How not to teach sexual responsibility

First of all, don’t pretend that everyone in the world is heterosexual. Since high school students are well aware that this isn’t the case, it’s a good way to lose credibility.

Loudoun County High School yesterday had a mandatory assembly on “abstinence,” presented by self-described “Christian comedian” Keith Deltano. The program was funded by Lifeline Pregnancy Care Center, a faith-based anti-abortion organization in Leesburg. When the assembly was announced, a concerned parent contacted the ACLU, which then contacted the principal.

What concerned the ACLU was the liklihood that such a program, since both the speaker and the sponsoring organization make faith-based arguments for abstinence, would unlawfully impose a particular religious view in a public school setting – for example, Keith Deltano’s website makes reference to “biblical inerrancy” and “God’s plan for sex.” The ACLU asked for assurances that there would be no explicit endorsement of religious views, no promotion of religious books and videos, or of Lifeline materials, and no invitations to off-campus religious events.

Deltano’s presentation did not do any of those things. This is unsurprising when one visits his website, which is divided into “Faith-based shows” and “School shows” sections. He describes the reason for the secular material as the need to present his ideas in a way that permit public funding. The content description of the secular material is exactly the same, only without the overt references to scripture and “God’s plan,” a manuever also noted by the Washington Post reporter who attended.

While the program was not unlawful, it was unethical. It isn’t neccessary to make overt statements of a particular religious belief system when the unarticulated, foundational assumptions of that belief system are embedded throughout the presentation. The unarticulated assumptions in question did a tremendous disservice to these students, who need factual information, not ideology. Let’s be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with those who hold Keith Deltano’s beliefs from living by them and talking about them, and absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging kids to reject the commodification of sex and to abstain from sexual interaction until they are mature enough to be responsible. But lying to them is not the way to do that.

As alluded to earlier, there was no acknowledgement that anyone in the audience might be gay – because, of course, Deltano’s unspoken fundamentalist world view rejects that reality. If the behavioral objective is “abstinence until marriage,” where does that leave those who are told they may not marry their partner? The message to GLBT kids is “You don’t exist. You have no future to look forward to.” Unfortunately, this is identical to the message of the entire Family Life Education curriculum, as written. The damage this does to our kids is inexpressible and inexcusable, and this assembly was yet another mandatory dose of it.

The foundational assumption upon which this program is based is that sex is only for procreation. This is unequivocally a religious view (“God’s plan for sex”), unsupported by the facts, but it was presented here as if it were self-evident. The simplistic logical arc was explicitly spelled out at one point like this: Being a parent is hard. Are you ready to be a parent? (No.) So are you ready to have sex? (No.) It was as if contraception doesn’t exist. It was as if two people never get married and decide to delay childbearing, or forego it altogether. Sex is for making babies, period. Clearly, this idea is central to the world view that Deltano is representing – only he has edited out the part where he articulates it because this is his “secular” show. The result is that this fallacy is even more insidious than would be the case if it were stated outright.

The medical information that was presented was carefully cherry-picked to emphasize danger and invoke fear, so that “the reality of sex” is pregnancy, herpes, chlamydia, HPV, and “pussy sores.” To make a point about condom failure rates, Deltano cites a single NIH study from 1991* that supports his position, rather than a meta-study that would accurately represent the risk. To a typical high school student, such a study might sound authoritative, and that’s the point. Deltano similarly simplifies and misrepresents the risk of STD transmission, in the process infantilizing the concept of probability in a way that would make a epidemiologist cringe.

* UPDATE: The study referenced above is actually dated 2001, and is the product of a “workshop” convened by social conservatives with the objective of launching “a campaign to disparage the value of condom use” and promote “abstinence outside of marriage as official government policy.” The biased study produced by this workshop, led by far right Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, is thoroughly debunked in this report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

There was one positive statement, which got a well-deserved round of applause from the students, and that was that the value of girls and women comes from their intellect and character, not from their capacity to be sexually attractive.

Unfortunately, that message was undercut by a pervasive message that women have no sexuality apart from wanting to feel loved and meeting the sexual needs of men (“Girls want to feel loved, guys just want sex.”) Superficially, this was presented as the product of cultural conditioning, implying that this distorted sexualty is learned and can (and should) be unlearned. However, one anecdote reveals the underlying assumption. Presumably, Keith’s wife is an adult who has outgrown this culturally conditioned reduction of her value as a human being to her sexuality. In a story about how they couldn’t get their baby daughter to go to sleep, and therefore didn’t have sex for 2 1/2 years, Keith relates his wife turning to him in bed one night and asking “Are your needs being met?” This is perfectly emblematic of a gender rigid worldview that reads female desire as entirely defined by pleasing a male partner. Never once was there a hint of acknowledgement that a woman might have sexual needs of her own.

In fact, one of the most disturbing things about the program was its relentless, insulting stereotyping of both women and men, excused by a kind of in-your-face humor. Women are portrayed as hormone-crazed harridans that can’t possibly be understood by their hapless husbands; young men are simply “stupid.” There is the foundational assumption of an extreme “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” model at work here, regarding women and men as different and nearly hostile species. How could such alien creatures ever have an equal partnership?

The superficial mask of “respect yourself” female empowerment ultimately reinscribes female desire as naturally subservient to and defined by male needs – a fundamentalist model of gender difference and human sexuality.

“The reality of sex,” then, is this: Sex makes babies, seemingly every time, since that’s what it’s for. Except that oral sex is also sex, and inevitably results in disease. Condoms don’t work, so don’t bother using them. Other forms of contraception don’t even exist, but if they did they wouldn’t work either. Everyone is heterosexual and will in the future get married and have children.

There is a problem with non-health care professionals doing health education, and this is it: material chosen for some objective other than to provide factually and medically accurate information.

The objective, it will be argued, is not to inform these students, but to alter their behavior. So does this approach work? The evidence says no. Abstinence programs are effective at one thing: Convincing people that there is no such thing as safer sex, so there’s no point in protecting themselves. The objective measures of the efficacy of these programs – rates of pregnancy and STDs – demonstrate this.

Virginity may “never fail” as protection, but it is only a realistic option for those who share the underlying world view of human sexuality that constitutes this message. Everyone else needs and is entitled to know all the facts. At best, this kind of program is unhelpful and a waste of time. Our kids are smarter than this approach gives them credit for, and they deserve better.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Reports and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to How not to teach sexual responsibility

  1. Jonathan says:

    Keith Deltano’s big brothers at FoF and the ADF are pushing his line that gay people don’t exist and that there should be no sex outside of marriage. See the ADF’s latest blog about ADF Opposes Conterfeit Marital Institutions, Not the granding of Benefits to Unmarried People

  2. David says:

    Good find. What these morally impaired busybodies are saying is that benefits that attach to being a legal family member, like hospital visitation, the right to make medical decisions, health insurance, etc, should be available to “unmarried people” unless those people are having a sexual relationship.

    In case anyone is still confused about the intent behind the Marshall/Newman amendment, there you have it.

    As for Deltano, I know nothing about and make no claims about his motivations. He’s found a way to make money doing something he’s good at. I’m not saying at all that he’s trying to harm anyone, he just obviously isn’t a health education professional and his program is not outcome-based, it’s ideology based.

  3. Have a little faith :-) says:

    Wow. You draw a huge amoung of assumptions from an anecdote, David. Aren’t you maybe a little concerned that you are being uncharitable? Is it so hard to accept that a man of faith might value a woman for reasons that are beyond sexuality while respecting her sexuality? I don’t like gender stereotyping either. I don’t think men and women are from different planets and virtually unable to understand or relate to each other. But did Deltano say they were? Social science has been very helpful in illuminating the nature of general (not universal) differences between men and women. The guy is a comedian making rather exaggerated (eg humorous) comments about his pregnant wife and the challenges of sex with young children in the house. It seems a little uncharitable to me to use those statements to imply that you KNOW that he thinks women don’t have sexual desires of their own and that women are “hormone crazed harridians.” Perhaps your comments reveal more about your own assumptions about Christian men than they do about Deltano’s presentation.

  4. David says:

    Thanks for your comment. First of all, you should know that Christian men are not “other” to me, since I am one.

    What I’ve presented here is an analysis of an entire presentation, and what it suggests about the underlying, perhaps unexamined, belief system of the presenter. I understand that he is a comedian, and that exaggeration is used in that medium. I’m not saying that he literally believes that women and men are of different species, any more than I believe that he and his wife literally didn’t have sex for 2 1/2 years.

    The ideas in art and entertainment don’t need to be literal in order to be conveyed, and the ideas conveyed by this show about gender difference are fundamentally reactionary, although in no way unique. That is not to say that Deltano personally disrespects women or is a bad person, only that he uncritically accepts and normalizes certain harmful ideas about gender in the context of this particular show.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Elizabeth Wardle writes of her personal experience on AlterNet. She describes herself as a “chaste, Christian, small-town, pro-life teenager from a happy home with two parents”. As she outgrew her “black and white” simplistic model of human sexuality, she experienced a 180 degree change in her views on sex education and choice?

    In college I discovered that some people have sex without feeling they have done something dirty, that women get pregnant who are in no position to take care of a child, and that one of the most frightening things in the world for an eighteen-year-old from a pro-life, Christian fundamentalist family would be telling her parents she was pregnant. If I had become pregnant and informed my parents, I knew exactly where I would have gone: straight to a home for pregnant teenage mothers, to be physically well-cared for and proselytized to for nine months, after which time my child would have been adopted by a good, white fundamentalist family dying for a healthy new (white) baby. I would have been shamed. My parents’ biggest concern would have been how to hide my pregnancy from their friends.

    Problematic as this response would have been, it pales in comparison to what has actually happened to other Christian teenagers, who have been disowned, thrown out of their homes, and even physically harmed. It later came as no surprise that, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, one in five women seeking abortions is a born-again or an Evangelical Christian. Had I become pregnant as a teenager, I would have done all in my power–including consider an abortion–to avoid the shame I would have felt in the eyes of my Christian community.

    One of Wardle’s conclusions aligns with David’s. Teach sexual responsibility.

    Girls from conservative homes like mine do not need lectures about the shame of sex, but about the beauties and dangers of sex, and ways to avoid the dangers. They must learn to love their bodies, draw appropriate boundaries, and know what precautions to take when they are ready for sex. Hatred of women and women’s bodies in the Christian tradition are abortion issues.

    It’s clear from her experience that the measured outcomes of the curriculum advocated by conservatives like Keith Deltano is harmful. I think it’s only fair to invite a sex-positive educator to speak to LCHS students. Here’s an example of a curriculum outline titled There’s More To Sex Education Than Aids Prevention

    My thesis in this unit is that a major contributing factor to teenagers’ having unprotected sex which results in unwanted pregnancy (and disease) is the schizophrenic attitude toward sexuality in the United States. The dictionary gives one definition of schizophrenia as a separation between thoughts and emotions. What I mean here is a separation between what adults, society, cultural mores say about sex and sexuality and what they actually do in their lives. We say, for instance, that sex should wait until marriage while most people have sex before they get married. We say that it’s too embarrassing or too private to talk about sexual matters, yet we include them publicly in every piece of media and entertainment. As a result, most young people receive no calm, rational, accurate education or thoughtful discussions about sexuality, but instead are bombarded constantly with sexually stimulating news, films, TV shows, music. This leaves them with a distorted and unrealistic idea of what sex and sexuality are all about. The objectives of this unit are threefold: to raise student awareness of this schizophrenic attitude by comparing teen sexual activity and teen pregnancy rates of several countries and analyzing the differences; to increase student understanding of sexuality as a natural and positive attribute of being human from the moment of birth throughout the rest of their lives; and to encourage their ongoing development as sexually healthy adolescents.

    Let’s end the the schizophrenia.

  6. Pingback: Equality Loudoun » Teach facts, not beliefs

  7. Pingback: Equality Loudoun » A little outsourcing problem

  8. Health man says:

    Woman responsible for contraception creates scenario where the man may feel he is *not* responsible for pregnancy prevention…woman forgets to take pill… here comes baby WBR LeoP

  9. Pingback: Equality Loudoun » Abstinence is not for everybody

  10. Pingback: Equality Loudoun » We must be winning - Part 1