You’ve heard the statistic that 1 in 4 teenaged girls has a sexually transmitted disease. On the same day that story came out, newspapers reported another study showing that 17 percent of middle-school students had used alcohol within the past year, and 6 percent had been drunk within the past month. A previous study had shown that 47 percent of eighth graders have had alcohol, 20 percent had done so in the last month, and 12 percent had consumed “five or more drinks in a row in the previous 2 weeks.” The researchers suggest that these figures can be reduced with “alcohol prevention programs prior to the sixth grade” and “truly universal anti-alcohol messages.”
Makes sense, right? But compare that with what happened when the STD study came out: Planned Parenthood said the results showed that abstinence education doesn’t work, and teen-agers should instead be taught “safe sex.” Using the same logic, instead of unrealistically expecting tweens to abstain from alcohol, shouldn’t we be teaching them “safe drinking”? You know — it’s O.K. to knock back a brewski while playing Grand Theft Auto after school, but be sure to stop at one; eat something before you start chugging punch at the Halloween party; take a hair of the dog with your Froot Loops if you’ve had too many the night before; stuff like that. Education of this sort would kill two birds with one stone, since unsafe drinking often leads to unsafe sex; at least, that’s how it works with grown-ups.
Remember, too, the infamous Skittles Incident, in which a New Haven eighth-grader suffered various punishments, including suspension, for buying a pack of Skittles candy from a fellow student in violation of the school’s draconian “wellness” policy. So when it comes to beer and Skittles, our schools preach total abstinence and practice zero tolerance; when it comes to sex, they hand out condoms. As my colleague Kevin Williamson wrote recently: “Why is the Left libertarian on sex but authoritarian on practically everything else?” Perhaps someone should point out to them that sex often leads to smoking.
The idea that the STD statistics prove that “abstinence education doesn’t work” is based on the notion that if anything less than 100 percent celibacy results, it’s a failure. But by the same token, “safe sex” education must be considered a failure, since even those who know better often practice sex unsafely (including Eliot Spitzer, if the news reports are to be believed, unless he thinks socks will do the trick). By any more reasonable standard, though, there are signs that abstinence education is working.
The April issue of Glamour has an article titled “Your worst walk of shame stories.” “Walk of shame” describes the situation when a woman leaves a man’s place the morning after an impromptu assignation, and any reasonably astute observer can tell at a glance what she’s been up to — usually from her outfit, which is either (a) what a woman wears on a night out (especially when she’s in the market for an impromptu assignation) or (b) an assortment of ill-fitting garments cobbled together from the wardrobe of the gentleman in question. (Shayna, 30, of New York City writes: “I went on a date with a morning radio show host and slept at his place. Turns out my dress had fallen off his balcony while we were hooking up, so I left at 5 A.M. wearing just a borrowed T-shirt–with his picture on it.”) The phrase seems to have originated among college students, and the male equivalent is called “stride of pride,” though it’s much harder to tell from a guy’s clothing what he did the night before.
A few years back, when I first encountered the phrase “walk of shame,” I thought: “How quaint! Are we still in the 1950s? I thought everyone was liberated and casual about sex nowadays.” But here we have grown women recalling how mortified and embarrassed they were that they’d just been naughty and everyone could tell. The subhead on the Glamour article piles on the guilt: “The journey from hookup to home can be humiliating. But hey, you’re laughing now, right?” The accompanying photo shows a woman waiting for a bus in the morning while dressed in a work-inappropriate outfit. The caption: “Yes, everyone knows what you did last night.”
All this suggests that even in the post-post-feminist 21st century, women are embarrassed about casual sex. So maybe abstinence education, while not 100-percent effective, is working after all. The same principle applies in other areas. You know how publications use dashes to replace most of the letters in naughty or offensive words? Logically, there’s no point to this; everyone, adult and child, knows the words, so why beat around the bush? But using dashes sends a message that they’re not polite, and that people should hesitate before saying them.
Shame is the first step towards self-respect. Teaching children to be embarrassed about casual sex (which is not, despite what Planned Parenthood would say, the same as being “ashamed of sex”) will help them take pride in themselves, make healthy choices, and understand the power of sex and the importance of love. That’s a lot more important than keeping the kids off Skittles — and judging from the Glamour article, it still seems to work a decade or two later.
– Fred Schwarz is an NRO deputy managing editor.