A recent New Yorker article ("Red Sex, Blue Sex," by Margaret Talbot, November 3, 2008) challenges some assumptions about whether conservative attitudes towards sexuality are really "pro-family". Some new sociological studies find that evangelicals who most strongly push for abstinence before marriage are also the groups that have the most sexually active teenagers, the highest teen pregnancy, the lowest age of marriage and (as a direct consequence) the highest rate of divorce. Meanwhile, the liberals who are generally accepting of both teenage sex and abortion are the ones having the lowest teenage pregnancy rate, delaying marriage and childbearing, and therefore having kids when they are more emotionally and financially mature.
I have mixed feelings about the results they report . . . Primarily because I have lived on both sides of their conservative/liberal divide, at least as far as sexuality was concerned. I grew up with a belief that one should postpone sexual activity until marriage, instilled by my family as a part of my religious beliefs. And I did, in fact, remain a virgin until I married.
However, I had a lot of the "blue" factors at work as well. My parents were explicit about practical perils of sex as well as the moral ones -- "if you father a child, you are the one who will be raising it, not me," my mother told me on more than one occasion. And though my mother was vehement about postponing sex until marriage, she was far from being against sex per se. Sex was not banned because it was evil, but precisely because it was good -- a sacred bond, something to be cherished and not debased. And, like many teenagers, I engaged in certain, erm, practices that only barely qualified me as a "technical virgin," as is typical of the liberal-minded prescription.
The New Yorker article didn't mention some of the downsides that I see to the "liberal-minded" approach to sexuality. It completely ignores the emotionally charged nature of sexuality. All the condoms in the world cannot protect the psyche from the ramifications of such intimacy. Today's youth might be more informed about sexuality, more careful in a practical sense, and yet they also seem numb. It seems as if the only way they could deal with the emotional consequences of sex was to shut down. I can't speak to this with any authority, since, as I said, I took a different path and have no direct experience with promiscuity. But, as one young woman told me, "With my generation, it's like, sleeping with someone is no big deal." And while some liberals might cheer at such an attitude, I find it unnerving, in the same way I found mandatory promiscuity to be unnerving in Brave New World. If we conquer sexuality by sucking absolutely all meaning and significance out of it, then I'm not entirely sure we're better off.
Interestingly, the study found that the abstinence-only works fine for those who score high on measures of religiosity -- those who go to church often and pray at home. People who get plenty of support and attention, and who are embedded in a cultural alternative to the sexed-up popular culture, can succeed in delaying sex. But, as with lots of religious groups, most who identify themselves as evangelicals are not deeply observant. So it's not enough to have the conservative beliefs about sexuality -- you have to have a lifestyle that supports those beliefs in order for them to have any significance.
All this reinforces some basic SKS messages regarding one's philosophy:
It's not enough to hold a particular belief: you have to actually act on it
It's not enough to act on a particular conviction: you have to observe the outcomes and see if they really provide the results for which you were hoping
Community and family support are vital to living a counter-cultural position