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.

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