It’s the Guilt, Not the Sex

More support for the theory that the wingnuts and fundies aren’t really concerned about reducing the number of abortions, pregnancies and STDs among teenagers so much as punishing them for having sex: studies in Western Europe show that a non-punitive, accepting attitude toward teen sex, along with comprehensive sex education and social support, correlate with far lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion and STDs than we have here in the US.

A 2001 Guttmacher Institute report, drawing on data from 30 countries in Western and Eastern Europe, concluded: “Societal acceptance of sexual activity among young people, combined with comprehensive and balanced information about sexuality and clear expectations about commitment and prevention childbearing and STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] within teenage relationships, are hallmarks of countries with low levels of adolescent pregnancy, childbearing and STDs.” The study cited Sweden as the “clearest of the case-study countries in viewing sexuality among young people as natural and good.”

Cecilia Ekéus, a nurse midwife with a PhD in public international health who works with the Institute of Women and Child Health at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, says Swedish society teaches that sex should occur in a committed relationship “and also that teenagers should use contraceptives, be informed and take responsibility. But in general we are open and positive and think that it’s okay.”

Ah, Sweden. I knew there was something I liked about you other than lingonberries and cheap, fun furniture. There’s also the attitude that kids are capable of making independent, informed decisions about sex and that it’s the schools’ duty to give them the information:

In Sweden, compulsory sex education starts when children are 10 to 12. Without parental consent, teens can get free medical care, free condoms, prescriptions for inexpensive oral contraceptives and general advice at youth clinics. Emergency contraceptives (the so-called morning-after pill) are available without a prescription.

Not surprisingly, religion has a far smaller influence on sex education in Europe than it does in the US, despite the official separation of church and state here. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church is much more hands-off:

Religion tends to insert itself less in government policy on sex education, contraception and abortion in Western Europe than in the United States, says Michaud. The Catholic Church exerted minimal influence in Switzerland’s AIDS prevention campaign, he said. “All in all, the church has been very tolerant and does not really get involved in sexual matters,” Michaud wrote in an e-mail.

Imagine a world…

Anyway. One other interesting finding of the study was that the effects of sexually explicit movies, television programs and TV and print advertising (it’s not uncommon, after all, for nude women to appear in European ads) were offset by the comprehensive, straightforward information about sex that European kids receive. So the next time someone gets the vapors about “THE CHILDREN!” you can point them to this study — knowledge is power.

Also interesting was the role that social disapproval of teen pregnancy played in keeping the pregnancy rate down. Clearly, the wingnut attitude that pregnancy is a “consequence” of sex is not shared by Western Europeans, who are just peachy with the sex but would rather not have teenage girls getting pregnant. And if they don’t get pregnant in the first place, they won’t be having abortions. See how that works?

Instead, here in this country, there are certain groups who obsessively focus on the virginity of teenage girls, and federally-funded abstinence-only sex education programs in the public schools that are shown to not do a damn thing. We have uninformed kids doing things like having anal and oral sex (unprotected, natch — wouldn’t want to use condoms, because that would be, like, totally planning to have sex, and that would be wrong) because they’ve been told that the only “real” sex is penile-vaginal. In many cases, they’re even being taught by these programs that condoms don’t work to protect you from diseases or pregnancy (yet, somehow, wedding rings do), and that birth control pills cause cancer. So we have high rates of STDs, pregnancy and abortions among teenagers, even those who took virginity pledges, yet there’s resistance to actually doing anything concrete to address those problems because doing so might “promote promiscuity.” The one that really gets me is the resistance to the HPV vaccine, given long before the child becomes sexual, on the grounds that it might “encourage promiscuity.” No, it would PREVENT CANCER.

When I read things like the following from Pierre-Andre Michaud, chief of the Multidisciplinary Unit for Adolescent Health at the University of Lausanne Hospital in Switzerland and a leading researcher in European teen sexuality, I get a little upset that my great-grandparents didn’t wait just a few more years to leave Ireland, until after my grandfather was born, so that I could be eligible for an EU passport:

“My feeling is that it is impossible to have a double message toward young people,” Michaud said, in a phone interview from his Lausanne office. “You can’t say at the same time, ‘Be abstinent, it’s the only fair, good way, to escape from having HIV . . . and at the same time say, ‘Look, if you ever happen to have sex, then please do that and that and that.’ You probably have to choose the message.”

Abstinence, he said, is not something the Swiss press on teens. “We think it’s unfair. It’s useless. It’s inefficient. We have been advocating the use of the condom . . . and I think that we tend to be successful.”

As Lynn Harris from Salon points out, however, the picture in the US isn’t uniformly bad, though we have a lot of work to do to shake off the influence of the godbags and the anti-sex crowd:

To be fair, though, the message offered by educators of comprehensive sex ed in the U.S. can, in skilled hands, be more nuanced than Michaud suggests — and I’d say teens are smart enough to get it. Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins says the real mixed message is this: “We have a very hyper-sexualized media and, concurrent with that, a total aversion to giving clear and consistent messages about how you reduce risk.” Right. And even if American parents might not send their teen off to Valborgsmässoafton with a condom and a wink, there’s still plenty of middle ground here in which grown-ups can make their point. Bottom line, there’s a big difference between being cautious about sex and being weird about it. (I mean, I just saw “Carrie” again the other night, and her mother struck me less as quaint psycho harridan, more as prescient metaphor.) There’s a difference between keeping kids informed and freaking them out, between encouraging abstinence and fetishizing virginity. But as long as our powers that be refuse to see that, there’ll be a big, sad difference between us and western Europe.


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19 comments for “It’s the Guilt, Not the Sex

  1. kate
    May 17, 2006 at 11:45 am

    “My feeling is that it is impossible to have a double message toward young people,” Michaud said, in a phone interview from his Lausanne office. “You can’t say at the same time, ‘Be abstinent, it’s the only fair, good way, to escape from having HIV . . . and at the same time say, ‘Look, if you ever happen to have sex, then please do that and that and that.’ You probably have to choose the message.”

    This is basically the arguement that the wingnuts use to promote abstinence only education – mixed messages. I don’t see why it’s true either way. I was told not to have premarital sex, but to use a condom if I did and it didn’t confuse me at all. I was also told not to go to partys where there was alcohol, but if I did, call for a ride home, don’t get into a car with someone who had been drinking. What’s inconsistent about saying “Don’t do this because it might be bad for you.” and then “But, if you choose to take that risk, protect yourself as much as possible.”

  2. May 17, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    So… any advice on how to teach sex ed to an only child who happens to be homeschooled? We’re good to go on the open, positive sexuality part, at least.

  3. zuzu
    May 17, 2006 at 12:39 pm
  4. May 17, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    I’ve got an 11 year old who I’ve always been really open with, but we’re at the stage where just answering questions as they come up is not enough. Giving him the biology stuff is easy, but figuring out how to explain the emotional stuff without being either hypocritical or too permissive is tough.

    For TheGlimmering- I have a fantastic book called Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole. It’s great for younger kids (very funny).

  5. Bejeebus
    May 17, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Can someone explain to me the meaning of the term “sexual immorality” in the Bible and why that’s equated with all sex outside of marriage?

  6. May 17, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    figuring out how to explain the emotional stuff without being either hypocritical or too permissive is tough

    Could you say more about this? I’m curious.

    Seems to me that it’s not hypocritical to say “don’t do this thing that I did” if you think, in retrospect, that you probably shouldn’t have done it yourself. If, on the other hand, you don’t have any qualms about having done it, then why tell your kid not to?

  7. May 17, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Can someone explain to me the meaning of the term “sexual immorality” in the Bible and why that’s equated with all sex outside of marriage?

    That would be kind of hard, actually, given that the Bible was written over the course of centuries and reflects the influence of multiple cultures.

    I’ve heard that Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today, by William Countryman, is a good read on this subject, but I can’t say for sure, since it’s still on my “to be read sometime” list.

    I do actually think there are rational arguments for avoiding premarital sex (or at least rational arguments that can get you close enough to “no premarital sex” that it makes sense to take the jump to accept the religious teaching that’s telling you never to have premarital sex). Where it breaks down (well, aside from the small matter of gay people not getting to have any sex) is where it turns into an argument for not teaching anybody about contraceptives, which more than 90% of the population will want to use eventually, and to which even a large majority of Catholics don’t have a moral objection.

    And I’m definitely with kate on “Don’t do this, but if you do, protect yourself” being a fine message. I mean, if your real position is both that you’d rather your kids not have sex yet, and that you’d rather they use a condom if they do, then that’s what you should say. Better that than to say something you don’t believe, in the name of looking consistent. It’s not as if it’s too overwhelmingly complex a pair of ideas for kids to grasp. Of course, some elaboration on what you mean by “sex” and what you mean by “yet” (till marriage? till graduation? till you’re mature enough in certain specific ways?) might also be in order

  8. Thomas
    May 17, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    Every parent of teens that I’ve spoken to about it takes the position that they don’t want their kids drinking, and that they really don’t want their kids drinking and driving. In the real world, parents I know don’t think that sends a “mixed message.”

  9. Barbara Preuninger
    May 17, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    I teach OWL at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship, and we sort-of give that same mixed message “don’t have sex, but if you do, use a condom”.

    Actually, it’s more complicated than that. One activity is to actually have them brainstorm reasons why it would be good to have intercourse (we include oral and anal in that definition), and then why it would be a bad idea. We make it clear to them that when it comes down to it, having sex will be their decision, so they need to understand the ramifications really well.

    As far as I know, studies have shown that this program works in delaying sexual activity, and for greatly reducing pregnancy/STDs. Could be that it’s self-selecting though.

  10. May 17, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    Brooklynite:

    I don’t think sex can only happen when you’re in love. But when you’re young and inexperienced, being that vulnerable with someone who you don’t love (or even who you do) can be emotionally rough. I don’t want to tell the kid “fuck whoever you want- it might be fun” (though that is my thinking after years of practice) but I also don’t want him to think that there is something wrong with wanting someone when you’re not in love with them.

    So the plan is to be honest. Sex makes you vulnerable- not just to disease or pregnancy but to all sorts of emotions. When you’re older and have some experience then it’s easier. But he should make sure that when he has sex for the first time it should be someone he is totally comfortable with and that means he should love and trust the person and they should love and trust him too.

  11. Ledasmom
    May 17, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    I second the recommendation of “Mommy Laid An Egg” for younger children. It’s freaking hysterical.

  12. May 17, 2006 at 4:47 pm

    I don’t think sex can only happen when you’re in love. But when you’re young and inexperienced, being that vulnerable with someone who you don’t love (or even who you do) can be emotionally rough. I don’t want to tell the kid “fuck whoever you want- it might be fun” (though that is my thinking after years of practice) but I also don’t want him to think that there is something wrong with wanting someone when you’re not in love with them.

    That’s no more hypocritical than me telling my three-year-old she shouldn’t drink beer, though, right? As Chef says, there’s a time and a place for everything — and it’s called college.

    So the plan is to be honest. Sex makes you vulnerable- not just to disease or pregnancy but to all sorts of emotions. When you’re older and have some experience then it’s easier. But he should make sure that when he has sex for the first time it should be someone he is totally comfortable with and that means he should love and trust the person and they should love and trust him too.

    Sounds right-on to me.

  13. Medicine Man
    May 17, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Probably beside the point, but I really think Carrie is the story where King elevated his craft. I really felt for the main character and his story was an all-to-plausible reflection of life. Next to the Shining, this is one of his stories that bothered me the most.

  14. Norah
    May 18, 2006 at 8:41 am

    Carrie was his first book. So I guess he’s had nowhere to go but down?

  15. Julie
    May 18, 2006 at 2:07 pm

    I don’t know… the Stand freaked me out quite nicely, even though I was only in like 8th grade when I read it. I really don’t like most of his new stuff at all though. This topic actually made me think last night and prompted a discussion between the husband and I as to what we would teach our kids about sex. And we are pretty much going with, “Sex can be wonderful in the right context, as long as you want to have it, you are with someone you feel comfortable with and trust and you are not being pressured. There are reasons to wait until you are married, and there are reasons to wait until you are an adult, but in the end it is your decision and we simply wat you to wait until you are 100% ready and make sure you are safe when you decide to”. I’ll admit, I would prefer my children wait until they are adults, but so long as they are having sex responsibly and safely, I’m not going to get too bent out of shape about it.

  16. May 18, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Religion tends to insert itself less in government policy on sex education, contraception and abortion in Western Europe than in the United States,

    You mean Christianity, obviously. When Western European countries get a Muslim majority, I’m guessing religion will start inserting itself quite much into everything.

    The good times are coming to an end, I’m afraid, since only “bigots” are worried about demographics, or the fact that Muslims are ghettoizing themselves and not integrating to European Values (wishing this is Cultural Imperialism, of course).

  17. Nina
    May 18, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    “You mean Christianity, obviously. When Western European countries get a Muslim majority, I’m guessing religion will start inserting itself quite much into everything.”

    The Dutch government has apparently invited either some religion or some Third World culture into the issue of sex ed in schools, depending on the race of the students:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3398769.stm

    “…’Often they are very careless, especially the young ones, 13 and 14 years old. The men don’t like using condoms. And there is not such a taboo surrounding teenage pregnancy.’

    “Ms van Kooten says girls from Holland’s ethnic minorities live in two cultures – the conservative one of their parents and the open one of Dutch society.

    “‘It is not easy to reach them with sex education. It is not even taught in schools where the population is overwhelmingly immigrant.’…”

    As if being silent about condoms in case a teen’s parents get offended wasn’t bad enough, now they’re silent about even abstinence in case a teen’s in-laws get offended.

  18. zuzu
    May 18, 2006 at 3:04 pm

    The good times are coming to an end, I’m afraid, since only “bigots” are worried about demographics, or the fact that Muslims are ghettoizing themselves and not integrating to European Values (wishing this is Cultural Imperialism, of course).

    Don’t start with this again. We are not here to provide you space for your ravings.

  19. Medicine Man
    May 18, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    Carrie was his first book. So I guess he’s had nowhere to go but down?

    Good point, although I would point out that Carrie was just his first *published* book. By his own admission, it was published because it was a significant step up from any of his previous stories.

    I like the main character in the story because he didn’t cop out and write her as a cardboard villian. The character’s pain and rage were plausible.

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