Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reformulating or rebranding abstinence

There's a vivid and interesting piece in the Nation about the abstinence movement's attempt to rebrand/reformulate itself. At times, I laughed: Jessica Valenti writes dynamically and compellingly. She raises some important points, though I don't agree with everything she says. (E.g., I think that the trend of traditional religions using feminism to promote traditionalism is complex and subtle. Her take is that "the virginity movement is ... a targeted and well-funded backlash hellbent on rolling back women's rights using modernized notions of purity, morality and sexuality.")

The central point of her article is crucial: the abstinence movement recognizes that it needs to give accurate information about contraception, which I see as a terrific coup for the cause of scientific accuracy. Perhaps the reformulation is being done with good will: they see problems with current version and honestly they want to make it better for the sake of teens' health. Or perhaps Valenti is right and this recognition is just lip service and won't change what they are actually doing, though even lip service is good.

Whether reformulation or rebranding, this change calls for vigilance. The abstinence-only movement is taking the "only" out of their label: now it's "abstinence centered" which is confusingly similar to "abstinence-plus" or "abstinence-based" which mean comprehensive sex education, so it will take an extra moment to even determine whether a curriculum intends to be comprehensive or not.

If there are inaccuracies in the new curricula, they may be more subtle. The most productive thing reproductive health community can do is make sure that what is taught in schools is accurate. Some states mandate that all sex education gets reviewed by clinicians for accuracy, but others don't. If all states established such requirements of review by medical experts, that would make it a moot point whether the abstinence movement is doing a cynical rebranding or a good will reformulation of its movement.

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