By Colin DeMatteis
We have all been there–cruising the Internet, looking for sexy underwear and suddenly stumbling upon an interesting new thong. It’s pure white, 100 percent ultra-fine, baby rib cotton. Seems skanky enough, but printed against this virgin-white background is one bold red command: “ABSTAIN.”
Yes, these panties–which retail online for $8.99 plus shipping–are part of a growing, conservative campaign focused on making abstinence and virginity until marriage “hip.” The description of the thong is nothing short of hilarious, reading: Panty-minimalists love the casual thong that covers sweet spots without covering your assets; putting an end to panty lines. This under-goodie is “outta sight” in low-rise pants. Toss these message panties onstage at your favorite rock star or share a surprise message with someone special… later.
This “just don’t do it” angle of sex education has come under fire repeatedly in recent years. In 2005, the American Academy of Pediatrics denounced abstinence-only sex education as only a partial solution to high teen pregnancy rates. It’s simply not enough to encourage abstinence without providing information on birth control.
Dr. Jonathan Klein, chairman of the academic committee that released the statement against abstinence only-sex ed, said in a July 2005 Associated Press article that despite the support of religious organizations and then-president George W. Bush, “the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy.”
According to the same article, Dr. S. Paige Hertweck, a pediatric obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Louisville, said that abstinence-only sex education “makes it more likely that once teenagers initiate sexual activity they will have unsafe sex and contract sexually transmitted diseases.”
So instead of changing the curriculum of sex ed classes, many schools have endorsed the new campaign of “cool virginity” which only repeats the message rather than modifying or improving it-sometimes with a bold red message on a thong. Maybe the crotch-riding reminder to abstain would be enough, but there is a subtler message that adds a little guilt to the equation. Printed in tiny font, the thong warns, “earn your right to wear white.” Although these new undies could help turn abstinence into the next fad, the marketing campaign still relies on shame and guilt to influence teens to abstain from sex.
Here conservative interests had a chance to make virginity “hip,” but underneath this cool façade is the same old misinformation, shame and guilt that comes with abstinence-only sex education. The Human Life Alliance, a Minnesota based pro-life organization, publishes a series of abstinence-encouraging magazines targeting boys and girls age 12 and up.
This includes the magazine Just for Girls/Guys or J4G, which recently published a list of “come-backs for come-ons” for girls, number one of which is “I don’t see a wedding ring on my finger!” This is an excellent way to dissuade pretty much any presumptuous suitor, both from sexual advances and from a relationship in general.
This “all or nothing” attitude is consistent with one of the overreaching themes of the magazine: Anyone not willing to abstain from sex until marriage is not worth the time and effort of a relationship.
Unfortunately, much of the medical information in J4G is faulty and from questionable sources. For instance, in a Q & A segment in the 2008-2009 issue, Dr. Mary Paquette asserts that there is “an increased risk of breast cancer in women who have an abortion” and includes a list of other supposed maladies including depression, infertility, miscarriage and future premature babies.
However, Vanessa Valenti, New York City-based freelance writer and editor of Feminsiting.com, countered Paquette’s assertions in her Aug. 2008 piece for Alternet.org. Various studies have proven these risks false, “including the National Cancer Institute’s findings in 2003 that abortion is not linked to breast cancer,” wrote Valenti.
Despite her background as a physician, Dr. Paquette still peddles false information to teens in the hopes of scaring them out of having sex.
Beyond the questionable facts of this article, Dr. Paquette’s employer also colors her perception of data. She works for the AALFA Family Clinic in Minnesota, an institution with the mission statement “our mission is to provide pro-life, Christian healthcare for your family.” This means the clinic encourages adoption over abortion and will not provide birth control of any kind.
Along with fear, these magazines peddle shame to discourage most sexual activity. J4G encourage girls to dress conservatively, partly as a sign of modesty but more to help boys remain abstinent. In a section called “The Inside Scoop on Guys,” the editors write that “[d]ressing modestly is important if you desire to protect and assist the guys in your life who wish to remain abstinent as well.” They also assert that guys are wired visually, so if a girl wears immodest clothes “it is hard for guys because they are stimulated by what they see.” It is not any female’s prerogative to keep men from jumping on them like crazed dogs. Men must have some self-control.
The magazine seems to enjoy placing responsibility on women. In the guys’ section of the magazine there is an equivalent section called “The Inside Scoop on Girls” which deals with the essential problem of cross-gender misunderstanding. The main reason men do not understand women, according to the article, is because “a girl is dealing with a lot of hormonal changes all the time.” This ‘fact’ is accompanied by two graphs of monthly hormonal changes between men and women. The overall lesson: women are irrational because their hormones control them-not the most outstanding mindset for young men to have towards women.
But there’s more to this problem than simply a fear- and shame-based marketing campaign. On a basic level, “abstinence only sex education places unreal expectations on both partners in a relationship, specifically young women,” said Sarah Brylinsky, president of Ithaca College Feminists.
This campaign puts significant responsibility for sexual purity on the woman in the relationship. Brylinsky says, “There’s not a lot that that crowd [supporters of abstinence only programs] preaches that men do – men are just supposed to abstain, but women are supposed to help men abstain.”
“We don’t feel that an abstinence only position is a healthy way to promote sexual health on a college campus,” she continued, “but allowing people to make choices for themselves and making sure people have the materials to make those choices is the best way.”
Brylinsky was keen to draw the connection between sex and communication within a relationship. She listed three aspects of communication: the verbal, the physical and the emotional. “You should be open with your partner on all forms of communication,” said Brylinsky, “where you choose to take each of those forms of communication is totally up to the partnership.”
The abstinence-only approach preached by this new campaign discourages the physical aspect of a relationship. “You can’t have close communication in one section of a relationship and not another,” said Brylinsky, “You can’t tell people, ‘don’t have a physical line of communication, but it’s ok to have an emotional line.’ The three things are connected, you can’t separate one from the others.”
IC Feminists and other women’s organizations on campus frequently hold programs that “promote safe sex as being fun, consensual and an open experience between two partners” said Brylinsky.
J4G goes a long way to encourage a mutual understanding between men and women. The magazine contains two “translations” of conversations between men and women, the most helpful of which is in the guy’s section and states, “she says, ‘do you respect me?’ He hears, ‘blah, blah, blah…’ She means, ‘do you really care about me or do you just want sex?'”
But to the magazine’s credit it is not all-terrible advice. J4G does encourage boys and girls to hold their ground against peer pressure, and in that respect these magazines are correct, or at least easier to agree with. If anyone chooses to abstain until marriage, there is really no legitimate reason to try and dissuade them. But choosing to abstain is not the problem: the information offered by abstinence-only sex education is faulty, and in-class seminars use fear and shame to try and frighten students into abstinence.
Abstinence-only sex ed does not give students the information necessary to make an informed choice to be abstinent. Instead, it tries to intimidate them into making a lifestyle decision and this new “hip” campaign is another way of furnishing faulty information.
Magazines, newspapers, televisions shows and other forms of media frequently push a particular political or ideological agenda, which in many cases the public has become aware of and compensates for. But if that agenda relies on false information, then it is difficult to discern their bias and it becomes irresponsible to publish a piece. And if any media outlet knowingly releases misinformation, then it becomes unethical.
Colin DeMatteis is a sophomore journalism and creative writing major. E-mail him at cdematt1[at]ithaca.edu.