The XX Factor

Abstinence-Only’s Success Depends on Your Priorities

Rick Perry.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses the the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Gail Collins has an excerpt in the Daily Beast today (and another in Slate) from her new book As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. The excerpt deals with the Texas addiction to pushing Christian propaganda in the schools under the guise of “education,” in this case with abstinence-only programs and literature. Even for those districts disrespectful enough of the Constitution to think the schools should be instilling into kids the religious belief that sex should only occur within marriage, in theory the abject failure of these programs to get kids to refrain from screwing should be enough evidence to dump the programs. From a public health perspective, they’re even a bigger failure, since Texas has terrible sex-related public health outcomes. Collins surveys the landscape and says, “Still, if you didn’t know better, you’d think there was a concerted effort going on in Texas to increase the number of children being born to teen parents.”

I would say that for those of us who do know better, that remains the conclusion. It’s not that the Christian fundamentalists who dominate state politics in Texas wouldn’t prefer young people, at least the girls, to remain abstinent and then get married off at 19, passing them seamlessly from parental to spousal control. They’re always happy in those rare cases when that successfully happens. The question is what happens to the 95 percent of us who are dissenters and go ahead and have sex without being married first. The main concern driving these policies is that sexually active, unmarried women will get away with their behavior without being punished. That’s why there’s obstacles such as parental notification between girls and access to contraception. The idea is that if a girl tries to escape her due punishment of unintended pregnancy, she should at least have to endure being grounded for her slatternly ways.

At a certain point, you have to stop assuming it’s an accident when you see politicians who, when given the choice between improving sexual health outcomes and punishing girls for sex, always choose the latter. Having spent the first 32 years of my life in Texas, complete with my fair share ever-so-fun interactions fundamentalist Christians, I can say that they’re far more concerned about the possibility that girls are taking more than their meager allotment of tightly-controlled pleasure than they are, say, reducing the teenage pregnancy rate. If you start with the assumption that social conservatives agree that the problem is STDs and teen pregnancy and not sex itself, you’re inevitably going to conclude that their insistence on programs that seem to keep the STD and teen pregnancy rate high must mean they’re stupid. Incredibly stupid, on the can’t-tie-their-own-shoes level. And that seems a bit unfair. Fundamentalists can be annoying and pig-headed, but they’re not measurably stupider than the rest of us. Because of this, the only fair conclusion is poor sexual health outcomes is the point, because they believe that if kids won’t stop having sex, they should at least be doing the time for their “crimes.” If you start with the assumption that sex is sinful and it should have negative consequences for those who disobey your sky god’s orders, then really, the Texas anti-sex policies can be considered a smashing success.