Ross Douthat, noted abstainer, argues in yesterday's New York Times that despite evidence that abstinence only education is as effective one of its alternatives (comprehensive sex education), which is to say, not effective, the federal government should continue to fund it anyway, because it might be effective. Besides, people in Alabama don't want to hear about condoms, and people in Berkeley don't want to hear about abstinence. You see, it's all relative. No really:
Predictably, the rare initiatives that show impressive results tend to be defined more by their emphasis on building social capital than by their insistence on either chastity or contraception. A 2001 survey published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, for instance, found that “most studies of school-based and school-linked health centers revealed no effect on student sexual behavior or contraceptive use.” The exceptions included an abstinence-oriented program with a strong community-service requirement, and a comprehensive program that essentially provided life coaching as well as sex ed: participants were offered “academic support (e.g., tutoring); employment; self-expression through the arts; sports; and health care.”
None of this renders the abstinence-versus-contraception debate pointless. But we should understand it more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy. Luker describes it, aptly, as a conflict between the “naturalist” and “sacralist” approaches to sex — between parents in Berkeley, say, who don’t want their kids being taught that premarital intercourse is something to feel ashamed about and parents in Alabama who don’t want their kids being lectured about the health benefits of masturbation.
As someone who thinks government money ought to be spent wisely, I find this puzzling. Douthat argues that while neither approach works unequivocally well at its intended goal, a third one has been shown to be effective (I don't know, by the way, whether any of this is true, my sense is that it isn't, but that's not my point). Given the option between the three things–two ineffective, one effective, Douthat argues that it doesn't matter, because it's all a matter of community values:
The debate might be less rancorous if the naturalists and sacralists didn’t have to fight it out in Washington. This is the real problem with federal financing for abstinence-based education: It drags the national government into a debate that should remain intensely local.
We federalize the culture wars all the time, of course — from Roe v. Wade to the Defense of Marriage Act. But it’s a polarizing habit, and well worth kicking.
If the federal government wants to invest in the fight against teenage pregnancy, the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached. (And yes, this goes for the dollars that currently flow to Planned Parenthood as well as the money that supports abstinence programs.) Don’t try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa.
America’s competing visions of sexuality — permissive and traditional, naturalist and sacralist — have been in conflict since the 1960s. They’ll probably be in conflict for generations yet to come.
But as long as they are, it shouldn’t be Washington’s job to choose between them.
How about another school of thought on sexuality: the empiricist.