Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chicago papers are shocked: first kiss post-marriage

The Chicago papers seem surprised that a couple waits until marriage to kiss. The couple are abstinence educators, and the story seems completely unremarkable to me: while adherence among Orthodox Jews to modesty laws is far from 100% especially post-engagement, many do wait until marriage even to touch or hold hands. Personally I find the weirdest part of the situation that the couple would kiss for the first time in public.

On a related note, a Huffington Post columnist recommends that people avoid situations that require self-control because self-control is finite. She's not talking about sex in this situation, though.

The sex columnist in the Swarthmore College paper (my almost alma mater) has some good questions including some related to abstinence:

You know the old joke about the cobbler’s children having no shoes, the priest’s kids getting knocked up, and the sex columnist’s partners not getting off?
I’m a Swattie and this week all I’ve got for you is questions, a lot of which get to the heart of everything I’ve been writing about this semester, but none of which I have answers to.

Why is asking for what you really want so damn hard sometimes? Why is it that nearly every time I do ask for what I want, I get a good response, and I’m still scared of it? Why do I have a hard time, sometimes, even when I’m asked point-blank what I want? Where did I learn that it’s a bad thing to express desire?

Why do we think of sexual assault as only something that evil people do in evil moments, rather than as something that belongs on a behavioral continuum? Similarly, why do I still sometimes find myself on the brink of sexual activity which I don’t really want, and having a hard time saying no?

Why do I have an easier time talking about safe sex in a “fluids” sense than in an emotional sense? Why do so many of us have an easier time being vulnerable physically than emotionally, for that matter?

Why do people get surprised when I say that you should probably only engage in activities that could get you pregnant with somebody who agrees with you about what to do if your birth control fails?

Why do the people who get so upset about being judged for not being abstinent sometimes get so upset when somebody else chooses abstinence freely? How the hell does anyone still think abstinence-only education is a good idea in view of the piles of evidence that says it’s not?

Why do we focus on giving and getting sex rather than sharing sex? Is it that hard to carry over certain lessons from kindergarten? Wouldn’t this sort of model really help the whole sexual assault thing?..
And my whole sexual ethic has grown up around the idea of self-care. So recently I’ve found myself, when asked what makes for a good partner, talking about the three Cs a lot—careful, caring, and communicative.

I've never seen this column before, but any sex columnist that regularly mentions a sexual ethic must be great. I'm not a regular reader of the genre (other than Dan Savage), but I've never seen the phrase "sex ethic" in any sex column.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New abstinence ring design

Abstinence rings have a new design: the Hebrew verse from Song of Songs "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" (אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי, הָרֹעֶה בַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים.) a common art and jewelry theme sold to Israeli tourists and in Jewish bookstores, especially common on wedding parephenalia. I can see how it's appropriate, but it's jarring.

Others they could consider. . .

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי, וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ. "I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me [but we're going to get married first]." (7:11)

For a longer verse, they could consider
עַל-מִשְׁכָּבִי, בַּלֵּילוֹת, בִּקַּשְׁתִּי, אֵת שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי; בִּקַּשְׁתִּיו, וְלֹא מְצָאתִיו.
"On my bed in the nights I sought the one my soul loves; I sought him, but I didn't find him." (3:1)
as a threat about the results of inappropriately intimate dating.

There is no בבתי קפה בלילות בקשתי
"In cafes at night I sought..."

Monday, November 24, 2008

My favorite safer sex pamphlet

I pick up safer sex pamphlets wherever I find them, and so far my favorite is the Fenway Health Center's pamphlet. It gives a much broader range of sexual activities than any I've seen, and lists exactly which STDs are transmissible by them, and which STDs are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact so cannot be protected against by condoms.

A real problem in sex ed is how to talk about the skin-to-skin contact STDs. Sometimes they don't get mentioned except in an oblique way such as "The safest sex is no sex at all. Condoms cannot make you 100% safe." which can be read by the optimistic as implying 90% protection against all diseases. (In the abstinence-only literature, it's phrased as "Condoms can leave you vulnerable to many horrible diseases." which sounds like condoms are no good at all.) I like that this pamphlet treats STDs as individual entities each with their own transmission risks, rather than over-simplifying them.

They do not mention which STDs are commonly tested for in different clinical settings and which tests may need to be specially requested, which is an unfortunate gap because testing practices vary and many people speak of STDs as something tested for as if there were just one test for all known STDs when some STDs aren't tested for at all (e.g., as far as I know, no one screens men for HPV.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Test your teen pregnancy knowledge

Dr. Joyce Brothers's column today is test your knowledge about teen pregnancy: 7 true/false questions.

Her wording on whether abstinence education prevents teen pregnancy is circuitous:

While there is a role for abstinence education in reducing pregnancies, studies have shown that often it is not enough. Many children who have been told to just say no end up having sex, anyway, but aren't equipped to prevent pregnancy because they often don't plan to have sexual intercourse. A combination of abstinence programs with comprehensive sex education focusing on safe sex and pregnancy prevention is thought to be a more effective way to deal with preteens and teenagers.

As written, the first sentence sounds like abstinence education works sometimes, rather than not at all (as far as we know). The second sentence is pure speculation. And her description of sex education makes the abstinence portion stand out, perhaps in an effort not to alienate readers.

To be honest, very few program evaluations measure teen pregnancy because it's usually rare in the general population (her readers). Sex ed is much more effective in getting kids to delay sex and use condoms more (or at least claim to). Pregnancy is hard to affect using just a curriculum. Perhaps unsurprisingly: there are always kids who don't pay attention to any curriculum in any class, and they may be the same ones who get pregnant.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Traffic safety: speeding

Traffic safety is a big problem for adolescents. Injury is the leading cause of adolescent death, and traffic accidents where an adolescent is the driver is probably a large portion of that. Most studies of the question that I've heard of have concluded that everyone would be much better off if driving licenses weren't given until 18, and some places have instituted graduated licenses for 16 and 17 year olds.

With that background, here is a study of adults about the perceptions of whether speeding is safe: the vast majority of adults perceive speeding is safe, and safety is proportion to their perception of their likelihood get caught. I've observed this myself: everyone knows the slogan "speed kills", many know that kinetic energy is proportional to the square of velocity (i.e., so each incremental speed increase raises the risk even more). Some may even know that the majority of children survive being hit by a car going 25 mph, but the majority die being hit by a car going 40 mph. And everyone speeds. It may be an issue of overconfidence in driving abilities since nearly all drivers believe they are above average drivers; availability, since all drivers have either gotten a ticket or know someone who has, but few know those who have been in accidents; and all kinds of other psychological fallacies.

With this attitude prevalent among adults, it is almost unimaginable that adolescents would get a safe message about driving. It may even be futile to try to change adolescents' attitudes and behavior in the face of such widespread adult opposition. It seems that any campaign to prevent adolescent traffic injury would have to start with adults' attitudes, but how? How much increased enforcement of speed limits would it take? Is that even possible in crowded urban highways where the average speed is 10+ mph faster than the posted speed limit?

Here's the paper's abstract:

In recent decades, it has become more common for speed limits to be set for political reasons rather than for safety reasons. As a consequence, the motoring public seems to have increasingly begun questioning the rationality of speed limits. This is evident in observed speed data that show that the majority of drivers routinely exceed posted speed limits. A key motivating factor in drivers’ tendency to exceed the speed limit is that they believe that the excess speed does not threaten safety. This paper, specifically studies this matter by using a survey that asked drivers how fast above the speed limit they feel they can drive before safety is threatened. A probabilistic model is estimated using data gathered from 988 drivers in Indiana. Estimation findings show that drivers’ perception of the speed above the speed limit at which they will receive a speeding ticket is a critical determinant of what they believe is a safe speed – suggesting that enforcement plays an important role in safety perceptions. Other variables found to be significant factors in determining the speed above the speed limit at which safety is first threatened include age, gender, being previously stopped for speeding, and drivers’ ethnicity.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Whoa, this is me!

Catching up on my Google emails of all mentions of the word abstinence to me, I ran across a virginity pledge study that I'd not heard of. When I read the article, I realized it was about my work.

Two local TV stations covered my APHA presentation, and broadcast stories the next day Springfield, Missouri and Bakersfield, CA. And thankfully, that's it.

I wonder how that happened. Both are ABC news, so I guess ABC news wrote the story and sent it to affiliate stations and these were the only ones who chose to publish/broadcast it.

Nuance; catching up

1. Book review of Sex in Crisis in the Times Online. Gives historical perspective on the Christian sexual revolution. Need to think more about it, but what sticks out:

Even the Right’s arguments about abortion are often now less about whether it is an act of murder than about whether social science finds it harmful. Despite there being "no reliable data to measure the phenomenon," Justice Kennedy supported his vote to weaken Roe vs Wade with the observation that "severe depression and loss of esteem can follow" from ending a pregnancy.

That's incredibly disheartening, and it makes explicit that social science that finds A to be marginally bad or B to be marginally good might influence policy to completely ban A or subsidize B, instead of a more nuanced perspective.

2. Bill Smith of SIECUS writes that abstinence-only funding should be directed to comprehensive sex education, keeping the federal government funding sex ed, uniquely across all areas of curriculum. Arguably it is a health issue, but even if it makes sense for the federal government to be funding sex ed, politically it seems to me way too dangerous and too easily taken out of context. The anti-comprehensive sex ed folks find a single quote to prove that sex ed is morally degenerate: e.g., they are forever talking about how sex ed teaches kids to use grape jelly in sex.

3. The UK also has abstinence research centers. I did not know this. One is going to publish a book "Just sex: Is it ever just sex?" It is a good question, but not if all nuance is abolished (see point #1).

4. Did I already post the New Yorker article Red Sex, Blue Sex about how "red America" (how the nomenclature has changed!) sees teen pregnancy relatively casually.

5. I was going to write about another virginity pledge study and realized it was my own research.
See the next post.

6. More than $200 million: a GAO study found that apparently some healthy fatherhood HHS funds are being misused for abstinence education. No quantification on how many organizations and how much money.

HHS commented on our finding that some grantees were operating
programs focused on abstinence education. HHS stated that it is
impermissible to use Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) funding for abstinence
education, however, grantees may use funding from other sources to
provide abstinence education through programs separate from the Healthy
Marriage and Fatherhood programs. We visited one such program whose
staff told us that they used DRA funding to support their abstinence
education program and that abstinence education was not provided as a
single lesson, but was the focus of the entire curriculum.

7. RAND study on TV and teen pregnancy by my colleagues. Abstinence sites are reporting the story as well.

Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association commented on the need to combat an over-sexualized society with abstinence education.

"We have a highly sexualized culture that glamorizes sex," said Huber. "We really need to encourage schools to make abstinence-centered programs a priority."

8. In-depth feature on Silver Ring Thing, one of the most detailed descriptions I've seen.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The dream is alive

I grew up just north of Chicago in Evanston hearing about Dr. King --- my elementary school was named for him, the principal and some of the older teachers had marched in the civil rights demonstrations, and everything was 50-50 white-black. We listened to his speeches for a few days every January, sung the civil rights songs, and learned about Africa. At the same time, it was so clear that the inequalities he spoke about persisted: only a few white students came from families with single moms, while almost all the black students did; some were raised by their grandmothers, in retrospect because some of their moms were really young; the black students came from one set of neighborhoods and the white students from others; I remember in 6th through 8th grade one of the 35 girls in the 8th grade was pregnant by middle school graduation, which in retrospect is even more shocking than I thought it was at the time; I also remember an African-American friend in 8th grade talking about her older boyfriend who could drive --- at the time, I was impressed, but now I realize how creepy that was. My best friend in middle school was black and was constantly called an Oreo: she lived in the same neighborhoods as the other African-Americans and went every Saturday to get her hair straightened and every Sunday to church on the south side, but she had gone to private school K-5 and spoke more like her white classmates than the blacks from her neighborhood.

We were all told that we could all be president if we wanted to --- black or white, male or female --- but it was clear that some had a heavy disadvantage and fewer role models. We learned about the same figures every black history month: George Washington Carver and all the uses of peanuts, Frederick Douglas --- and while these were impressive men that anyone could look up to, I think it felt a little stale to list a small number of black male role models, some from the 19th century, when over 10% of young black men were in prison at any given time and a black male had more than a 20% chance of ever being incarcerated. So it was a huge deal when Harold Washington was elected as the first black mayor of Chicago. And, a decade later, Carol Mosley Braun as senator.

Living around college-educated upper-middle-class people, it's easy to forget how viscerally important the election of an African-American as president is for young people. Yes, it's a first in the sense that we can mark it off in the history books as done in the same way that it would have been if a woman were elected. But it is much more than that, and we will only begin to understand it during President Obama's term. For one thing, every child called an Oreo has the best response ever. "Is the president an oreo?"