Sunday, January 21, 2007

Purity, abstience, agency, and the Woman's Burden of Virginity

In the holy name of accuracy, why does the nefarious world of abstinence-only sex education make cozy bedfellows with the equally vomit-inducing community of offensive gender stereotyping? It was documented in the Waxman Report that sex education programs that promote abstinence until marriage also "treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact." Now come more examples in some Washington state sex education curricula, specifically from a program called SHARE.
[Cally Leighton, SHARE instructor] tells the students about a class of all boys she taught last year in Kent. When asked how many of them wanted to marry virgins, "100 percent of those boys flew their hands up," says Leighton. ...

"Women and men are wired very differently," she tells the class again and again. "Men are kind of like a lightbulb. You turn a lightbulb on—ta dah!—it's on. Women are like a curling iron. You plug a curling iron in . . . it takes a while to warm up."

To illustrate the "progression of sexual expression," as it is labeled on the overhead projector, she tells an elaborate story about a hypothetical Billy Joe Bob and Mary Sue, who run through all the stages. First they meet, spend time together, hold hands, and engage in a simple kiss. Then they move into a prolonged kiss (nicknamed "prune" by SHARE because you pucker you lips together as you say the word) and French kissing (nicknamed "alfalfa" because you use your tongue to pronounce it).

At this stage, she says, Billy Joe Bob is aroused, though Mary Sue is not yet. They start petting. Now Mary Sue is aroused. The inevitable result, she says: intercourse.

Leighton then asks the class: If you've made the decision to be abstinent, at what stage do you think you should draw the line? There's a brief silence. "Prolonged kissing?" ventures one boy. "Does that seem about right?" she asks the students. She notes that her daughter used to draw the line at French kissing—until she almost got raped after doing so on a date.

There are multiple disturbing themes in this part of SHARE's instructional curriculum. This program perpetuates the notion that girls and women are naturally passive (like a slow-heating curling iron), while boys and men are innately aggressive (like a fast-heating light bulb). This leads to the idea that females are slower to arouse and, implicitly, less sexual than are males. The extension of this principle is that if women aren't supposed to be sexual then only "sluts" have sex, whereas it's acceptable for men to want sex and thus sexually active men are "normal."

This slutty female/normal male dichotomy is made explicit by SHARE when its instructor asks a classroom full of boys how many of them want to grow up and marry virgins. Naturally she would never ask a group of girls if they want to grow up and marry virgin men; it's a cultural expectation that a woman isn't supposed to care about her partner's sexual past (lest she have sexual agency in the relationship) and that, even if she did care, she'd be hard-pressed to find a man who hadn't already fulfilled his "normal" social role and had sex. Furthermore, girls are groomed to feel that their value is inextricably tied up in their sexual purity; no such burden is placed on boys.

The most troubling element of the SHARE curriculum, more troubling even than its grossly ineffective focus on abstinence, is the burden it places on girls and women to prevent sexual violence. It's shocking and nauseating that paid professionals are telling children that by choosing to French kiss a girl is inviting intercourse and even rape. That is absolutely inexcusable. At no point does the instructor suggest that boys are responsible for drawing the line during kissing or even controlling their behavior; boys are yet again being told that they have no obligation to prevent sexual assault, except instead of hearing just from their uncles and cable TV, now they're hearing it in their classroom.

1 comment:

Tommaso Sciortino said...

No American Christian religions can survive for long if it makes difficult demands on white men.