A Strange Sexual Alliance
Nothing like traveling overseas to view America through a cleansed lens. I began in Sarajevo, then Montenegro, which along with Serbia is the last of Yugoslavia and the next expected to erupt into civil war, and am now in Dubrovnik, Croatia, having finished a "Sexuality in Transitions" conference exploring sociosexual issues in post-Communist countries. One Croatian friend, who works with refugees and has survived such war and conflict horrors this past decade that I will only ever read about, calls my country "a freak show." Typically, through his travels and news consumption, he knows more about politics, history and cultural trends in the United States than do most Americans.
Conference presenters ranged in age from early 20s to late 70s and, as Bush was making his first presidential visit to a skeptical Europe, they taught me that the United States indeed has more in common sexually with their emerging democracies than with our Western allies. As in the States, many Eastern European countries are experiencing increased adolescent promiscuity and sexual violence, exploding rates of AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy, and a takeover by Church and conservatives of sexual discourse and policy.
Many here are surprised to learn the U.S. has dramatically higher rates of STDs, teenage pregnancy, HIV and AIDS, abortion and sexual violence than any industrialized country and many "developing" countries. They are even more wowed to learn of our growing Chastity movement and government-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. That to receive the funds, teachers must proclaim abstinence is the only sure way to prevent disease and pregnancy, and can mention contraception and condoms only to present (or inflate) their failure rate. That the sex education we do have addresses the risks of unwanted preganany, STDS and AIDS, or what one Croatian sociology professor calls the "discourse of catastrophe."
Beholden to the U.S.'s official line of marital sex as the only valid sex, schools, churches and most parents shun discussing pleasure, lovemaking, partner negotiation, masturbation or sexual standards. We dismiss as promiscuous Europe's integrated approach to sex as natural and human. We espouse a fear-based "just say no" ultimatum over Europe's parental, education and media push to teach responsible sexuality in elementary schools, on television, radio, billboards and clubs and to make accessible free or low-cost contraception. We hold up repression of information and services as superior morality, yet experience first intercourse a year or two earlier than do our European counterparts. A recent comparative study of sexuality in France and the U.S. found young French lovers have fewer partners than do young Americans.
Whereas Bush was greeted by protests on his European tour, he would likely receive wild applause further east if he were to present the same abstinence-only-until-marriage dogma he trumpets in the States. A recent Croatian public awareness campaign on AIDS featured hearts, but not condoms. Sex education in Eastern Europe, where youth face ever more risk, is mostly non-existent except as a political scapegoat to discredit liberals and feminists as immoral and ungodly. According to Igor S. Kon, from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian media often asserts sex education programs are designed by pedophiles and gay men.
Recent research found that Russian youth are at the heart of a looming AIDS crisis, and the study's lead author concluded the "urgent need for sexual education" based on rampant misconceptions about AIDS and STDs. Kon too agrees that sex education is the "only reasonable answer to this challenge ... but since 1997 all efforts in this direction have been blocked by a powerful anti-sexual crusade, organized by the Russian Communist Party and the Russian Orthodox Church and supported by 'Pro-Life.'"
In 1997, just as U.S. schools were supplanting sex education with the nation's first systemic and often religious-run abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the Russian Academy of Education concluded Russia doesn't need sex education since it was successfully being done by the Church. The Academy president said that instead of children's "right to know," educators should defend children's "right not to know."
In the 1999 parliamentary elections, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation presented their "anti-sex education" campaign as its most important political victory. Russian Planned Parenthood Association -- which Kon says is the only organization since 1991 to take action "to reduce the rate of abortion and promote sexual contraceptive knowledge" -- is one of the CP's and Christian fundamentalists' main targets, denounced as a "satanic institution" propagating abortion and depopulation.
"The anti-sexual crusade is openly nationalistic, xenophobic, sexist, misogynistic and homophobic," Kon says. "Everything Russian is presented as pure, spiritual and moral, and everything Western as dirty and vile. Sex education is treated as the most serious attempt possible to undermine Russia's national security, more dangerous than HIV."
Although another recent American report again concluded that sex education does not lead to increased sexual activity, sane sexual policy in the United States is also held hostage by right-wing extremists. After threat of political hijacking, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said he'll release his much awaited, two-year report on sexual health by the end of this month. He captures the shameful reality of morality politics, "I can think of no other area where the gap between what we know and what we do is so lethal as in human sexuality."
Lara Riscol is writing "Ten Sex Myths That Screw America," a book she began while completing a master's degree in contemporary issues and public policy at the University of Denver. Write to her at email@example.com.