Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Shutting down dialog happens in both directions

The cases where people suggesting condoms as STD prevention are shouted down and find themselves in a hostile environment are well known. It also happens the other way, apparently: a story from Uganda about a 16 year old mocked for being pro-abstinence.

DURING a high school classroom discussion on HIV/AIDS prevention, the teacher asked the students: “What can be done to stop the spread of this fatal disease?” Some students talked about condoms and received the knowing affirmation of the teacher.

However when James, 16, raised his hand and answered: “We must promote and support young people to abstain until marriage,” he was attacked and stigmatised!

The teacher laughed derisively and mockingly told him, “Abstinence does not work for young people. It is just a dream.” James, who had chosen to abstain from sex after an abstinence presentation in Grade Eight, felt ashamed but he knew better. Other students began to mock and sneer at him. Again, James raised his hand and tried to explain how he had made the choice to abstain till marriage. “For some of us,” he said, “abstinence is not a dream, it is a present reality.”

The comments of the teacher had already created a hostile environment for James, and now he became the butt of the class jokes. Subsequently, James was mockingly labelled stereotype names ranging from “little mamas boy,” “ignorant kid”, “holy pope”, “virgin Mary” to “you are so ugly, that’s why you can't get any.” As if bent on breaking his will, two girls approached him and sarcastically told him they wanted to cure him of this dreaded disease called virginity. They recited stories of people who abstained and their genitals withered and fell off and that he was a good for nothing boy. They then walked away laughing.

Their use of gay pride terminology is perhaps unintentionally ironic:

Children who abstain are forced to survive shame and psychological violence by hiding in the “closet.” They are treated as lepers, social outcasts whose virginity is not a badge of pride, but rather a mark of disgrace. This is what I call “abstinence stigma.” While many parents teach their children the value of abstinence and saving sex for marriage, they are un-aware that the social contexts where young people make informed decisions about sex are contaminated with hostile and judgmental attitudes towards abstinence. It is a form of phobia.

Those who promote the fear of abstinence and virginity should be referred to as “abstino-phobes.” The word abstinophobia can aptly convey the irrational fear and discrimination meted out on the children who choose to abstain.

Paradoxically, while popular culture seeks to celebrate diversity, the only children who must go into the closet of shame are the “virgin and the abstainers.” Who will break the doors of this closet and tell these children to “break the shame” and walk in the abstinence pride?

We need to break the chains of “abstino-phobia” with campaigns of breaking the silence. We need school-based safe spaces of small groups where young people can meet for support without fear and stigma.

We need large school rallies where those who are in the abstinence closet of shame can come out loud and proud.

I've heard other anecdotes from young adults and even adults who received negative reactions or simple bafflement after their lack of sexual experience was revealed. Bias and stigma does go in both directions.

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