My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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purity ball, abstinence and changing society

This morning, i read a brief article in the NYTimes called Contr-Contraception. In short, there’s proposed legislation requiring insurance companies to cover contraception, conservative folks argue that this will create a new wave of sexual promiscuity. The second half of the article focuses on abstinence education and “purity balls” where young girls (and yes, only young GIRLS) promise to keep their purity until marriage. The whole article makes me want to scream (which is why you should read it), but i want to address one component of it….

Abstinence education rhetoric speaks of a return to a more pure society, back when people didn’t have sex until marriage, when women stayed at home with the kids and were forced to swallow their pride every time their husband cheated on them (cuz we all know that cheating is not a 21st century phenomenon). What isn’t remembered is that people got married at 16, not 32. Bad marriages were formed out of horniness. At the same time, young men could assume to have a meaningful career path by the time they were 22/23. Today, many 22/23-year olds are still working in Starbucks because the Baby Boomers aren’t willing to retire and give up the privileged positions within society. We also like to pretend like people didn’t have sex outside of the sanctity of marriage. Bullshit. People just didn’t *talk* about it. People relied on the pull-out method, got married quickly before she would show, had babies that weren’t their husbands, etc. Abortions happened with hangers – they didn’t simply not exist.

When i talk to my friends working in sex ed, i get so upset. All of this abstinence bullshit has resulted in an increase in STDs, a dramatic lack of knowledge about sexual health and pregnancy, and a silencing of problems. Based on what i’ve heard, my guess is also that fewer girls are reporting rapes.

Why? Why? Why?

When it comes to sex legislation, folks either take the moral highground or a practical approach. The former argues that the latter is promoting immoral activities while the latter argues that the former is cruel and dangerous. I’m definitely in the latter camp because all of my own research has shown that desire trumps risks for most people. This means that a lot of good people will get themselves into bad situations that could’ve been prevented if folks weren’t so insane about upholding a moral highground that they could never actually live by either. For me, the key is setting the practical as the baseline and then trying to instill moral values on top of that… but not at risk of really harming people in the process.

::sigh:: Conservative politics make me feel so powerless.

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20 comments to purity ball, abstinence and changing society

  • shtf

    What makes me upset is when people say that abstinence results in an increase in STD’s. This logic doesn’t make sense at all.

    People should be responsible and bear the consequences of their actions.

  • All of this abstinence bullshit has resulted in an increase in STDs

    STD rates (as well as teen pregnancy) are declining across the board in the US.

  • Also, this idea is basically a restatement of the lump of labour fallacy:

    Today, many 22/23-year olds are still working in Starbucks because the Baby Boomers aren’t willing to retire and give up the privileged positions within society.

  • Conservative politics make me feel so powerless.

    Something tells me that’s kind of the point. :-/

  • I just posted about this and linked back to you.

    On top of everything, it’s just so GROSS!

    PS: Drop me an e-mail and hook me up with your friends who work in sex ed. I’d like to learn more about their line of work. Seriously. No sick joke.

  • It is true that some STD rates (specifically Syphilis and Gonorrhea) across the United States have steadily declined over the past ten years. (See here for some good statistics. However, Chlamydia numbers have skyrocketed, as noted in the report: “Increasing numbers of chlamydia infections have made it the most widespread STD in the USA. In 1996 there were 492,631 reported diagnoses, corresponding to a rate of 190.6 per 100,000 population. However, by 2004 the annual total had increased by 89% to 929,462 and the rate per 100,000 had risen to 319.6. Cases of chlamydia have increased every single year bar one since reporting began in 1984. Much of this rise can be attributed to the expansion of chlamydia screening activities, use of more sensitive screening tests, and improvements in the reporting system.”

    However, the simplistic rates go up/rates go down cause-and-effect thing must be considered from a critical perspective.

    Despite the relatively recent increase in fundamentalist reactionary legislation directed against teen sexuality, there has been an even greater increase in publicity about safe sex, and more honest, direct, and progressive education in the wake of the world-wide HIV/AIDS pandemic. As well, the relative openness about sexuality, and the availability of useful peer counselling among social networks (this I know, albeit anecdotally, from frank conversations with my 16-year-old daughter) means that we might expect STD rates to have gone down over the past ten years.

    One benefit of the standard “youth don’t listen to their elders” lament is that, hopefully, they won’t listen to the Christian fundamentalist-driven control agenda that is being played out here. More informed word-of-mouth (and especially word-of-mouse) may well serve young men and women better than purity balls.

  • Long Ago Y!

    Purity Balls sound like some kind of ironic joke.

  • I commend you on having the balls (pun intended) to speak what you mean and speak a lot of the truth that really isn’t expanded upon enough in mainstream media. I thought as a society we wanted more 13 and 14 yr olds losing their virginity and spreading STDs… I’m kidding, obviously.

    Yes, alot of these conservative politics do make me also feel powerless. I kinda want to pull a Cher moment and slap someone across the face with a “snap out of it” exclamation.

  • Health Experts Criticize Changes in STD Panel
    By Rob Stein
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, May 9, 2006; A03

    Federal agencies ordered changes to a government-sponsored conference on
    prevention of sexually transmitted diseases after a congressman raised
    questions about the absence of speakers supporting abstinence programs,
    officials said yesterday.

    The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the main organizer
    of the conference, dropped one speaker from a panel on abstinence being held
    today, added two others and changed the name of the session, officials said.

    The decision was praised by supporters of abstinence programs and the
    congressman who raised questions about the panel, but it was condemned by
    public health experts as political meddling because the new presentations
    had not been approved through a scientific peer-review process.
    The controversy involves the 2006 National STD Prevention Conference in
    Jacksonville, Fla., which began yesterday.

    An aide to Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), sent an e-mail April 26 to the
    Department of Health and Human Services raising questions about a panel
    titled “Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public
    Health?”

    “Just the title alone was enough to cause us concern,” said Martin Green,
    Souder’s spokesman. But the congressman also was alarmed because one of the
    speakers was focusing on a report produced by the office of Rep. Henry A.
    Waxman (D-Calif.) that was critical of abstinence programs, and because no
    one would be speaking in support of such programs.

    “We wanted to see some balance on this panel,” Green said.

    In response, the CDC last week changed the name of the panel to “Public
    Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth,” removed the panelist
    discussing the Waxman report and added two proponents of abstinence, Eric
    Walsh of Loma Linda University in California and Patricia Sulak of Scott &
    White Memorial Hospital in Texas, founder of an abstinence-promotion program
    called Worth the Wait.

    “Upon further review of the composition of the panel, CDC did decide the
    symposium was not balanced and needed to be expanded to include a broader
    perspective on abstinence education,” said CDC spokeswoman Terry Butler.
    Butler said there was not enough time to put the new presentations through
    the peer-review process.

    “What was basically a propaganda panel has had its politicized nature
    removed and appears now to be a more accurate reflection of the scientific
    opinion,” Green said.
    About half of U.S. high school students have had sex, according to federal
    data.
    But the decision, which was reported Friday by the online magazine Slate and
    the Philadelphia Inquirer, drew harsh criticism from the presenter who was
    removed, the panel organizer and other public health researchers.

    Bruce Trigg of the New Mexico Department of Public Health, the original
    organizer, condemned the decision as political meddling in the scientific
    process. The original panel was vetted through a formal peer-review process
    by independent researchers.

    “It is unprecedented that this type of interference takes place at a
    scientific meeting,” Trigg said. He said the original panel was not designed
    to be a balanced critique but to present the public health concerns about
    abstinence programs.

    “I have nothing to fear from a balanced program. They would have been
    welcome to submit abstracts for review and consideration. The claim is this
    is about a public health program when it’s really about ideology and
    religion,” Trigg said.

    William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the
    United States, who was bumped from the panel, said he was “very
    disappointed.”

    “It was shocking to me,” Smith said. “What does this say about the ability
    of politicians to influence what is going on in public health?”

    Jonathan Zenilman, president of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases
    Association, a co-sponsor of the conference, said he was “surprised and
    astounded.”

    “This is the first time I’ve seen the process of peer review subverted by
    pure politics,” Smith said.

    (c) 2006 The Washington Post Company

  • CC

    For the record, it is possible to “stick to the moral high-ground”. I did it just fine, and “kept it in my pants” until my wedding night. And five years later, I’ve only ever been with my wife.

    If we actually taught morality in our schools, it would be possible for more kids to do the same.

    But you’re right on one point… teaching abstinance without morality doesn’t work. It’s an all or nothing deal.

    And yes… I AM A CONSERVATIVE.

  • john

    This is just wrong (and it doesn’t really help your argument very much, either, ‘cos the more important case are those who are unemployed at 22/23 rather than working at Starbucks):

    At the same time, young men could assume to have a meaningful career path by the time they were 22/23. Today, many 22/23-year olds are still working in Starbucks because the Baby Boomers aren’t willing to retire and give up the privileged positions within society.

    I work for a company that provides an on-line tool to help companies hire people, and, believe me, the problem isn’t that the baby boomers aren’t retiring (indeed, they are, and have been!), it’s the skills deficit among the young:

    http://featuredreports.monster.com/laborshortage/forecast/
    http://featuredreports.monster.com/laborshortage/graphics/#chart1

  • I abstained until I met my wife but I also got married at the young age of 20, and I’d have a hard time advising anyone to do the same. There are advantages, but there are probably an equal number of disadvantages.

    That said, I’m for better education. Purity balls and abstinence programs are more about comforting distressed parents and giving them a false sense of security. Better to make sure that when (not if) they do have sex, they’re smart about protection.

    And I’ve got three kids: 20, 21 and 22.

  • “Today, many 22/23-year olds are still working in Starbucks because the Baby Boomers aren’t willing to retire and give up the privileged positions within society.”
    Oh please Dana, why do you write ridiculous stuff like this? Baby Boomers are now in their 40’s to 60’s. We work to support ourselves and our Millennial children, many of whom are in college.
    I consider you a brilliant woman, surely you must understand the world economic situation better than this. X’er’s arguing with Baby Boomers is misguided.
    It’s also misguided to argue with crazy people.
    (x tian conservatives)

  • Sorry, Janet – i’m speaking too loosely out of laziness. Historically, youth get married and “settle down” when they feel secure in their jobs and prospects moving forward. Often, this is brought on by the parent generation making room for them to enter the workforce and take on powerful roles in the guidance of the structure. This is particularly visible in systems where advancement is obvious (and one of the reasons that unions were so critical). What is happening with the baby boomers is that they are strapped for cash (or insecure about retirement due to terrible 80s policies), not opening up positions for the younger generation and otherwise clogging the structure. With the disappearance of unions and the lack of obvious structural advancement, there’s no security for the vast majority of younger Gen Xers. They’re not settling down as a result. (Of course, the exception is the tech industry where Gen Xers entered with a storm and made their own rules, much to the horror of the older generation.) But, by and large, Baby Boomers hold most of the power structurally and yet the political moves they are making deal with their generations security issues rather than making certain the system will be stable long term. When i get home, i’ll find a few citations for you, but my side comment was meant to refer to this structural dynamic which is wreaking havoc in the system.

  • Re: feeling powerless from conservative politics, the only way to fix this is to fight back. The thing we need to do isn’t to start new single-issue groups; instead we need to start groups that define a clear alternative to the conservative worldview.

    I’ve been volunteering with just such a group, Speak Out California. We don’t have an internet freedom action alert up right now but I’m working on one – if anyone would like to help contribute some ideas for this I’d appreciate it. My email & contact info is listed on our weblog, the link is above. Thanks!

  • folks either take the moral highground or a practical approach

    The practical approach is certainly the moral high ground.

  • What is happening with the baby boomers is that they are strapped for cash (or insecure about retirement due to terrible 80s policies), not opening up positions for the younger generation and otherwise clogging the structure

    This simply isn’t true. A society’s full economic potential is the output of the number of hours worked, mulitplied by hourly activity. If you have 110 million workers and they work an average of 1200 hours a year, and productivity (the amount of wealth they produce each hour, not the amount they are paid) is $100 an hour, then you get an economy of $13 trillion, which is roughly where America is now.

    110,000,000 * 1200 * 100 = 13,200,000,000,000

    If an extra 10 million people suddenly join the labor force, and their average productivity is the national average, then the economy should simply expand an extra $1.2 trillion.

    Mind you, I agree with your general sense that there are chokeholds holding back the younger generation from moving up the economic ladder. Labor unions, and the general world expasion, were crucial to the class fluidity of the mid to late 20th century post-war world. I agree that there is now much more stratification than in the past. The nation’s economic elites are doing a better job of insulating themselves from challenge, change and risk. But I disagree with you about the specific chokehold you’re identifying – baby boomers not wanting to retire. It just doesn’t work that way.

  • Greg Cremer

    Just because you have a self-indulgent, self-destructive philosophy about life doesn’t add credibility to your dreamed up statistics on abstenance. Moral lowgrounders like yourself are the total contributors to unwanted pregnancy, elevated STD’s and the gambit of other societal issues that comes out of an undisciplined self-serving philosophy such as yours. Those who practice purity before marriage (and I know several) are reaping the benefits of their purity by sustaining healthy lifestyles and raising traditional families with a solid foundation based on their ethical philosophy. The benefits of abstinance are irrefutible (if you don’t eat poison, it won’t kill you). This certainly can not be said of permiscuity. The philosophy I’ve seen the low grounders always comes down to the consideration that “they’re going to do it anyway”. This of course comes from the same undisciplined thinking that has resulted in this chaotic sort of thinking in the first place.

  • I am a producer who is facinated with the different views about the purity ball and virginity pledge. I am looking to speak further with families and young people who believe strongly in and against this issue. 212-506-4381

  • Kelly Lavoie

    I think that the bottom line is we need to really educate people, men AND women, about sex, and let them make the decision for themselves. There should be no legislation on this sort of thing…I find the idea of that ridiculous. It’s stepping way over the boundaries; telling people whether or not they should have sex? I consider myself neither conservative nor liberal, but I do know that at my school (UMass Dartmouth) abstinance is made to seem like a ridiculous choice, when it really isn’t in and of itself. I personally abstain from sex. Whenever sex is discussed, I get the feeling that the teachers assume that nobody would consider abstinance, so it is barely touched upon. I think there should just be more HONEST and thorough sex education…to help people make good decisions, whatever decision is the best for them. And no legislation can tell a whole group of people what is and is not good for them when it comes to something like sex.