Case for Absitnence

I was surprised as I read this Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Caitlin Flanagan. I doubt it was her intent, but I found a very strong argument in favor of abstinence as the preferred attitude toward extra-marital sex. She argues that there is a double standard related to the burdens of teenage pregnancy that falls more heavily on girls than on boys.

. . . the last scene [of “Juno”] brought tears to my eyes. To see a young daughter, faced with the terrible fact of a pregnancy, unscathed by it and completely her old self again was magical.

And that’s why “Juno” is a fairy tale. As any woman who has ever chosen (or been forced) [to give a child up for adoption] can tell you, surrendering a baby whom you will never know comes with a steep and lifelong cost. Nor is an abortion psychologically or physically simple. It is an invasive and frightening procedure, and for some adolescent girls it constitutes part of their first gynecological exam. I know grown women who’ve wept bitterly after abortions, no matter how sound their decisions were. How much harder are these procedures for girls, whose moral and emotional universe is just taking shape?

Of course those who disapprove of abstinence education also want to prevent unwanted pregnancies. On that everyone is agreed. The problem that they ignore is the fundamental fact that the natural result of sexual activity is pregnancy. We can lower the chances, but we can’t eliminate them. Regardless of what they may wish, there are side effects to abortion as well.

It would be helpful for the pro-life groups to admit that their preference for adoption over abortion is not without side-effects either. The reality is that regardless of the course taken afterwards, the universal result of unwanted pregnancies is emotional pain and suffering for the mother if not for anyone else.

Ms. Flanagan wonders if there is a way to level the difference in the burdens between teenage fathers who can escape the consequences in many cases and teenage mothers who can’t. Even her own words seem to promise that the answer is no.

Pregnancy robs a teenager of her girlhood. This stark fact is one reason girls used to be so carefully guarded and protected — in a system that at once limited their horizons and safeguarded them from devastating consequences. The feminist historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has written that “however prudish and ‘uptight’ the Victorians were, our ancestors had a deep commitment to girls.”

We, too, have a deep commitment to girls, and ours centers not on protecting their chastity, but on supporting their ability to compete with boys, to be free — perhaps for the first time in history — from the restraints that kept women from achieving on the same level. Now we have to ask ourselves this question: Does the full enfranchisement of girls depend on their being sexually liberated? And if it does, can we somehow change or diminish among the very young the trauma of pregnancy, the occasional result of even safe sex?

The trauma that will always accompany unwanted pregnancy has become more common as we first accept that “boys will be boys” and then we glorify that attitude, excusing (and demeaning) young men as being unable to control themselves. We have followed that moral irresponsibility by trying to teach our girls to be boys in adopting a callous attitude about sex. Sexual activity was never meant to be taken lightly which is why it was meant to be reserved for a marriage relationship. Any other relationship and it does not matter what precautions you take, you are flirting with the consequences of pregnancy and STDs.

This is why we must teach young women to guard themselves and we must teach young men to guard the young women they care about. This teaching is not meant to be done publicly. It should be undertaken within the setting of family. No other setting can ever be fully satisfactory for the intimacy of discussion that is warranted on this subject.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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7 Responses to Case for Absitnence

  1. Dealing with unwanted pregnacies is a difficult one. Abstinence as an ideal is certainly the best. However, focusing on abstinence at times has a tendency to “guilt” those who are sexually active and rather than being able to explore safe, reasonable contraceptive options, sexual activity is shoved underground, only to reveal itself with lost periods and morning sickness.

    Even as an atheist, I would counsel my daughters that abstinence is the best option. However, if they don’t go that route, safe contraceptive options should be explored and as a parent, I would support that exploration.

    Also David, this isn’t just about society enabling boys into thinking that that’s just the way they are. Girls also experience the same enticements.

    How best to address this issue will ultimately be a personal one and whether we parents want to admit it or not, our children will ultimately decide which options they go with. All we can do is educate them openly about the risks and options and encourage them to make prudent decisions.

    I also think sexual education programs if done right can have a positive impact. However, those programs should engage parents and encourage open dialogue between teenagers and their parents.

  2. David says:

    I think the current social acceptance of teenage sexual activity goes clear back to those Victorian times when “our ancestors had a deep commitment to girls.” Even then when girls were so publicly guarded there was a double-standard whereby men were frowned upon publicly but generally excused when they went philandering. We’ve had centuries to build up to our current situation where boys and girls are almost openly encouraged to participate in sexual exploration from an early age.

    Where you and I clearly agree is is that this is a personal decision that should be addressed in a family setting and children will make their own choices in these matters even if their parents are diligent in addressing the issue at home. We do have to recognize that as parents. I think that sexual education programs should be taken out of schools and should be converted to programs that primarily (if not exclusively) work to assist parents in tackling this issue with their own children.

  3. Reach Upward says:

    It’s not just unwanted pregnancies and STDs that result from premarital sex. The psychological scarring produced by such encounters (for both boys and girls) are well documented. But we ignore them in the name of allowing sexual freedom or in the name of “they’re going to do it anyway.”

    As nasty as shame is, it is a relatively effective tool in preventing the problems associated with premarital sex. A culture that strongly disapproves of such behavior will have less of it. Yes, there will be those that are doubly punished by this method. But societies that actively or tacitly approve of premarital sex will have more of the problems.

    There’s no perfect solution to this problem. And it comes down to a lot more than sex education or abstinence training. If all it took were sex education, we could get the raw facts out to the kids in 20 minutes. A lot more of the problem has to do with the culture in which the kids are growing up. They know the risks but they choose to take them anyway. Kids are singularly unqualified to make such life-altering decisions. The best weapon against kids engaging in premarital sex is a strong and healthy family. Even that’s not enough sometimes. But it’s the best thing available.

  4. David says:

    We’ve been trying sex education in the midst of this culture of permissiveness for decades with no significant improvement. Kids know the risks about the same as a parrot knows how to say “Polly want a cracker” – they can rattle the answers off if someone asks what the risks are, but the answers don’t really mean much to them in most cases. This is why they are “singularly unqualified to make such life-altering decisions.”

    I’m not sure how you walk the balance between the knowledge that even in the best of circumstances some kids will make poor choices and the need to pursue the ideal that we don’t strive for anything less than 100% success in helping them all make better choices.

  5. Admittedly, I don’t look at this as a religious issue. Pre-marital sexual experiences may be good experiences or bad experiences. But safe sex practices are always good ideas. It is true, that abstinence is the best choice, but humans are sexual animals. I’m more inclined towards encouraging abstinence at the same time making sex as safe and healthy as possible. If you want to shame your kids into taking their sexual activity underground, do so understanding the risks. Leaving open the option of safe and protected sex as the second best option, not an abhorrent evil option may yield some benefits. That’s probably just the liberal in me talking, but that is how I see things.

    Best regards.

  6. David says:

    Obi wan,

    That’s probably good advice for any choice we make – “If you choose {insert option} do so understanding the risks (as much as possible).”

  7. Jason Black says:

    Obi Wan,

    You and I disagree on a lot of things – politics and religion among the largest differences. But on this issue, we may be closer that may appear on the surface.

    For me, abstinence is a religious issue. My opinion is that the only good sexual experiences are those occurring between husband and wife.

    We disagree there, I think. But the way we teach abstinence needn’t be so different. I needn’t shame my kids into thinking sex is taboo. What I intend to teach (my kids are still young), and what my parents taught me, is that sex is a good thing practiced within marriage, but that there are consequences beyond unwanted pregnancy and disease that result from pre-marital or extra-marital sex. Most of those consequences are religious in nature.

    When we teach abstinence, as with any other principle, the key is to teach the reason for the principle, and explain the consequences of the various alternatives, and then hope that our children have the sense to make the choices that bring about the consequences they want in the long run.

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