Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Denying nature: Christians and sex

Yesterday I argued that “Godless immorality” regarding sexuality has been the dominant paradigm in human history and that the brief reign of the Puritanical was an aberration. I think history supports that. The more controversial statement, I suspect, was when I said that the “Christian paradigm of sexuality is one that is at war with reality. It is contrary to the evolution of the human species and human sexuality itself.” That is important.

It is important because the hardwiring of sexuality is something that evolved. If you don’t accept the fact of evolution you can’t rationally deal with human sexuality. If you don’t believe in the facts of reality you can’t cope with them well. The net result is that fundamentalists, in particular, spend an inordinate amount of time hoping to change reality. They attribute everything to sin, weakness, Satan, demons and liberals (who in their mind are something akin to demons). What they can’t accept is that this is just how human beings are hardwired. It’s built into the species.

Knowing that makes it much easier to deal with. What the fundamentalist resorts to is attempting to terrify people about sex. God will punish you, you will get pregnant, you will contract an STD, you will die of AIDS, and oh, yes, God will punish you again. The US federal government now wastes massive amounts of cash in abstinence programs in state indoctrination centers (they call them schools) where they attempt to scare teens about sex.

Here is the bad news for them. Teens are terrified about sex. They always have been and always will be. Sex is something new, overpowering, frightening, compelling, shocking, painful, pleasurable. It’s damn scary. It’s scary for adults and even more so for teens. If fear were the only factor the world would be populated with billions of 40 year old virgins.

But sex is more complicated than that. Sexuality is hardwired into the species. Teens and adults may be terrified by sex but they have an incredible drive to engage in it. It certainly is hormonal but it is more than that. it is tied to every aspect of being human. It is not just physical it is also psychological. So it connects our physical body with our mental faculties. Yet sexuality evolved in humans long before the rational mind evolved. I would think that alone should clue us in. If sexuality evolved before the rational mind don’t expect sexual expression to always be rational.

There is a huge amount about sexuality we don’t understand. We certainly understand the physical nature of it. Millions of years of practice made that inevitable. What we don’t understand well are the more complex aspects. We don’t know what it is that causes individuals to see themselves as men or as women thus leading to some individuals who are transgendered. We don’t know why some individuals are attracted to only the opposite sex, some to only the same sex and some to both. In reality we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding sex.

But we know sexuality is something that dominates large aspects of human existence. We see it in art so frequently because we see it in life so frequently. And in the church they keep learning that capping the volcano doesn’t stop the eruption. The regular and constant flow of sexual scandals within the church gives proof to that. But they can’t deal with the reality of sexuality if they can’t deal with the reality of human evolution. It is through the hows and whys of evolution that one begins to comprehend the complexity and inevitability of sexuality.

The Bush administration prefers to push abstinence. That is what their Evangelical base wants. Does it work? Well, if you look at the states with the highest percentage of fundamentalists in the population you find the highest teen pregnancy rates. Of the ten states with the highest teen pregnancy rate eight of them are in the Bible Belt: Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana. Compare that to the “liberal” states. Where Texas has a teen pregnancy rate of 101 Massachusetts is almost half that: 60. North Carolina is 95 while Vermont is 44.

Fundamentalists have invented one program after another to mold human sexuality into what they believe to be the right kind of sexuality. None have worked but they do give them the false comfort that it “might” work. The latest venture they are trying has a very surreal quality to it.

They are called “Purity Balls”. Prepubescent girls dress up as if going to the prom. But instead of a prom they go to a dance with their fathers who are dressed up in tuxedos. It’s like a prom except the date is Daddy. Then the father and daughter exchange vows where the father promises to protect his daughter’s virginity and the girl promises not to have sex until she is married. Then Daddy slips a “purity ring” on the daughter’s finger as if they are going steady. One father told the press: “The ball is the culmination of the relationship we have with God and with each other.” Apparently no such “Purity Ball” is done with boys and their mothers. And the hope is to integrate these “Purity Balls” with other abstinence programs which receive over $200 million in federal funding.

The reality is that teens who pledge abstinence do delay sex slightly but not significantly. And they don’t tend to wait until marriage though they do wait a little longer. That’s the up side. The down side is that abstinence programs use fear as their motivation and so they don’t want to talk about condoms and birth control. Fundamentalists don’t like anything which removes the danger from sexuality. They want sex to be deadly or harmful in order to keep teens scared. So while this may delay sexual intercoursem when it does take place, and it usually does before marriage, it does so without the use of birth control or protection against STDs. The abstaining teens thus still end up having sex just riskier sex.

It strikes me that getting a 10-year-old to pledge abstinence is not particularly difficult. But how sincere can such a pledge be if the child is not flushed with hormones compelling them toward the very thing they are shunning? But is this for the child? Or is this for the parent to give them a false comfort that their child will remain virginal? And what will happen when the hormones do hit? Will these kids be honest and upfront with their parents? Or will they hide their sexuality as much as they can?

The fundamentalists I knew actually hid their sexuality. They still had affairs, cheated, had sex before marriage, masturbated, etc. They just lied about it until they were caught, begged for forgiveness and confessed they were evil and then hoped they could avoid “the traps of the devil” in the future. And certainly many conservative Christian parents have confessed that when it comes to the sex lives of their adolescents they don’t want to know what is happening. They prefer to live with an illusion than face the facts.

One Christian web site admits that fundamentalist teens “are engaging in other sexual activities, including oral sex, at high rates.” They say that the rates of actual intercourse are lower but that Christian teens admit to high levels of sexual activity. I suspect, given the pressure put on them, that with Christian teens there is a tendency to lie and cover up activity that may exist. There is no incentive to admit sexual activity that doesn’t exist, at least not to adults. So these numbers are probably the bare minimum. But they found 29% of Christian high school males had oral sex and 26% of females. Seventy percent have fondled the breasts and genitals of a partner and half have been nude with someone in a sexual situation. They were even shocked to discover that 89% of the males masturbated and 71% of the females did. And this was only high schoola ged students not older teens in university.

Studies of Christian teens who take abstinence pledges show that half of them abandon the pledge within a couple of years. And the couple of years wait is no surprise given the age of the kids who are pledging. One longitudinal study has asked teens about abstinence pledges and the data is not what the advocates of the pledges would like. Again remember these teens have an incentive to lie, especially if they are under pressure to cap their sexuality. This survey found that 52% of the teens taking the pledge “recanted them within a year”. And since they come back and survey the teens over a period of seven years they also find how teens change their stories. By the end of the survey almost three quarters of the teens, who had previously said they took a virginity pledge, were now denying they ever took the pledge. And one out of three teens who had been sexually active when younger later claimed they were virgins.

Follow up surveys showed that 88% of teens who take an abstinence pledge have premarital sex. That is not much different than the population in general. In fact abstinence programs have failed so badly that some Christian ministries have stared new programs to encourage “born-again virginity”. This is a pledge for teens who violated the previous pledge but who now say that they are going to stick to for real. One abstinence program says starting over is one “reason many students attend our program.”

The fact is that Christians don’t know how to deal with sexuality and are doing a poor job of it. Consider that the Right-wing Promise Keepers surveyed men who attended their religious cheer rallies. They found that half the men “in attendance were involved with pornography within one week of attending the event.” One week! What would the percentage be a year later? It is also claimed that 37% of fundamentalist ministers say they “struggle” with pornography and over half admitted to viewing it in the past year. And one out six women having an abortion describes herself as a born again Christian.

One evangelical minister admitted in Christianity Today “the statistics on premarital sex among evangelicals hardly distinguish us from all the other people on the face of the earth” and he says he got in trouble with his congregation when he said if Christians want to “uphold the ‘sanctity of marriage’” they should stay out of the courts and concentrate on their own homes. “I cited statistics on divorce rates among evangelical Christians that put us pretty much in a dead heat with society at large. I talked about the high incidence of spousal abuse within conservative churches. I spoke about the widespread estrangement that prevails among many church-going couples.” He says he was told to “stop meddling” and start “condemning what’s happening out there.”

Those of us who have practical experience in fundamentalist circles know that deception is ripe. It is a necessary strategy for survival. Very, very few fundamentalists actually manage to follow their own sexual moral codes, especially when young. (Abstinence gets easier the older you get as the number of willing partners decreases.) And it goes back to what one conservative Christian I know of said: “I don’t want to know what my kids do.”

It is not the substance that is important to them but the illusion. They want gays to go back in the closet more than anything else. If they do they can pretend they don’t exist. They want to return to the fake world they invented where a pregnant teen wasn’t really pregnant she just went away for the summer to visit a sick aunt. Affairs went on but no one talked about it or, at most, only whispered about it behind the backs of those involved. Volcanoes were erupting all over the place but you could pretend that it wasn't happening.

How can a fundamentalist grapple with the issues of human sexuality when sexuality is intimately connected to biology, and when biology is intrinsically involved with evolution, but the fundamentalist is theologically committed to denying evolution? You need to understand the hows and whys of the evolution of human sexuality in order to even begin understanding these issues. But if you deny the reality of evolution then you can’t. That is why I argue that the theological position is one that is fundamentally at war with reality.

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