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Why Is the Religious Right Obsessed With Other People's Sex Lives?

Abstinence-only sex ed is a tool of ideological management that is deeply entrenched in American culture and social policy.

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Responding to the demands of abstinence-only lobbyists, the federal government enacted its own eight-point definition of abstinence education which mandates the design for all federally funded abstinence-only programs. One point defines abstinence as a program that "teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children." Yet in an era when 95 percent of Americans engage in pre-marital sex, promoting abstinence as an educational goal seems unrealistic. Further, abstinence-only ideology ignores the reality of LGBT sexuality, including the estimated three-to-five percent of high schools students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Materials advance gender stereotypes of men’s rampant, uncontrollable sex drive, which purportedly must be kept in check by women's’s adherence to their natural chastity and purity. A disturbing amount of "blame the victim" mentality appears in abstinence-only curricula, which relieves men of the responsibility for acting upon their "natural urges," even violently, and puts the onus on women and girls to "wear modest clothing that doesn't invite lustful thoughts."

Nevertheless, abstinence education supporters are on a mission to reduce sexual activity not only for school-aged students but for unmarried adults as well. In 2006, they successfully lobbied to extend the target age range of funded programs beyond adolescents to age 29. In hearing the news of the revised guidelines, James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports comprehensive sexuality education, said:

They’ve stepped over the line of common sense ... To be preaching abstinence when 90 percent of people are having sex is in essence to lose touch with reality. It’s an ideological campaign. It has nothing to do with public health.

Why Do They Think That Way?

The spokespeople for abstinence-only education represent a core constituency that sees sexuality through a very conservative religious lens. Reacting against what they see as the degradation of culture by modern values, conservative Protestant evangelicals seek the codification of strictly traditional values as they read them in scripture. To these fundamentalists, a literal reading of the Bible is sufficient to learn how to act responsibly in all areas of life.

They are joined by conservative Roman Catholics in the belief that sexual behavior is defined as fidelity in heterosexual marriage, and any veering from that path is considered sinful. Such sin results in the ultimate punishment, separating the believer from God, or damnation. So for fundamentalist Protestants, it is not only necessary to avoid such a fate oneself; preventing others, especially children, from committing sexual sins is an act of compassion and responsibility that will save them, too, from eternal hell. This is for them the essence of evangelizing the Good News. Hence the belief that it is not only acceptable, but necessary, to set standards in public education that conform to these beliefs. Add to this the idea that parents have a special obligation to protect their own children from eternal harm, and you have a style that is recognizable in its stridency and self-righteousness.

These fundamentalists and others who are mobilized to political action, the Christian Right, are about 15 percent of voting public. This group of Christians wields greater power than its size might suggest. It can make or break elections in certain key districts by getting out the vote. But in the case of abstinence-only education, strategists have made certain key choices that have extended the appeal of their message far beyond their core.

Abstinence-only framers talk in coded language that appeals to their conservative base plus resonates with a wider swath of evangelical Christians. When churches sponsor an alternative to the school prom called the "Purity Ball," they can trigger a reaction to how American culture has sexualized the rituals of adolescence. Social conservatives who are uncomfortable with the fast pace of modern life can be attracted to the concept. A spokesperson recommending True Love Waits, the Southern Baptist Convention’s abstinence education program, reminds parents, "The world is coming after our middle schoolers like never before. As parents we must equip them to become lights in a dark world."  A real coup is getting the President to use coded words like "culture of life" and references to abstinence in the same sentence, as Bush did in 2007, speaking before the Southern Baptist Convention:

 
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