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Monday, February 01, 2010

Healthy Sexuality is a Human Right

posted by Silvana
It's Monday, which means we have a new column from Ross Douthat. Douthat apparently doesn't read Bitch, Ph.D., because dude I told you to stay away from any topics involving sex, women, and abortion.

Douthat's column is about sex ed. His argument: sex ed makes no difference one way or the other. But, teen pregnancy rates rising is the fault of Bill Clinton's abstinence-only agenda, not Bush's. But nevermind. Since sex ed makes no difference, Washington should stay out of it and local communities should do what they wish, which is to tell kids that contraception is a hoax in Mississippi, and give masturbation demonstrations (or whatever they do) in San Franscisco.
In “When Sex Goes to School,” her thoughtful history of the sex education debate, the sociologist Kristin Luker concluded that it is “surprisingly difficult to show that sex education programs do in fact increase teenagers’ willingness to protect themselves from pregnancy and/or disease.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s attended high school. What is taught in the classroom is vastly less important than the matrix of family, culture and economics: the values parents impart and the example that they set, the friends teenagers make and the activities they join, and the cross-cutting effects of wealth, health and self-esteem.
That is, of course, true. If you put something as meaty as "family, culture, and economics" against "what you learn in school," of course the former is going to come out on top. But where Douthat goes from here is absurd. If what kids learn in school is so unimportant, why is it so important that you and yours have the right to teach them falsehoods? Throughout Douthat's column, he never refutes his initial description of abstinence-only education as "contemptuous of experts, careless about public health and captive to religious conservatism."

His main point is a classic conservative one, which is that the federal government shouldn't get involved in such issues. Perhaps maybe he thinks that the federal government shouldn't be involved in education at all. But tell that to all the school districts in the country who rely heavily of federal funding to keep their programs running. As it turns out, kids have a right to a meaningful education. I can think of few things more important (besides, perhaps, learning to read) in an education than learning about one's own body, both in biology classes and health classes. Douthat is dishonest about what's on offer besides abstinence-only education. He represents that it's somehow encouraging kids to have sex. What non-abstinence only education does is not lie to kids. That's all. In my high school, we talked a lot about abstinence. A lot. But they didn't tell us lies, either. They taught us about contraception. They told us that a lot of cultures and religions believe that masturbation is wrong. And yes, they said, masturbating may cause you to feel conflicted because of your religious or cultural beliefs. But it won't, in fact, cause you any physical harm. Which, again, is true.

What Douthat and other conservatives want to do is lie to kids, to tell them that contraception doesn't work, so that they'll be so scared that they won't have sex at all. After all, if you can't avoid pregnancy and STIs no matter what you do, better abstain, right? Wrong. Because kids will always, always hear much more about sex than what they learn in class. And the extracurricular education they get about sex will always, always be chock-full of misinformation, because they're getting it from other kids and misinformed adults. But here's where I really get angry at Douthat:
But we should understand it more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy.
Seriously? I'm disgusted. And, I'm also surprised that he's willing to make it this plain. He's willing to admit that conservatives are more interested in using the bodies of teenagers to make political, religious, and cultural points than actually encouraging the well-being of those bodies. To Douthat and his ilk, teenage boys and girls might as well not be people. Instead, they are edifices that represent what we stand for. As Amanda Marcotte astutely noted, he subscribes to the conception that children are property, and we get to do with them as we wish, which includes telling them lies that may gravely impact their health.

UPDATE: Monsieur Bouie has a similar, but better-written take on Douthat. Here's what I was trying to get across with the "other kids and misinformed adults" bit:
Teens need to know how their bodies work, and they need to have accurate information about sex and contraception. There is a wealth of misinformation about sex — a lot of it spread by abstinence-only programs — and in the absence of any countervailing information, teenagers will turn to misinformation and distortions to inform their choices. The practical effect of de-federalizing sex education is that some kids will be given the truth about their bodies, and other kids will be lied to.
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