Editorial: Abstinence: The Notion that Sex Belongs only in (Heterosexual) Marriage
When I was growing up, in the 50s, I pretty much accepted all the mythology about marriage and family—the courtship, the wedding, the blessed event—without much question. I was an only child living in a stable home.
After the turbulence of my late adolescence and long history of an economically productive live as a “singleton” homosexual, and after some harder times recently, I am motivated to wrap up what all of this means to people. Understand this in the context of a lot of other topics introduced on
There’s not much argument that people with kids should be faithful and legally married. Perhaps there is a debate on whether they must be of the opposite gender. More subtle is a question like this: why is it harmful if the husband enjoys an occasional peak at the nude images of Playboy? Why is “adultery by thought” harmful? To a rationalist, it doesn’t sound like it should be. But, the partners have taken the vows, “till death do us part, in sickness and in health…” Even mental disloyalty by one partner (her, husband) suggests that he will not remain interested in his wife should some random catastrophe (say, breast cancer) make her less “interesting” in a fantasy or nubility perspective. That would make her successful treatment perhaps less likely and make her life “worth” less. The children, whether or not they ever slept in a family bed, will pick up on this.
Okay, then, how does this affect people like me who never procreate children or get married, who take care of ourselves in a competitive world but not of others? For decades this seemed to be acceptable alternative balance. In the 80s we had to fight for our own legal paradigm of privacy during the AIDS crisis, but we learned how to manage that. In more recent years, the moral problem has taken on a different flavor. We compete in the same economic and cultural spaces as traditional families. Gradually we begin to realize we might have more credibility if we shared the same responsibilities—military service, raising kids. But as we come out and as an Internet-and-cable age makes our lives and values more public and visible with everyone, a deeper cultural schism becomes manifest. Many people who do not have obvious “expressive” gifts or talents of their own depend on the family, with all of its ideas of kinship and lineage. The family is also the ultimate caregiver, the ultimate safety net for people in need. In exchange, the family often has its own hierarchy, with heads of families believing they have earned the respect of other family members. Of course, such a tribalistic system promotes conformity and perpetuates economic inequality between classes or families. The freedom to follow one’s own sexual identity indirectly to contributes to redistribution of unearned wealth away from better established lineages. The morality of all of this has a lot of plusses and minuses.
The notion that one should only have sex after getting (heterosexually)
married is a device to channel behavior so that most people will have a stable
world to live in, to get taken care of when they are needy, and find social
interactions based on “real life.” Of
course, having that world to live in logically implies responsibility: having
one’s own family and children in one’s own marriage. The “abstinence until
marriage” rule, promoted most of all by the
Another way to say all of this might be, “If you have sex at all, even without procreating new a life with your own specific acts, you incur a personal obligation to the next generation as well as the generation that created you. That is the ‘transaction.’” That seems to be what moralists want: cross-generational family or filial responsibility for everyone other than monks and priests (and “celibacy” often doesn’t work in practice.) Even anti-abortion views can be viewed this way. “Pro-life,” in psychological terms, is not so much about protecting the unborn child as a human life as it is about making sure that sexual intercourse (in this issue, just for heterosexuals) incurs its proper responsibility to the next generation. Conservative author George Gilder wrote as much in the 1980s.
One can see “abstinence” as a socially slippery slope. If sex is only for married people, why not home ownership or a good job? Doesn’t this kind of arrangement for perks undermine the idea that a couple should be married and dedicated to its own children out of “love”? People from older generations generally don’t engage in such individualistic reasoning and probably grew up under political and economic conditions where such a pure idea of personal responsibility simply wasn’t possible. The legal notion of such personal rights, outside of marriage, wasn’t cemented until 1965 by the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision regarding conception (soon to be followed in 1973 by Roe v. Wade, for abortion impacts the idea of personal privacy and choice and pits it against the “sanctity” of future potential life, and finally in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas). Persons who have been “successful” in living according to the idea of abstinence until marriage (and then actually marrying and having a family) tend to feel that societal support for their sexual paradigms is an important part of their personal experience. Persons (heterosexual or homosexual) broadcast a different paradigm into the public culture may be undermining their experience and creating a sense of contempt, while capitalizing on what moralists see as a character flaw, from the inability to make sexual commitment according to accepted (previously) gender responsibilities. Of course, most people, when they make personal sexual choices, feel that their values and expression have public significance. Paul Rosenfels, recall, tried to reduce the importance of public social supports for committed relationships by limiting the neighborhood with which his students interacted to a small, communal but circumscribed environment.
Homosexuality, of course, is not always narcissistic, and heterosexual relations often can be. Individual gay couples can provide stable homes and raise children. Right now, the battle over gay marriage and gay parenting seems aimed at keeping gays out of these institutions because letting them participate would destroy the procreative “meaning” of the family. But over time, we are likely to remember how a half-century ago society often did everything it could to deny gays any personal freedom at all, because ultimately their influence would be seen as destructive. There is a danger that those days can come back.
Some people do cling to the Victorian idea that family
should motivate all personal initiatives. Absolute monogamy (no divorce) and
abstinence except for marriage would, in this view, keep sexuality out of the
area of “personal meritocracy” because the surrounding marital institutions are
larger than the person and everyone would, in theory, be able to find (and
therefore be expected to find) an opposite-sex marital partner and raise
children. Everyone would be forced to invest in the next generation and remain
loyal first to one’s own blood. Carried through consistently enough, may this
Utopian moral notion would take care of vulnerable people and raise children
much more reliably that we can today. But it would come at an enormous cost to
personal freedom and initiative. But this is the group morality, partly
designed to protect less competitive people, that the Pope is
talking about, as well as Justice Scalia in his
In my own case, I steadfastly refused to dedicate my
sexuality to the making of babies and to supporting the give-and-take, mutual
caretaking and well-being of an institution (the family) assigned to me. (This
would require my competing for the right to a nubile partner, a competition
that I would not be very good at, even if ultimately it implies vicarious
survival.) I chose to use my sexuality and choice of partners for my own
expressive purposes, with the potential for really satisfying bonding with
other same-sex adults, even if this involved a good deal of fantasy and the
potential that I would be seen as measuring others. I can understand why some
people would have a problem with this. They would think that I am refusing to
make the emotional investment (enabling lifelong “till death do us part” sexual
fidelity and commitment) but depending on parents who did in order to get a
heads up on the world that I enter. So teaching abstinence isn’t just about
preventing pregnancy and
If you really take all of this seriously (because people can really try to take freedom away), you could entertain a principle like this: “Access to sexuality is legitimate only when it leads to responsibility for others.” At least, in a Vatican-like sense, this would seem to make things “fair” to the disadvantaged.
©Copyright 2004 by
See Deborah M. Roffman, “They’ll
Abstain If They’re Given Good Reasons,” The
Dyana Bagley, “Abstinence-only
curricula faulted for false data,” The Washington Blade,
The federal standard for abstinence-education grants is:
“Abstinence education is an educational or motivational program which:
(1) has, as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.
(2) Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children.
(3) Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases nad other associated health problems.
(4) Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard in human sexual activity
(5) Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.
(6) Teaches that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society.
(7) Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances, and
(8) Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”
Souce: National Abstinence Clearinghouse
Point (4) would seem to say that homosexual activity of any kind is outside of the expected social standard for human sexual activity.
See also Sharon Jayson, “Abstinence message goes beyond
teens”, USA Today,
A church in
The home page is actually this. The “Song of Solomon” in the Old Testament is said to be an ode to marital sex. That doesn’t help me.
Blog post on some people’s “moral” objections to homosexuality (esp. near the end): here.
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