5 Countries That Do It Better: How Sexual Prudery Makes America a Less Healthy and Happy Place
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Sexual attitudes in Spain have changed dramatically since the death of dictator Francisco Franco, aka El Generalissimo, in 1975. Nude and topless beaches are not uncommon, gay marriage was legalized by the Spanish parliament in 2005, comprehensive sexual education starts from an early age, prostitution is widely tolerated (Madrid’s red-light district on Calle de la Montera is right up the street from a police station) and porn companies are not prosecuted for obscenity the way they are in the United States and Great Britain (Barcelona is the home of Private Media Group, the largest porn company in Europe).
Abortion remains controversial in Spain; it wasn’t until 2010 that Spain officially had abortion on demand, which the country’s new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, opposes (before 2010, abortions were legally performed in Spain only if a doctor said a pregnancy posed a physical or psychological risk to a woman). But many Spaniards agree that the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions is through easier access to contraception and more sexual information, not less. And a climate of sexual openness appears to be keeping Spain’s teen pregnancy rates relatively low. According to UNICEF and others, Spain had, in 2006, a birth rate of 12.1 per 1,000 females in the 15–19 age group compared to 41.9 in the United States that year. However, it’s important to remember that within the United States , teen birth rates can vary considerably from state to state; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2008, the states with teen birth rates exceeding 60 per 1,000 included Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas (all Bible Belt states, where the Christian Right has aggressively pushed abstinence-only sex education), while the teen birth rates tended to be much lower in New Jersey (24.5 per 1,000), Vermont (21.3 per 1,000) and Massachusetts (20.1 per 1,000). But even the most Democratic-leaning states in the United States have higher teen birth rates than Spain, where the teen birth rate was 12.2 per 1000 in 2009.
When Angela Carson (a Los Angeles native/American expatriate who had been living in Spain on and off for 18 years) spoke to AlterNet in early 2011, she said that she felt much better about raising her teenage daughter near Barcelona than she would have in the American Bible Belt; Carson believed that social conservatism was creating a host of social problems in the United States. And when one compares teen birth rates in the two countries, it isn’t hard to understand why Carson felt that way.
In Madrid, the police recently had a major crackdown on coercive sex trafficking and arrested 22 alleged pimps they believed to be part of a Romanian sex trafficking ring. Illegal sex trafficking has become a major problem in Spain, where prostitution is tolerated but pimping is quite illegal — and the victims of those sex trafficking rings are mostly poor women from countries in Eastern Europe, South America or sub-Saharan Africa. High-priced Spanish call girls, meanwhile, work in much better conditions, often make 300 euros an hour and typically don’t have chulos (pimps); most Spaniards have no problem with that type of consensual, pimp-free prostitution but are happy to see sexual predators (including pimps and child pornographers) locked up. And Spanish law enforcement essentially has the right idea: Go after pimps, violent sex traffickers and child pornographers aggressively, while being tolerant of consensual adult porn and consensual adult prostitution.
Christian Right activists who rail against abortion in the United States will never admit this, but the reality is that extreme social conservatism results in more abortions, not fewer abortions. And a comparison of the United States and France illustrates that point. In France’s public schools, the types of abstinence-only sex-ed programs that America’s Christian Right has promoted (especially in Bible Belt states) are unheard of; France’s public schools make sure that French youths learn everything they need to know about sex, and that includes proper use of contraceptives. Plus, under France’s universal health care system, teens can obtain condoms free and confidentially. And all of those things reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and therefore reduce the number of abortions. According to U.N. statistics, France had a teen birth rate of 7.8 per 1,000 in 2006 (compared to the United States’ abovementioned 41.9 for that year). The U.N. has also reported that in 2008, France had an abortion rate of 16 per 1000 in 2008 (rather than the United States ’ 19.6 per 1,000 that year). And it should be noted that in France abortion providers are not under the constant threat of being firebombed or murdered by far-right Christian fundamentalists the way they are in the United States ; rather, the French are smart enough to realize that in-depth sex education and easy access to contraception are the things that reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions. Viva la France.