Abstinence (Higher) Education

by Peter Blair | 11/18/08 3:18am

Last week, two events about sex and sexuality took place at Dartmouth. Chabad sponsored a lecture by Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of the book "Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in her Profession Endangers Every Student" ('Speaker warns women against casual sex," Nov. 11). Meanwhile, the Aquinas House hosted a panel discussion on the Catholic Church's position on sexuality entitled "The Joy of Sex."

Pro-abstinence events are usually unpopular on college campuses, so it was unusual but welcome -- at least to me -- to see two of them in one week. Despite their unpopularity, the criticisms of the hook-up culture presented in these events are vitally important to and valuable for college students today.

There is widespread hostility to the ideas promoted by the lecture and the panel, respectively. The only student reaction quoted in the article about the Chabad lecture is typical: "I think Dr. Grossman alienated the audience by advocating that the only way for us to stay safe is to be with one person who we are absolutely positive has never been with anyone else. This just doesn't fly on college campuses, however true it may be. But it was definitely interesting how she advocated abstinence by using both modern medical knowledge and age-old scare tactics ... I do, however, think it's important to hear different perspectives."

I think the student quoted here (Sheli Chabon '10) is speaking for many college students when she claims that the evidence Dr. Grossman presented for the dangers of the hook-up culture doesn't matter. The problem is that Dr. Grossman didn't argue for just a different perspective; she presented facts. Having no grounds to contest these medical findings (more on those later), Chabon simply dismisses the truth as unimportant.

I think this reception of Grossman's lecture illustrates the essential problem with the abstinence debate: Students are attached (irrationally, according to Grossman) to the hook-up culture and are hence unwilling to consider its emotional and physical dangers. In other words, even arguments for abstinence that are reasonable and based on medical knowledge "just don't fly" because students don't feel like abstaining. The primary test for arguments is therefore no longer their truth, but instead whether one likes them or not.

This thinking, however, rules out any dialogue between people who hold different positions and precludes all honest hearings of the evidence. It may be that all the arguments for abstinence are poor ones, but that should be a conclusion that is reached through a fair hearing of the evidence, not an initial assumption.

So what are the arguments that Dr. Grossman presented? What are, as Chabon calls them, the "scare tactics?"

Dr. Grossman mainly dealt with two medical points. The first concerned the hormone oxytocin, which is released in females by any physical interaction (from hugging to sex) or any positive emotional interaction. Oxytocin promotes emotional attachment. Dr. Grossman argued therefore that casual sex is anything but casual as it causes females to become emotionally attached to their partners. This bonding can become highly damaging when a guy, who doesn't experience hormonal promptings in the same way, doesn't reciprocate a girl's feelings. Dr. Grossman relayed stories of girls who had been emotionally crushed in just that way.

Grossman's second main point concerned STDs, especially the prevalence of HPV. Dr. Grossman cited a study done at the University of Washington that followed 82 women who had just become sexually active for one year. At the end of that year, 37.2 percent of the women who used condoms 100 percent of the time had HPV. Students may, in the end, be unconvinced by these medical points, but they certainly deserve a fair hearing at Dartmouth.

The other event last week, a panel hosted by the Aquinas House, offered a different perspective on this issue. Instead of presenting medical evidence about the dangers of the hook-up culture, the speakers talked about the beauty, the joy and the liberation of pre-marital abstinence. They explained that the theory behind abstinence is not that sex is bad, but rather that sex is a precious and wonderful thing, a gift that deserves to be respected. The panelists argued that sex is most beautiful and joyful when it is placed within its proper context.

The contrast between the stories told by these panelists and the stories Dr. Grossman told about female students she had counseled -- ones who had engaged in frequent casual sex -- was stark. The students who spoke at Aquinas House were almost radiantly happy when they talked about their spouse or fiance and their pre-marital abstinence. The women who had come to see Dr. Grossman when she was a campus psychiatrist were crushed and depressed. Abstinence had freed the panelists from the concerns, worries and emotional baggage suffered by so many college students today, and it had lead them to a more beautiful and loving relationship with their spouse or fiance.

I don't expect that pre-marital abstinence will become a common practice at Dartmouth anytime soon. Nevertheless, I do think that there is much more to the arguments for abstinence than most college students are willing to accept. There is something to the medical knowledge that warns against casual sex, as there is something to the strong and stable relationships of those who practiced abstinence. I think that it is important that Dartmouth students listen to and engage with these arguments fairly and honestly and not dismiss them just because they feel like doing so.