November 30, 2008

A Terrible and Profoundly Irresponsible Lesson

I'm working on a new essay, tentatively titled, "Clinging to the Wreckage." It will probably be in two parts, the first dealing with the continuously unfolding economic collapse of the United States, while the second will focus on U.S. foreign policy. The articles will discuss what we can discern about the likely policies and actions of an Obama administration, given Obama's recent statements and appointments. I'm tempted to say simply, "If you think we're already in trouble, just wait." But I have quite a number of further observations on these issues. Some of the material is very difficult, and I'm trying to pull together a lot of different elements. I hope to publish the first part by Monday.

In the meantime, let's spend a few minutes on a subject I find somewhat easier to handle with dispatch, although this too raises some very complex underlying concerns. My title refers to a terrible and irresponsible lesson, but this story is also little short of insane:
CHICAGO (AP) - Two abstinence teachers who wed in Chicago experienced their first kiss at the altar. And it was a doozy - a two-minute smooch that drew cheers from about 500 people in the church.

After a 1-year courtship, 28-year-old Melody LaLuz and 30-year-old Claudaniel Fabien tied the knot Saturday, even though they'd never locked lips before that day.

The couple teach abstinence in Chicago schools and, while dating, practiced what they'd been preaching to their teenage students.

"No kissing" wasn't their only rule. They were never alone together in a house. And they watched movies sitting upright on the couch, never lying down.


A honeymoon is planned for the Bahamas. The pair say they have no worries about how they'll spend it.
Let me start with that last sentence. I don't think this couple should be so casually sanguine about having "no worries." Literature (both specifically psychological and otherwise, including many biographies and autobiographies) is replete with tales of the nightmares experienced by many people on their honeymoons and particularly on their first wedding nights, when one or both of the individuals involved are virgins. I recall in general outline an interview with Bette Davis many years ago. Davis spoke very candidly about her various marriages, and she mentioned that she had been a virgin when she married the first time. And about that first wedding night of her life, Davis emphatically proclaimed, violently punching the air with her cigarette, if I remember correctly, as she bit off the syllables: "It. Was. A. Hor--Rrrorrrr." Or words to similar effect.

It is certainly true, as a friend wisely pointed out to me several centuries ago when I was very young and still comparatively inexperienced sexually, that if you genuinely care for another person (or, I would now add more frankly, even if you don't and both consent to gloriously "meaningless" sex), you can't make a "mistake" while making love. Still, almost everyone's initial sexual encounters are likely to involve a great deal of fumbling, less than fulfilling episodes and, well, missed targets of opportunity as it were. One hopes that the couple in this story at least have read widely on the subject, although one would tend to doubt that they have.

Beyond this lies a crucial issue. Marriage is among the handful of most critical decisions of our lives. I will not comment here in detail on an idea that far too many people continue to credit: that two individuals in their twenties or thirties can undertake a lifelong, monogamous commitment -- and make good on that commitment over the decades to come in a manner that makes both of them genuinely happy. Such marriages certainly occur, but they are very rare. If one thinks that people should, indeed must, continue to learn and grow psychologically as they age and until the day they die -- and I absolutely think that and am prepared to defend that view at great length, even though precious few individuals consistently approach their lives in this manner -- it approaches absurdity to believe that two people who married when very young should still find romantic and sexual happiness with each other several decades later, or even one or two decades further on. If they learn and grow, they will also change. They may still love each other very deeply, but they may well realize that the nature of the changes that have occurred necessitate their finding romantic fulfillment elsewhere.

To return to the marriage that is the subject of this news story: a commitment such as marriage requires the weighing of many factors, including how comfortable the individuals involved are with each other emotionally, temperamentally, intellectually -- and sexually. It is not because I view sex as unimportant that I think any couple contemplating marriage should have been sleeping with each other for a considerable period of time (at least six months, and probably a year or more), but for precisely the opposite reason: because I think sex is of such crucial importance. Sexual compatibility depends on many issues, including the people's particular histories, their views of sex, what general and specific views of sex they have absorbed from their culture in general and from the more particularized culture in which they grew up, their individual personalities and even their quirks -- the list is endless.

Sexual happiness, which critically depends on sexual compatibility, is a central element of any fulfilling relationship that lasts longer than a few months (or a few weekends). It should properly be a prerequisite for marriage (and, I would argue, even for moving in with someone) -- not something you gamble on after you have gotten married. Even though I hope this couple finds happiness, I think it more than likely they will not. But since they are so heavily invested in the "ideal" of abstinence, I would not expect them to be honest about those disappointments they may experience. Most people lie to themselves about many subjects, and many people lie about sexual matters more than anything else. But as the years proceed, one or both of these people may well wonder why the meaning seems to be draining out of their lives and out of their relationship. One or both of them may seek relief -- and desperately grasp for a happiness that eludes them -- in drinking too much or attempting to deaden the deepening pain in some other way, and they may eventually look for sexual fulfillment elsewhere.

I began this essay yesterday and set it aside overnight. This morning, when I looked over what I had already written and considered this story again, I was momentarily stopped in my tracks. "Why on earth am I bothering to write about this?," I wondered. "This is truly completely insane." But then I recalled how widespread the abstinence movement is, and I remembered that the "ideal" of abstinence is taught to many children. A Google search on "abstinence movement" yields "about" 1,400,000 results. One of them is from the Minnesota Family Council: "Abstinence-until-marriage a growing movement." The final paragraph is instructive:
If you would like to see an abstinence-until-marriage track in your school district, contact ... at the Minnesota Family Institute .... Learn about new R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Action Plan and parent-training program to assist parents in changing the course of sex education in their schools. Our kids are worth the effort.
To teach vulnerable children such indefensible and hugely destructive ideas is utterly loathsome. Note that the couple in the news story above teach abstinence to teenage students in Chicago schools. (Other versions of the story indicate that they teach in public schools, which means they are paid to teach these insane notions with tax dollars.) The news story gives credit to the couple for "practicing what they preach." When what is preached is so vile and irrational, hypocrisy would be greatly preferable. A person deserves negative credit for preaching and practicing notions that are so destructive of human happiness.

Of equal importance is the critical fact that abstinence-only programs do not work, as any minimally conscious human being knows full well. You can teach teenagers any damned thing you want and exert vicious pressures to whatever extent your rotten soul desires, and a certain proportion of teenagers will still have sex, as they have through all of history. This fact among others is noted in a Ms. Magazine story from 2004 that I also briefly perused. As just one example: "A study commissioned by the Minnesota state heath department found that sexual activity actually doubled among junior high students who took part in an abstinence-only program." Of course, there are numerous more recent studies confirming the ineffectiveness of such programs -- but I emphasize again that their ineffectiveness is readily apparent to anyone whose mind has not been largely destroyed by the strictures of a rigid ideology that damns sex as "dirty" and "sinful."

And that belief is the root of the obsession with sexual abstinence, a notion that should horrify any basically healthy person. The belief that the human body and sex are inherently evil is one of the foundational elements of Western civilization. In America, where the most primitive of religious superstitions are sickeningly popular, this belief suffuses our culture. Any nation which has a collective nervous collapse because of a momentary glimpse of Janet Jackson's breast is profoundly diseased and even perverse, using "perverse" with its genuine meaning for once. I discussed some of the history of this aspect of Western culture in detail in, "Of Abortion, and Women as the Ultimate Source of Evil." A brief excerpt:
Make no mistake: almost every single one of you reading this has internalized, at least to some extent, the indefensible notion that sex is sinful and corrupt. And your problem is not James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, or even much less extreme religious leaders of today. Your problem is Augustine, and his reinterpretation of Genesis. ... [C]onsider these excerpts from Jamake Highwater's Myth and Sexuality, from the chapter entitled, "The Body as Sin" ...
You may consult the full essay for many more details.

The Ms. Magazine article offers some clues to the loathing of sex that underlies the zealotry of the abstinence peddlers. For example, some abstinence advocates refer to Planned Parenthood as a "pimp": "'They are the people who are profiting from getting young people to commit sex acts,' said Michael Schwartz of Concerned Women for America," as Schwarz hopes to profit from getting young people not "to commit sex acts." Note the word "commit," as if sex is a crime. Of course, that is what people like Schwartz believe it to be.

This made me laugh out loud:
And the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), the nonprofit research and lobbying group that supports comprehensive sex education, “wants young people to have as many orgasms and in as wide a variety as they can have,” according to Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation.
Rector says that as if it's a problem. I think it's a blessing.

I use the word "blessing" intentionally, for I consider it an inexpressibly wonderful fact of our existence that sex provides such overwhelming pleasure and joy. "As many orgasms and in as wide a variety as they can have" should be a central part of everyone's creed, "young people" and old and everyone in between. It is certainly part of mine, and there is nothing religious about it in even the smallest degree.

In this context (and in every other one that I can think of), the most important lesson to be taught "young people" is to know what they are doing, in other words, to be responsible. Some teenagers will have sex no matter what adults say and do. So adults who are genuinely concerned with teenagers' well-being will want them to know what they are doing, so that they may protect themselves against STDs, unwanted pregnancies and the like. Don't teach children that sex is damnation, despite the overwhelming weight of Western tradition that maintains that it is. Teach them that sex and sexual pleasure is a crucial component of human life and happiness, and that it is a supreme joy. Give them all the information that is available. If they are raised in a basically healthy manner, they'll be able to take care of themselves. And they will be happy. Isn't that what all adults say they want? (Tragically, most children are not raised in a basically healthy manner. That is a subject for another day -- and it is the subject of my numerous Alice Miller essays, as well as "Let the Victims Speak," and "When Awareness Is a Crime, and Other Lessons from Morton West.")

So for all of you who agree that sex is a non-miraculous blessing: find someone you care about, or someone with whom you enjoy having "meaningless" sex, always remembering that pleasure of this kind is never meaningless -- and have some.