sex in fourth and fifth grade, and others don't consider themselves ready to date until they're well into high school. These vast differences between kids cause kids at the extremes to feel marginalized, but the issue of these differences goes well beyond sex ed.

In a different direction, many other parts of health education raise questions that kids hadn't thought of themselves. Health education consists of warning kids against doing many different activities, many of which they would not have thought of themselves, and from very young ages. At very young ages, kids are told not to put beans in their nose; when they are older, kids are told not to drink alcohol, use drugs, vomit in order to lose weight, cut themselves, or commit suicide. It's likely that many kids would not have thought of these dangers on their own, and warning them does put the idea in their head. No conservative columnists examine the range of behaviors that kids are warned against, and whether these behaviors cause kids to do them: the only behavior singled out is sex, which seems strange because suicide and eating disorders and the mental disorder associated with cutting have much higher mortality rates. Fortunately, no research indicates that health education class encourages kids to engage in any behaviors that they would not have engaged in otherwise.

Raising issues that kids aren't yet ready for could be a thoughtful point, but doesn't seem to be the editorialist's argument, however, since she continues: "Indeed, the sex industry profits from our kids being sexually active at a young age - our kids don't. Condom makers, vaccination providers, pharmaceutical companies and Planned Parenthood abortion clinics all make billions from classroom-induced sexual experimentation."

Planned Parenthood makes billions of dollars? Children are a major market for condom companies? I'd love to see the condom-equivalent of Joe Camel.

She also complains that abstinence lacks funding, "So after 20 years of battling for a pittance compared to Planned Parenthood's largesse, Project Reality has been forced to cut staff and drastically reduce its teacher training plans." Abstinence gets over $200 million per year from the federal government; how much does the federal government give to Planned Parenthood?

This is just one sample of the bad conservative abstinence journalism out there. I just felt this one was particularly funny given its claims that Planned Parenthood makes money from kids having sex. "Condom makers, vaccination providers, pharmaceutical companies and Planned Parenthood abortion clinics all make billions from classroom-induced sexual experimentation." I just had to repeat that line because it was so funny.

The liberals, on the other hand, are not much better.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Bad abstinence journalism: the liberals.

In the previous post, I mentioned that I had recently started reading Google's news updates about abstinence, and run across some really bad journalism, on both sides. The previous post looked at a conservative editorialist. This one looks at a liberal.

- The columnist begins, "If the empty mantra, "Just Say No," failed to keep teenagers off of drugs, it certainly is not going to work for sex." It is interesting that he chose to compare drugs and sex. All educational programs that teach adolescents about drugs attempt to encourage total abstinence, and take the position that there is no safe level of drug use (which some consider overly cautious), and some well-designed programs succeed in reducing drug use (e.g., the RAND Corporation's Project ALERT). If he regards drugs and sex as comparable, the existence of successful drug abstinence programs ought to imply that it's possible to create similar sexual abstinence programs. Sex and drugs are obviously not entirely comparable: we don't fully understand what causes some people to experiment with drugs, but it seems safe to say that among humans who are inexperienced with both sex and drugs, everyone has greater motivation for sex than drugs. Still, the parallel with drug programs could be useful for abstinence programs who really want to try to get kids to delay sex for significant intervals, as they could learn from successful drug programs to design their abstinence programs.

- The columnist characterizes abstinence groups at elite universities as '"condemn the condom" clubs'. As admirable as alliteration always is, I haven't seen evidence that any of the abstinence clubs condemn condoms.

- As with the conservative columnist, this one has one great rhetorical score, "The Harvard virginity group, True Love Revolution, makes the ridiculous claim that waiting until marriage enables 'better sex in your future marriage.' To buy this theory, one must conclude that sex is the singular activity where practice erodes performance." It would be great to see this backed up with evidence, however. The evidence that I am aware of is that religious married people are happier with their sex lives than are non-religious; only subjective impressions matter in this domain, and there is no objective standard for "performance". On the other hand, the evidence also shows that a majority of religious married people had sex before marriage. I don't know of any evidence either way about whether premarital sex is good or bad for marital sex. It seems indisputable that if someone feels that it's important for them to be a virgin before marriage, it is important to that individual and could affect their marriage.

- As much as he stands up for individual choice, this columnist becomes the abstinence movement's straw man by ridiculing the abstinence advocates. It's their choice to be abstinent. Sex is all about choice. People choose differently. There's no evidence that abstinence is harmful either for future sex life or current levels of stress, as he alleges.

- He also becomes the abstinence movement's straw man by pushing the envelope on the relationships in which sex can take place. The abstinence movement says sex should only take place within marriage. Traditionally sex education says sex should only take place within committed romantic relationships. The cultural norm has become more towards hooking up between people who are not romantically involved at all, and the impact of hookups on adolescents' physical and mental health has yet to be studied thoroughly, so there are no research grounds on which to make definitive statements about hookups.

Nonetheless, he says, "[Abstinence groups] portray sex outside of marriage as an act that, 'deeply compromises human dignity' and causes, 'personal unhappiness and social harm.' While this can sometimes be true, casual sex can also be fun and harmless – which these groups deny. People can and do find a tremendous amount of satisfaction hooking up with people where there is no lasting spiritual connection – just immediate physical compatibility."

- He dismisses oxytocin, and then talks about the tremendous satisfaction of hookups with no lasting connection. My sense of the issue, as a non-biologist is that people who have sex together may feel an enduring connection precisely because of oxytocin, and more in females; as Helen Fisher said in reference to hormones, "There is no such thing as casual sex."

This editorial fulfills every stereotype of a liberal screed: characterizing conservatives as either hypocritcal or repressed and decrying not just the standards being discussed (sex before marriage) but all standards (sex before relationships). The previous fulfilled every stereotype of a conservative screed: exaggeration and generalization from single examples and bizarre conspiracy theories.

Both editorials are overwhelmingly self-righteous, fail to find common ground even where there might be some and instead dismissing their opponent as stupid/immoral, and unmoored from any objective standard for reality.

Abstinence-only plus birth control

I find the wording of this article describing Florida's new sex ed program fascinating:

A Sex-Ed Bill in Tallahassee requires schools to reach more than just saying “no” to sex.

The Healthy Teens Act would continue teaching abstinence-only, but include other methods of preventing pregnancy and STDs.

In other words, rather than just being "abstinence-plus", this program is "abstinence-only-plus."

I'm not sure if the article's wording is accidental, but it is encouraging. The idea that teaching birth control information in any way undercuts the message of abstinence --- which adolescents get loud and clear: does any teen think that adults approve of their having sex? --- is not supported by any research. It's encouraging to see that a sex ed curriculum can be thought of as "abstinence only" --- that is, the only endorsed option is abstinence --- and still give comprehensive and 100% accurate information about birth control, given that most of the students will have sex during high school.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Declines in physical activity dangerous

Many people think of physical activity as a bonus: adding physical activity can help health, but rarely expect that a lack of physical activity is harmful. For instance, the studies in children which show declines in BMI from decreasing screen time are all mediated by food intake, rather than exercise: screen time seems to increase BMI by increasing food intake, rather than by decreasing activity.

Apparently, decreasing physical activity is bad for health in measurable ways for this n=18 study conducted over 3 weeks: increased insulin, triglycerides, intra-abdominal fat mass, C-reactive protein, and decreased lean mass.

They "developed metabolic changes suggestive of decreased insulin sensitivity and attenuation of postprandial lipid metabolism and physical changes that suggest that calories used to maintain muscle mass with greater stepping may have been partitioned to visceral fat."

Not specific to adolescents, but nonetheless interesting!