The uproar over President Bush’s appointment of a prominent abstinence advocate to head up the federal Office of Population Affairs reveals as much about the screamers as it does about the scream-ee. Dr. Eric Keroack advocates abstinence as the most reliable method of pregnancy and STD prevention. His critics are outraged that Bush would appoint someone who isn’t all about contraception to head up the federal office responsible for family planning. These critics don’t seem to realize that the same office also oversees the federal abstinence programs. They seem to think that only an empty-headed ideologue could promote abstinence. But there is also an ideology surrounding contraception.
I call it “condomism.” This is the belief that all problems surrounding sexual activity could be solved with enough contraception. Some adherents, such as contributors to the recent special issue of the Lancet, go even further. They believe that we could end world hunger and save the environment, if only we had enough condoms. Here are some of the tenets of condomism:
1. Every person capable of giving meaningful consent is entitled to unlimited sexual activity.
2. All negative consequences of sexual activity can be controlled through the use of contraception. Sexual Transmitted Diseases can be controlled through the use of condoms. The probability of pregnancy can be eliminated through contraception, properly used.
3. No one is required to give birth to a baby, in the event of pregnancy. Abortion, for any reason or no reason, at any time during pregnancy, is an absolute entitlement.
4. Any negative consequences of sexual activity that can not be handled by contraception or abortion are not worth talking about.
The controversy over Keroack’s views on bonding during sexual activity illustrates this last point. Evidently, Keroack has given lectures in which he claims that there are long-term emotional costs to non-marital sexual activity. According to Amanda Schaffer, writing in Slate, Keroack said this: “People who have misused their sexual faculty and become bonded to multiple persons will diminish the power of oxytocin to maintain a permanent bond with an individual.”
Schaeffer cites this as an example of outrageous claims that Keroack makes to “scare the bejesus out of kids to convince them to remain abstinent.” But I think her outrage reveals the zeal of condomist ideology. No known contraceptive method eliminates the risk of being emotionally wounded by inappropriate sex. Therefore, condomists must stamp out discussion of negative consequences of sexual activity that can’t be handle with contraception.
Schaffer cites as evidence a recent review article on oxytocin. But “The Neuroscience of Affiliation,” by Drs. Jennifer Bartz and Eric Hollander, only bears indirectly on the question at hand. According to Bartz and Hollander, “Overall, the findings from the studies of healthy humans parallel those from animal studies and point to the role of oxytocin in stress response and in enhancing social affiliation; however, the underlying mechanisms are not yet well understood.”
More to the point: Look at what we do know for sure. We know for sure that oxytocin promotes bonding and affiliation, even though we don’t know everything we’d like to know about how the mechanism works. We know that sexual activity promotes oxytocin production, especially though not exclusively in women. We know that young people with early sexual initiation and multiple sexual partners are less likely to be in a stable happy relationship at age 30. And we know that sexual activity, particularly casual sex and multiple partners, increases the risk of depression for teenage females.
I have presented material on sexual behavior and the physiology of attachment many times. I have gotten a pretty good feel for how audiences react. I use a phrase from Theresa Crenshaw, author of The Alchemy of Love and Lust: The oxytocin response can create “an involuntary chemical commitment.” When I explain that women are particularly prone to get an oxytocin-generated feeling of attachment, the room gets very quiet, as people start thinking back over their experiences. Some people do not welcome this information. But most are relieved: They see an explanation for some of the seemingly inexplicable things they’ve done and impossible situations they have gotten themselves into.
People have told me that they now understood why they found it difficult to break off with a cohabiting partner whom they knew was not really right for them. I’ve had counselors tell me that the oxytocin connection helps them understand why sexually active couples whom they can see are incompatible, nevertheless get married. I’ve had young people tell me that they were glad they had heard me talk when they were 22, instead of much later. They felt I had spared them a lot of grief.
Whether Keroack’s string of inferences or causal chain is exactly correct I cannot say. But it is beyond doubt that his general conclusion is absolutely correct: The physiology of attachment is undoubtedly part of the explanation for why non-marital sex is a risk factor for later relationship difficulties. He is drawing a perfectly logical conclusion from the available evidence.
And besides, what is the alternative position that Keroack’s critics would promote? That unattached sex is completely costless, as long as it is safely contracepted? That young people should feel perfectly free to have as many sexual encounters as they want, provided they use a condom?
This is why I say condomism is an ideological position. Any problem that can’t be solved with contraception is not worth talking about.
I cannot vouch for everything Keroack and any organization he’s been involved with have ever said or done. But it is not scaring the bejesus out of people to inform them of the substantial emotional risks associated with casual sex.
– Jennifer Roback Morse is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World.