How Should We Promote Abstinence?
This week something drastic happened to a dear friend of mine. She is one of those amazing women who have great peace at being LDS AND feminist. Her ideas and her ways of looking at things always impress me and make for some fine thinking and reflecting on my part. I love how much she loves the church and how much peace she finds in participating. So, it shocked me when I received an email from her this week that said she had entered faith crisis mode. For the first time in a long while she was asking my advice how to deal with an institution that has hurt her on a deep, deep level.
It seems that her daughter’s bishop secretly married her 19 year old daughter to an older and horrible man. This man has come into her daughter’s life bringing drugs, havoc, ruin, and destruction. She has been working hard at trying to empower her daughter to leave the relationship, but so far, to no avail. So, to receive the news that they had been married, without ANYONE trying to contact her to discuss it at all, was devastating to her and her family. This week, her and her husband are trying to figure out why the priesthood leaders would have performed this marriage without even contacting them (the man has a police record and a long list of trouble within the church).
They received their answer. The three priesthood leaders involved believed it was far better to marry the couple than to continue to let them have sex outside of marriage. Since her daughter was already “tainted” by this man, it was better for her spirituality to MARRY him, than to remain single because she has lost her virginity.
I don’t really want to receive comments on my friend’s story. It is her story and I don’t think we need to speculate about it. The thing she is dealing with this week was that members of her church saw her daughter’s sexuality on a higher level than her daughter’s health and well-being. This marriage is NOT a good thing. And at 19, to be yoked to someone so awful because they were TRYING to protect her virtue, is simple wrong.
However, I tell it because the response of the priesthood got me thinking about very real problems facing our young women. It also got me reflecting about recent studies I have done on Abstinence-Only education throughout the Christian-based United States. The ways in which teenagers are being taught about protecting and preserving virginity should cause alarm for all of us. Here are a few examples of how abstinence is being taught in schools and marketed in the malls.
EXAMPLE ONE: “Your body is a wrapped lollipop. When you have sex with a man, he unwraps your lollipop and sucks on it. It may feel great at the time, but, unfortunately, when he’s done with you, all you have left for your next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.” Darren Washington an abstinence educator at the Eighth Annual Abstinence Clearninghouse Conference (Jessica Valenti, 41).
EXAMPLE TWO: One popular classroom exercise employs Scotch Tape to demonstrate how premarital sex can make girls dirty. A teacher holds up a clear strip of tape, meant to represent a girl, in front of the class. The teacher then puts the strip of tape, adhesive side down, on the arm of a boy in the class, to symbolize his sexual relationship with the girl. The teacher rips off the tape (signifying the breakup, apparently) and holds it up again for the class to look at. Students are meant to see that the strip of tape—the girl—has picked up all kinds of dirt and hair from the boy’s arm and is no longer clean. Then, when the teacher tries to stick the same strip of tape to another boy’s arm, he or she notes that it doesn’t stick—they can’t bond! To end things with a bang, the abstinence educator makes a remark about the girl’s being “used” and therefore unable to have strong future relationships (Valenti, 33).
EXAMPLE THREE: A popular abstinence product is a gold rose pin handed out in schools and at Christian youth events. The pin is attached to small card that reads, “You are like a beautiful rose. Each time you engage in pre-marital sex, a precious petal is stripped away. Don’t leave your future husband holding a bare stem. Abstain.”
I am NOT an advocate for teenage sex, but do we really want to teach our daughters that without their virginity, they’re nothing but a “bare stem”? And more than this, the consequences that are told to the young girls, that they will be dirty, tainted, damaged goods, or bare stems—none of these things relates to the girls inner sense of self, but are mainly words used to describe how MEN will view and treat women who have been sexual.
The fact that these examples nearly always focus on girls is no coincidence. After all, our bodies are the ones that get objectified, and it’s our morality that’s supposedly in jeopardy.
What is going on here? I am a complete advocate for teenage abstinence, but how can we teach it in less demeaning and more empowering ways? Aren’t we tired of fear tactics and anti-feminism when we teach our daughters to love and care for their physical and spiritual well being? When I have given lectures about the current holes in the mainstream abstinence-only education, I am ALWAYS amazed at the people who come up to me afterwards and tell me what a problem it is. Many are teachers who say that some of their girls believe that spraying lemon juice on themselves prevents STDs. Some of them are mother’s who say that their daughters will do just about ANYTHING else OTHER than sex so that they are still “technically a virgin.” I have women approach me who told me that in seminary they were taught that it would be better for them to DIE than to lose their virtue. Seriously? The list goes on and on and on.
I know it’s not like this throughout the church. I know this is ONLY one side of the situation, but it’s a scary side. I’d LOVE to hear about methods that WORK. I’d like to hear about methods that are real and valuable and not based out of fear.