Ross Douthat, the most conservative columnist in the modern history of the New York Times, offered an exasperating op-ed over the weekend: Why Monogamy Matters.
Douthat is clever enough to know his relatively liberal audience may be suspicious of his agenda, so he’s careful to cloak his argument in seemingly reasonable and reassuring tones. He tells his readers he doesn’t really believe in teaching teens to wait until heterosexual marriage; rather, he’s in favor of teaching them to wait for someone. And, like so many contemporary conservatives, he dresses up his argument in favor of abstinence with feminist language, suggesting that the religious right may care more about the well-being of young women’s hearts than the secular left:
Female emotional well-being seems to be tightly bound to sexual stability — which may help explain why overall female happiness has actually drifted downward since the sexual revolution.
Among the young people Regnerus and Uecker studied, the happiest women were those with a current sexual partner and only one or two partners in their lifetime. Virgins were almost as happy, though not quite, and then a young woman’s likelihood of depression rose steadily as her number of partners climbed and the present stability of her sex life diminished.
One assumes that Douthat missed critical thinking courses. As many others have pointed out, Douthat makes the basic mistake of confusing causation with correlation. If we’re going to use Ockham’s razor, the simplest explanation for why young women with high numbers of sexual partners report depression is because we live in a society in which the sexual double standard is alive and well. As with the old studies that found gay teens at greater risk of unhappiness and suicidal ideation than their straight peers, the misery is not rooted in the sexual activity itself but in the way that behavior is mercilessly judged by our still-puritanical culture.
This failure in logic isn’t the only problem in Douthat’s piece. His assumption that the overwhelming majority of human beings will find their deepest joy in an enduring romantic and sexual connection with one other person erases and ignores the lived experience of an astonishing number of people. As someone who is inclined towards both monogamy and marriage, I have the good sense not to universalize from my personal predilections. I’ve met too many people whose lived experience makes clear that profound joy can be found outside of the traditional model for sexual relationships.
What troubles me most about Douthat’s piece, however, is not his faulty reasoning or his disingenuous appeal to our concern for the emotional and physical wellbeing of our children. What is most annoying is his continued defense of abstinence-only education, despite the established fraudulence of its ideological and psychological underpinnings. The jury is still out on whether abstinence-only education encourages teens to wait longer to have intercourse (the verdict is already in on whether it leads to a delay in other kinds of sex, and the answer is clear that it doesn’t have much impact.) But even if we concede that “waiting” is invariably a good idea (and I’m not at all sure that’s true), shaming young people into waiting is indefensible.
Make no mistake, abstinence-only education is shame-based. When we teach young people that kids with healthy self-esteem won’t have sex, we send the unmistakable message that teens who do choose to be sexual with themselves or others lack self-respect. When we teach, as many abstinence programs do, that a future spouse will be put off by too much pre-marital sexual experience, we’re telling kids that pleasure is dirty, leaving a stain that doesn’t wash off. That’s an absolute guarantor of shame.
I’ve been a sex educator more than half my life, since I joined the pioneering Peer Sexuality Outreach as a counselor my sophomore year at Cal. Since 1986, I’ve spoken to teens and adults in school, church, and community settings about virtually every imaginable aspect of sexuality. How I teach and what I teach and how I think about what I’m teaching has evolved a lot in the past quarter century. But there are certain principles I’m committed to, principles that I think must undergird any responsible sex education curriculum.
1. Pleasure is a purpose. While one kind of sex can be reproductive, most kinds of sex aren’t. Human beings don’t exist merely to procreate; we exist to delight in our bodies and to share that delight (if we choose) with others. The clitoris doesn’t exist to pass urine or feed a fetus; it exists solely for delight. We need to remember to teach that at its core, sex is about more than making babies and more even than about connecting with another human being. Sex, at its most basic, is about our right to pleasure. And pleasure is perhaps the most basic driving motivator in our existence.
2. Shame is the enemy. Shame and guilt are not the same; guilt is what we feel when do something wrong (like deliberately hurting another person.) Shame is what we feel when we believe we are bad because of what we’ve done, even if we haven’t caused anyone pain or harm. Shame is what we feel when we believe we want too much, feel too much, need too much. Guilt is healthy; it keeps us from hurting each other. Shame is toxic — it acts as a barrier to pleasure and intimacy with ourselves and others.
3. There is no one-size fits all approach. For example, some teens are emotionally and physically ready for sexual intercourse. Some aren’t. Some people will be happiest limiting sexual expression with other people to committed, monogamous relationships. Others will find their greatest joy outside of the confines of traditional fidelity. We must surrender the tempting but unsound idea that each and every human being has the same basic longings. My Christian friends should know this: the apostle Paul mused that it would probably be best if everyone were celibate, but he had the good sense to know that what worked for him would not work for everyone else. Would that those who follow whom he followed had his same reverence for diversity!
Responsible sex education informs, encourages, comforts and inspires. It honors the individual needs and wants of each person, and teaches the importance of honoring the boundaries of others. As Douthat’s social conservative allies in Congress seek to defund Planned Parenthood and other providers of women’s health care and sexual education, we need to redouble our commitment to standing for pleasure, for safety, and against the twin evils of shame and ignorance.