Sunday, February 14, 2010

You mean ten weeks of high school health class ISN'T enough to instill deep moral commitments?

Cheryl Cline has a recent post at der Blaustrumpf about reactions to the lackluster performance of abstinence-only sex education in the public schools, pointing out that people who favor teaching kids more about contraception rather than abstinence often inappropriately jump from “The government's attempts to teach X don't work” to “Teaching X doesn't work.” As she points out, the government's competence at performing an activity is no guide to that activity's desirability in general.

The invalid inference is appealing, I think, because the battle over sexual education in schools is largely a proxy war for a much more wide-ranging social/ideological conflict, one that flares up especially fiercely because of the government's involvement.

Pretty much everyone understands that abstinence program advocates are generally not disinterested technocrats who came to their conclusions after poring over statistics on unwed pregnancy or venereal disease transmission- most of them value sexual abstinence before marriage as a moral ideal independent of its practical effects. What often gets glossed over is that supporters of teaching contraception are usually not driven by dispassionate empiricism, either. They tend to be people who already view traditional sexual mores (and perhaps the idea of sexual restraint and self-denial generally) with disdain for reasons that, like those of abstinence supporters, are not simply a matter of practical consequences.

Thus, the issue is usually framed as a clash between moralism and science, when in reality it is primarily a struggle between rival moral systems; the pro-contraception side merely has more media muscle than the pro-abstinence side and can frame the issue in its preferred terms. People who claim that abstinence-only education works best are frequently adherents of belief systems that teach that premarital sex is offensive to God, and/or that sex has a moral or spiritual character that is degraded when it happens outside of marriage, and we hear all about that. People who claim that teaching contraception works best tend to be adherents of belief systems that teach that people will be happier with less sexual restraint, and that constraints on sexual activity are generally oppressive, superstitious, and psychologically destructive, and we don't hear about that nearly as much.

This is consistent with the general pattern of mainstream American political arguments. People in the mainline statist Left are, in keeping with scientistic Progressive tradition, more likely to smuggle their normative premises in unseen by claiming to be operating solely on the basis of “pragmatism” or “science,” with explicit moral claims limited to content-free generalities, whereas statist conservatives are usually much more upfront about the fact that their arguments are based on particular assumptions about morality that not everyone takes for granted. In the majority of cases, I don't think left-liberals are trying to be sneaky when they do this; it genuinely doesn't occur to many of them that their unstated assumptions are not self-evidently true to everyone. (I wrote more on this here, here, and here.)

I don't know which method works better. My suspicion, for whatever it's worth, is that 1. teaching kids abstinence is more effective than teaching contraceptive use, if both are taught equally well, and 2. government schools are the last place on earth where abstinence is likely to be taught well.

I think I'll have more to say related to this issue shortly. Much has been said, and much of it quite rightly, about the destructive effects of traditional conservative attitudes about sexuality. However, I think there are some serious problems with a lot of the rhetoric and implicit attitudes of the pro-contraception education side, and of leftists and liberals on sexual matters more generally, that are rarely dealt with. They are damaging in their own right, and often interact with conservative ideas to create an even more toxic brew. As is often the case, Left and Right have more in common on this issue than they care to acknowledge, and so core assumptions don't get addressed. Each side pokes timidly at the other's extremities, deluded into the belief that they are lunging for their opponent's heart. More on that and some related issues some time soon.

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