Thursday, February 9, 2012

Birth control and the sexual revolution

Birth control, something practiced by nearly 100% of women, was once uncontroversial. Now, almost inexplicably, opposition to birth control has exploded.

Once upon a time, there were pro-choice Republicans. Now, not only has this breed become extinct, but it's no longer enough to oppose abortion. Birth control is now considered suspect.

It seems baffling to see such a reversal so suddenly. Social conservatives accept the standard narrative about the sexual revolution --- oral contraception allowed premarital sex, which caused the sexual revolution --- and they oppose it. Next step will be to reduce condom access, not just in schools, but also in stores, such as requiring them to be behind the counter and perhaps having age limits.

Telling kids to act as though the sexual revolution had not occurred, and teaching them that contraception is dangerous and ineffective --- abstinence only sex education --- didn't reverse the sexual revolution. The Congressionally mandated evaluation found that abstinence-only sex education did not decrease premarital sex. That failure was particularly embarrassing because some comprehensive sex education programs that teach about birth control decrease premarital sex.

Social conservatives' assumption may be that if birth control caused the sexual revolution, reducing birth control access might reverse the sexual revolution.

Unfortunately, they're wrong. Even before the advent of birth control, attitudes began to favor sex within loving non-marital relationships in the late 1940s and 1950s, as documented by sociologist Ira Reiss in his 1967 book, The Social Context of Premarital Sexual Permissiveness. (The entire book is available online for free at that link, and I highly recommend it.)

Even if there had been no oral contraceptive, there would have still been a sexual revolution. After all, in a society where sex within loving relationships is accepted, certainly people will find a way. For instance, withdrawal is only slightly less effective than condoms. The modern IUD is safe and effective. Diaphragms are safe and effective, if they are used without spermicide which could increase STI risk. And these methods may even be superior to hormonal contraception.

Elsewhere in this blog, I have spoken about shortcomings of oral contraception, according to my Second Wave feminist bias towards non-systemic, barrier methods of contraception. And I've spoken about problems with hookups, or as Reiss would say, permissiveness without affection.

Even if the conventional narrative were true, and birth control somehow caused the sexual revolution, it is not necessarily possible to reverse course and return to no premarital sex. How far will social conservatives go in attempting to reverse gains from the feminist movement?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Heterosexual-only sex education: next generation abstinence-only?

Rolling Stone tells of a rash of suicides among lesbian/gay/bisexual/questioning teens in a conservative town in Minnesota. They mention a next generation sex education program in public schools sponsored by evangelical organizations that questions same sex attraction. This heterosexual-only sex education program appears to be just another guise of abstinence-only sex education, and it seems to follow from the same motivation.

Both programs come from an assumption that both same sex attraction and premarital sex are brand new phenomena, and that it's possible to go back to the way things used to be. (Of course, plenty of evidence indicates that they're not new, and even if they were new, it's neither possible nor desirable to go back to a time when women's suffrage was unthinkable. None of the strong women evangelical leaders would agree to reverse feminist gains.)

Both programs attempt security via obscurity, and treat education as dangerous. Teaching a subject (contraception or same-sex attraction) is thought to encourage and legitimize the subject, and to advance an imagined liberal agenda.

Instead, the programs just delegitimize normal behavior and endanger teenagers. Abstinence-only sex education increased unsafe sex probably because it taught that pregnancy and STDs were unavoidable, so there was no point to avoiding them. Alternatively, it made teens so worried about the spiritual effects of sex that they never worried about the physical effects. That's dangerous and bad for public health, but probably no one would die from it. Hetero-only sex education is more insidious because it further marginalizes a population that is already marginalized, at high risk for educational and health disadvantages, and at high risk of suicide.

Right now these hetero-only sex education programs are coming into public schools using private funds. That's how abstinence-only sex education started in the early/mid 1990s. The next stage would be to slip funding for these programs into another bill, as abstinence-only began in 1996 with the welfare reform bill. I hope it doesn't get that far.