Monday, July 16, 2007

Kevin McCullough and the Ostrich method of sex education

Those Townhall hacks just keep the inanities coming. This time it's Kevin McCullough trumpeting the virtues of abstinence against those horrible heathen liberals.

McCullough is a supreme Coulterite, incapable of forming an argument without littering it with scare words like "liberal", which in those circles qualifies as refuting an argument. I like to go into a little more detail however, and fortunately for me, McCullough's rant on abstinence is a target rich environment for a hunter of sloppy thinking.

True to form, he says something idiotic right out of the chute:

"Liberals want your child to have sex."

Really? Liberals want children to have sex? And this is based on what exactly? Does he mean "children" as in 5-year-olds, or "children" as in 16 year olds? One of the problems with people who toss undefined terms like "liberal" around is that it is impossible to check their claims, and leaves them free to make shit up, and dance away from when challenged, an opportunity of which McCullough takes full advantage. For instance, take his next sentence.

"[Liberals] want this to occur in spite of your religious, health, or parental objections."

Where, pray tell, are these liberals that want children to have sex in spite of health concerns? One need only take a cursory glance at the political landscape to see that it is liberals who are promoting condom use to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease, and conservatives like McCullough who are ignoring those risks and instead choosing to live in a fantasy world where children won't have sex if we just tell them not to. After all, we all know how well teenagers listen to their parents.

"They are willing to substitute false thinking for solid fact on the consequences of what will happen.

Um, the solid facts say that abstinence education is a failure, as has been the case for years, yet it is people like McCullough that keep substituting "false thinking" for solid facts. Why would this be? Simple. Note above which objection he lists first. Arguments on good healthy behavior are rarely derived from religion.

"And they do so while simultaneously insulting you and your child's ability to comprehend, discern, and choose behaviors that make the most sense."

Nice idealism Kevin, now let's look at the facts as summarized by David Brooks from the report above:

"The fact is, schools are ineffectual when it comes to values education. You can put an adult in front of a classroom or an assembly, and that adult can emit words, but don't expect much impact.

That's because all this is based on a false model of human nature. It's based on the idea that human beings are primarily deciders. If you pour them full of moral maxims, they will be more likely to decide properly when temptation arises. If you pour them full of information about the consequences of risky behavior, they will decide to exercise prudence and forswear unwise decisions.

That's the way we'd like to think we are, but that's not the way we really are, and it's certainly not the way teenagers are."

But of course, despite his bluster, McCullough isn't interested in facts, and he spends much of his article trying to twist away from those pesky facts that didn't tell him what he wanted to hear. Abstinence doesn't work? Well, um, well, at least it is better than what it was under Bill Clinton!!!


That's right, McCullough is pulling out the stops with the Clinton gambit. We've all seen this game a million times from Republican hacks. Anything bad goes wrong, start talking about Bill Clinton. Liddy lied? What about Bill Clinton?! Bush is fucking up Iraq? What about Bill Clinton?! Abstinence doesn't work? What about Bill Clinton?! The appearance of those two words is the surest sign the speaker has no intelligent argument to make, and is merely trying to change the subject. McCullough is happy to demonstrate:

"Yet even common sense tells us that the chances of incurring a teen pregnancy and then the possible tragic consequence of abortion, or the still very difficult consequence of a teen birth are affected by one's behavior."

First of all, when someone claims their position is based on common sense, what that mostly means is that they don't want to have to back up their claim with evidence. Second, McCullough's insight here is banal at best. Of COURSE one's behavior effects one's life. The question, however, is WHICH behavior is least likely to result in these undesirable results of teen pregnancy and/or abortion, and the evidence has consistently shown that McCullough's recommended strategy of abstinence is poor. However, McCullough is driven by ideology, not evidence, as his next statement makes painfully clear:

"If a teen girl chooses to save sexual activity until she is married, she has zero chances of getting an STD, becoming pregnant, having an abortion, or out of wedlock birth."

Ah yes, this ridiculous canard conservatives chant, and which they wouldn't if they spent 2 seconds thinking about it. First off, don't say "marriage" when you mean "monogamy". Around 60% of married people admit to infidelity, so the idea that marriage=monogamy is absurd.

But to the heart of the matter, need I remind everyone about Ryan White? Arthur Ashe? The thousands of rape victims? Women who unknowingly marry a man who already has an STD? The list goes on and on. NOTHING is 100% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies or STDS, not even abstinence.

But granted, that objection is a bit pedantic. After all, if one REALLY didn't have sex until monogamy, the odds of contracting an STD or getting pregnant are greatly reduced. The problem is that people don't do it. They SAY they'll do it, but as the study above demonstrates, we are not entirely rational agents, and under the right circumstances, the kids sworn to monogamy will find themselves having sex anyway. And since they had no plans to do so, the odds of them having a condom on them are going to be a helluva lot slimmer than the kid who was taught safe sex, and therefore, at that moment, the odds of the "abstaining" child getting pregnant or an STD are significantly higher than for the safe sex child. That's the reality the promoters of abstinence don't want to face. They want to pretend it is a magic world where all we require is the will to remain abstinent to do so. (remind anyone of any ill-conceived wars?)

Let's reemphasize the infidelity rates as further evidence of this. We have grown adults, who have broken, by the truckloads, a vow taken before their closest friends and before whatever gods they worship. THAT'S how strong our sexual desires are. And we are going to expect teenagers to resist what adults cannot? Please.

So when someone like McCullough says something like this:

"The truth is we humans are capable of controlling every choice we make, and if we simply understood the natural outcomes of those choices perhaps we'd make better ones."

They need to be politely informed that the science says otherwise, both the abstract cognitive science, and the pragmatic data on abstinence programs. Telling teenagers to just "not have sex" is like telling an alcoholic to just "drink responsibly". Take the lesson from Evil Knievel, professional daredevil, who swore he was opposed to his son Robby doing stunt jumping, but after seeing Robby doing it on his own, and dangerously, decided that if his son was going to participate in this dangerous activity, it was his duty as a father to make sure he did it as safely as possible.

This is the message parents should send to their kids. Its the same as driving cars: a part of life, but with many risks that need to be kept in mind, and consequences that can last a lifetime. Burying our heads in the sand like ostriches hoping kids will behave as we'd like them to does them a great disservice, and is far more likely to "bring them confusion and destruction" than being honest with them and ourselves.

One final general note. The "no sex before marriage" slogan is horribly outdated. As ill-conceived as it is, it is even more so than it was when practically everyone got married by the time they were 20. Telling a 30 year old woman who has never been married that she should not have sex is neither practical, nor healthy. Our sexuality is a part of who we are; a glorious, dangerous, spiritual, intense part, but part nonetheless. No person should cut themselves off from it, any more than they should cut themselves off from their love of music, or a good nap. Each of us should explore it in our own way, so long as all the participants are adult, consensual, and staying true to whatever agreements they have made with others. Marriage is just one of many possible such arrangements, and even there, the possibilities are endless.


Anonymous said...

when someone claims their position is based on common sense, what that mostly means is that they don't want to have to back up their claim with evidence

I'm skeptical of this, but I'll be on the lookout.

NOTHING is 100% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies or STDS, not even abstinence.

Unless spouses remain absitnent... ;-)

And we are going to expect teenagers to resist what adults cannot? Please.

This is a gem of an argument, and I expect that the rate of infidelity - like teenage pregnancy - is higher in "red" states.

ScienceAvenger said...

On the 100% argument, don't forget the involuntary scenarios.

As for the adults vs kids argument, that one actually occurred to me as I was writing the article. These guys give you so many targets sometimes it's hard to stay focused on the one. I didn't even bother with the false dichotomy they always pose of perfect monogamy vs total hedonism, despite the vast majority of us falling considerably far from either pole. Just another reality they ignore at our children's peril.

Bing said...

I liked this post very much.

You might have noticed a slight bump in traffic, as it seems Kevin McCullough has read this post and has linked to it from I got 3 posts
on there, if you are at interested.

My posts are rather saucy, but I since he has refuted none of the major points, I will content myself with the understanding that I was not at all in error.

I will be back. :)


ScienceAvenger said...

Thanks for the heads up, and the compliments. My goodness, he thinks I'm a gay pedophile because I recognize the fact that abstinence programs don't work? Remind me to never hire this guy as a detective. I also take note that he made no effort to make a substantive response. A blind man could see why: the pro-abstinence position is indefensible.

For the record, I am now, and have always been, heterosexual. You don't have to be homosexual to see the idiocy of the anti-gay arguments. You only have to be intelligent. I fight against anti-gun loons, energy healers, and creationists, all for the same reason, and with just as little personally at stake. [shrug] Sloppy thinking irritates me.