Sex & Relationships

The Bizarre Scare Tactics Used By Abstinence Advocates

A new book tries to scare young people out of having sex.

Recall the classic definition of chutzpah: It's the kid who murders his parents, then asks the court for mercy because he's an orphan.

That's what Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children is like. McIlhaney has spent his career trashing science regarding sexual health; now he's written a book pretending to use science to explain why sex is bad for unmarried people, especially adolescents. Freda McKissic Bush is his willing accomplice, a Board member of McIlhaney's Medical Institute for Sexual Health, and a member of President Bush's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, which favored blind faith in abstinence over established knowledge in biology, psychology, sociology, and economics.

You may recall that several years ago President Bush appointed McIlhaney, a well-known advocate of abstinence-only programs, an advisor to the CDC. This, despite the fact that in 1995 the Texas Commissioner of Health (under then-Governor Bush) noted McIlhaney's lack of professional credibility. In April 2002, McIlhaney testified to Congress that there was no evidence that comprehensive sexuality education programs are "successful at all" -- a year AFTER Doug Kirby's report for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy documented this success.

Now that you've met the authors, let's look at the book.

"Hooked" is a skillfully produced, emotionally manipulative political tract. All sex educators will benefit from familiarity with it, because it's a virtual primer of the tactics used by abstinence-only and sex-negative policy-makers.

The book's tactics include:

* The paradigm of sex-as-a-problem. The resulting policy goal is to minimize this problem, rather than finding ways to help young people celebrate their sexuality or use it for personal growth.

* Naturally, there is no discussion of decision-making skills other than urging a simple refusal to engage in all erotic activity.

* The recurring use of the word "children" to refer to biological adults who happen to be minors (i.e., 17), or even older (if they are unmarried). Policy discussions about sexuality that treat 12-year-olds and 20-year-olds as a single category are based in ideology, not sociology or psychology.

* A scientific-sounding discussion of "chemicals released in the brain during sex" which "can become addictive." This rather old news is presented as a scientific "breakthrough," without any mention of similar neuro-chemical activity that accompanies sports, eating, singing, and other pleasurable behavior. Although the word "addiction" is used metaphorically, its negative connotation makes it quite scary.

* There is no discussion about how young Americans' bodies now mature in ways for which society is unprepared (150 years ago, onset of puberty and age of first marriage were almost concurrent; that has changed dramatically). Similarly, there is no acknowledgement that society is responsible for most young people's sexual difficulties by stimulating them sexually (as consumers) and giving them enormous autonomy (privacy, cell phones, etc.), while deliberately withholding the information they need to handle the inevitable feelings and situations.

* In a community that devalues science and valorizes opinion and emotion, the use of personal testimony substitutes for evidence and proof. Thus, the book features a series of pull quotes that are uniformly negative, portraying non-marital sex as extraordinarily hurtful.

* There is absolutely no comment about the many evaluations of abstinence-only programs already published -- virtually all of which describe such programs as ineffective at best, harmful at worst. Similarly, there is no comment on the many positive evaluations of comprehensive sex ed programs.

Most parents today were sexually active while unmarried. Some had uniformly destructive experiences, while most had sex that was, at worst, a mixed blessing. Of course, many parents had non-marital sex lives that were positive, if not downright glorious. Why are we afraid to say that to kids?

Without question, sex for some young people will be negative and even damaging. In thinking about how to help prevent such experiences, why do so many adults believe that fear is the best motivator?

There are good reasons to guide kids away from too-early sexual activity, along with other activities for which they are not yet prepared developmentally. The "reefer madness" approach of this book equips neither parents nor young people with the positive attitudes and communication skills they need to understand and shape sexual decision-making.

American society's ideas and public policies about adolescent sexuality are far more about us adults than they are about young people. This book is a desperate cry from frightened, angry people who are more interested in the purity of their own ideology and religious visions than they are in actual young people. They are, in fact "hooked" on something far worse than the "addictive" brain chemicals that help make life worth living.

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