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.

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