when sex and ignorance collide
The writer of the most popular and influential pro-abstinence literature is now regretting his work.
Believe it or not, there’s a strange connection between the Kama Sutra and the bizarre sexual acts dreamed up on Urban Dictionary to then be made fun of on Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcoms. The former is believed to be the product of an ascetic monk who was supposed to abstain from worldly pleasures, the latter by teenagers who just found out what sex is making up ridiculous and wholly implausible acts and positions to troll readers or gross each other out. Of course the common thread here is an lack of real world experience required to properly weigh in on weighty topics being given an enormous audience. And the same holds true for the defining work of the purity movement in Evangelical America, a book about the supposed pitfalls of dating outside of elaborate courtship rituals supervised by the parents of both parties called I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
You see, it’s writer, Joshua Harris, was quite literally a dateless virgin when he wrote this book, idealizing something with which he had no experience whatsoever, and unsurprisingly, after pursing formal education for the first time in his entire life in his mid-20s, he’s not sure sure his books were a wise idea in the first place. For several years, he was a one young adult industry of book-length abstinence-only zealots’ insulting analogies about people who failed to see sex between consenting partners as sinful and shameful. While it would be pretty easy to lay into him for another thousand words or so, it would also be misguided because he’s really not the villain of this story. If this was a movie, he’d be the henchman who discovered he was being used as a pawn in a shady scheme, then trying to secretly help the hero. The fact that his naïveté was fetishized to such a degree is the real tragedy.
Let’s get the science out of the way first and foremost. Abstinence only sex ed is a health policy disaster. By teaching teenagers that contraception is useless, if teaching them about it at all, and covering nothing about real life relationships not involving 19th century style courtship, it promotes riskier, earlier sexual encounters. And yet, despite decades of statistics showing that comprehensive sexual education is a far superior approach, abstinence only is still taught, and the ridiculous idea that casual dating encourages people to just give up when things get tough advanced by Harris, is still embraced by religious zealots. There’s even a religious think thank that seriously promoted the idea that couples who abstained from sex until marriage had better sex because — and I honestly can’t make this up — they had no else else to compare each other to and be let down.
But consider the fallout of the Duggar clan’s airing of dirty laundry, during which they basically said on national TV that sexual abuse is common in their sect and considered just a phase, and we subsequently found out that Quiverfull’s doctrine blames all cases of abuse on the victims. It’s obvious that suppressing the learning experiences of dating often ends very badly. We’ve also moved on from the family-factory style approach to relationships, and as pundits cry about the death of dating and courtships, people are still dating and getting married, only they’re taking their time to find the right partner first and taking the pressure off each other instead of following traditions from the time that marriage was a purely financial transaction for securing rights to an estate. If anything having experience in making a relationship work first should result in happier, longer marriages.
The same culture that made Harris a celebrity and gave him a career being an expert in things he knew nothing about have a long habit of praising haughty ignoramuses and dictating disastrous public health policy, and it’s disturbing that we really don’t talk about their embrace of inexperience and ignorance when discussing how sex ed will be taught to new generations. If you think just letting these advocates of know-nothingism spout off in hopes that they’ll eventually go away, consider an snippet from some feedback that Harris shared with a reporter sent to profile him…
I have been married to my wife for over seven years. We’ve been together over ten. We have a beautiful daughter, and successful careers. When we were dating, we had sex. Because of the shameful purity movement rhetoric we learned from your book, sex became tainted. To this day, I cannot be intimate with my wife without feeling like I’m doing something wrong. Sinful. Impure.
It’s all fun, games, and religious aspirations coming from a good place until someone needs years of therapy to be intimate with a partner again. And I think it’s especially interesting that while these cheerleaders of purity focus on waxing judgmentally about secular sexuality, telling us that the world is ending in an orgy of sex that exponentially increases with each generation, citing breathless reports of today’s “hookup culture” as proof, in the real world, openness about sex accompanied a decrease in the number of sexual partners for Millennials. In their embrace of willful ignorance, they don’t even know that the culture of free, constant sex they think they’re fighting was over by the end of the 1970s, and what they’re actually battling is media hype. That alone should disqualify them from a voice in public policy when it comes to sexual education and public reproductive health.