Sex, Well-Being, and Harm

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Eugene Volokh points out a problem in the way some people are arguing for brute parental control rather than looking at serious studies to determine whether abstinence-only sex education has the effects it's supposed to have. He's right about that.

I do have a quibble, though, and I wonder if it shows a deep disagreement between many of the people on the two sides of this issue. The way he frames his criticism seems to me to assume something that many on the abstinence-only side will not grant. He says:

But if you're going to talk about what's actually "best for ... children" -- which is to say what's actually effective in preventing harmful behavior -- then don't claim that parents have some sort of innate insight into a process that they've never systematically studied, and as to which they have at best a couple of observations (and far from perfect ones, since they may not know that much about their children's sex lives). It's not that parents are less inherently "elite" than public health Ph.D.s. It's just that, on the question of what sorts of educational programs work in this area, only people who have indeed studied the subject in a systematic way are likely to have a trustworthy opinion on what will actually work.

That's probably right if we can all agree on what counts as what's best for children and then figure out how to measure that. But he's given a very explicit account of what's best for children, and it's not one that I think many people on the abstinence-only side would accept. He equates what's best for them (i.e. well-being) with preventing harmful behavior. Doesn't that assume that the only thing that can make their lives worse is their own and others' harmful behavior rather than simply not living up to high standards?

I wonder if this reveals a key difference in assumptions lying behind disputes about this issue. People who favor more comprehensive sex education are simply trying to prevent teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs. People who favor abstinence-only education are trying to promote a much broader kind of excellence than merely not running into those two very narrow problems compared to all the other ways people can fall short of the ideal sexually. (They have other differences too, including differences in what counts as the sexual ideal, but I think this issue is an important part of the puzzle.)

Now some people do agree with the Volokh view of self-interest, thinking of well-being just as lack of harm. But some people have a higher notion of excellence, and I wonder if that assumption leads many people to avoid the studies he wants them to pay attention to. If the studies assume something about what's best for kids, and it's not the most important thing about what's best for them in the minds of these parents, then it's no surprise that they don't care what the study shows. The study relies on assumptions they disagree with. It's thus irrelevant to them. Most of the people I'm talking about probably don't think explicitly in these terms, but I think it's part of what's going on. If I'm right, then they're not being quite as anti-intellectual as Volokh thinks.

6 Comments

Interesting comments Jeremy. Perhaps the difference could also include short term versus long term harm. The hook up culture that teens get involved in is something that will not stop at teenagers, but will continue well into their adult life. Training teens into a lifestyle that is negatively correlated with happiness....

And to add to that...training children in self-control and delayed gratification also has life long benefits...

I don't think anyone should think that studies about teen pregnancy and STDs are "irrelevant", even if they think there are other factors that matter in addition.

It's interesting you raise the point, though. Critics of the abstinence-only side often claim that the latter group are more concerned about promoting their conception of sexual "virtue" than actually keeping kids safe from harm (STDs, teen pregnancy, etc.). I didn't think that many abstinence-only advocates were willing to admit to this. But it would be interesting if they are.

Richard, I don't think it's simply promoting a conception of virtue over a conception of avoiding harm. It's that certain people have a sense that it's better in certain contexts to be more concerned about keeping kids away from sexual activity at all, because if they do they won't be in positions where they'll need condoms. No one needs to spend lots of time and money on condoms and condom education for a kid age 13 who isn't interested in having sex until marriage. The argument is that it's better to encourage kids to have a healthier attitude about sex, and that will also have the effect of keeping them safer from harm in enough ways, but the primary concern is earlier on.

The assumption of the other side is that kids are going to have sex even if you tell them not to. But the well-rounded approach of teaching kids the reasons why it's bad to have sex at age 13 is going to have the positive effect and most of the avoidance of the negative, while handing them condoms and telling them how to use them isn't going to have any of the positive but might have a little more avoidance of the negative. Which sounds better to you? The former certainly seems better to me. It isn't exactly accurate to what the alternatives are, but that's how a lot of people are thinking about it, and my point is that that's not necessarily anti-intellectual. It's just reflects a much more holistic view of the person. In a way it's Aristotle as opposed to Hobbes.

Well, it is anti-intellectual insofar as they're ignoring relevant empirical evidence about how abstinence programs dismally fail at preventing harm (or "avoidance of the negative", as you put it). But you might argue that their position is at least not entirely due to anti-intellectualism, insofar as some of the disagreement is philosophical rather than empirical.

But I must admit I don't really understand your response to my earlier comment. Rather than being a philosophical dispute over the relative importance of sexual virtue vs. avoiding harm, you write: "It's that certain people have a sense that it's better in certain contexts to be more concerned about keeping kids away from sexual activity at all, because if they do they won't be in positions where they'll need condoms."

Are you suggesting it is instead an empirical dispute about whether being "concerned about keepings kids away from sexual activity" will actually succeed in keeping kids away from sexual activity and thus needing condoms, etc.? Because if so, that's precisely where the empirical studies about the ineffectuality of abstinence programs comes in. "Having a sense" just ain't good enough.

(If you instead mean that they have a sense that trying to promote abstinence is a good idea, regardless of whether they succeed, simply because if they were - contrary to fact - to succeed then things would've be swell... well, I'm sure you can see the flaw in that.)

Actually, what I meant was neither of those. It's that the empirical studies that have actually been done have assumptions that they would deny. These assumptions include which people to pay attention to when you look for abstinence programs to compare with other programs. I think they also include assumptions about what the abstinence programs include (and that's an empirical matter that I think might involve ignorance, which isn't the same as anti-intellectualism).

But here's the main thing I had in mind. According to those who look at the studies and call for more comprehensive sex education, the point of sex education is to prevent harmful behavior on the part of these kids. According to those who aren't paying attention to the studies, that's not the point of these classes at all. The point (if they recognize any legitimate attempt by the government to engage in sexual instruction to begin with) is to promote better living and emphasize a positive lifestyle among those who are receptive rather than to focus on only those who would be having sex anyway. I think one key difference here may well be between those who think consequences are the most important thing to pay attention to (who of course better care about the empirical studies) and those who think responsibilities toward kids involve other things than just going by the effects of our actions.

If that's right, then it's not that they're ignoring information that by their lights is relevant and calling it irrelevant. It's that they've got an assumption about what is relevant, and this kind of empirical fact either isn't relevant or is not significant enough to overcome the philosophical issue that they think is more fundamental.

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