When the commandments go wrong

Our new take on sexual morality does not represent the disintegration of morality as a whole.

by Jason Ketola

Sexologist Nancy Friday, author of the groundbreaking collection of women’s sexual fantasies “My Secret Garden,” opens the book’s sequel “Forbidden Flowers” by remarking, “Sexual mores and practices have shown an age-old resistance to change. Today, there is hardly any part of human behavior we are more willing to question and alter.” Friday penned this statement in 1975, but it hardly could be more true today. The tension between old and new conceptions of sexual morality is stronger than ever and stands at the heart of contemporary debates over abortion, sex education and the Minor’s Consent to Health Services Act.

Cristina Page, author of “How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America,” will speak at the University Bookstore in Coffman Union at 7 p.m. Tuesday. She argues that the debate over abortion is being waged between groups that either believe sex can be valued for pleasure or merely should be practiced for reproduction. Page reviews the positions of such prominent pro-life organizations as Operation Rescue, American Life League and National Right to Life, and finds them not just opposing abortion, but also opposing sex outside of marriage and contraception.

Her findings shouldn’t come as any surprise to those of us familiar with Judeo-Christian sexual morality, which traditionally limits sex to a reproductive role in heterosexual marriage. As proponents of this view are becoming ever more ferocious in the Legislature, we, in fairness, should ask whether a desirable code of morality indeed is crumbling or if theirs is a moral code worth abandoning.

Probably nearly all of us would like to see the need for abortion be as small as possible. Yet as Page points out, “It’s one of the profound ironies of the pro-life movement that its work hasn’t led to fewer abortions.” Over and over research has shown that the most effective way to reduce abortions is to provide comprehensive sex education in schools and to provide women with unrestricted access to contraception. Because they see safer-sex education as endorsement of sex for pleasure, pro-life organizations tend to advocate abstinence-only curricula. Abstinence-only sex education ironically has been shown not just to be ineffective, but sometimes to increase unsafe sex and rates of teen pregnancy while doing nothing to decrease rates of sexual intercourse.

Similarly, Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, argued in a recent guest column against the Minor’s Consent to Health Services Act, which allows minors to access some limited health services without parental consent, despite evidence that it has reduced teen pregnancy and STI prevalence. This opposition – despite its detrimental effects, like pro-lifers’ counterproductive aversion to comprehensive sex education – bespeaks a dire need for change in moral attitudes. Unless, of course, opposing nonreproductive sex is more important to us than preventing teen pregnancy, reducing STI prevalence and reducing abortions.

In our own sexual practices a vast majority of us have recognized the need for revision of a traditional sexual morality informed by Judeo-Christian ideology. To that point, Page provides a plethora of evidence. The fact that 85 percent of people in relationships are having sex every week indicates sex is not just a reproductive act for the vast majority of us. Additionally, we’ve recognized that sex’s benefits to our well-being are plentiful. Economists have shown that regular sex brings as much happiness as a $50,000 a year raise. Other research cataloged in a 2004 Time cover story has shown that an active sex life can lead to a “a longer life, better heart health, an improved ability to ward off pain, a more robust immune system … protection against certain cancers … (and) lower rates of depression.”

Moreover, effective contraception like the pill has revolutionized our social structure, permitting women to put off or never have children while still enjoying sex. Now women outnumber men as college undergraduates and in most graduate and professional programs, and they are increasingly represented in the professions.

Personally most of us are enjoying the benefits of a moral code that does not deny us sexual pleasure, and socially we’re seeing drops in STIs, teen pregnancy and abortions, alongside the empowerment of women, where policies developed on a new sexual morality have been instituted. The case for change could not be stronger.

Critics of this change decry the new sexual morality as one premised on greed and hedonism. True, contraceptive technology has allowed us to separate sexual pleasure from procreation, but the effects of this change have permitted family planning and given heterosexual women many more options in the world.

Our new take on sexual morality does not represent the disintegration of morality as a whole, just an obsolete and harmful set of strictures.

By affirming a new sexual morality we affirm the view that morality should be adaptive to a changing world.

Ultimately, each one of us has a choice whether she or he will enjoy sex for pleasure or have sex only for reproduction in a heterosexual marriage. But as we choose to stand behind broader social policy, it would behoove us to stand behind the evidence and not the rules that lead us astray.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected].