Sex, Marriage, and Sexuality: May 2008 Archives

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.

I've heard it said that the Levitical requirement for priests to marry virgins is a sign of an assumption that virgins are more pure, which implies that sex is in itself impure. Here is the relevant passage:

And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the Lord who sanctifies him." (Leviticus 21:13-15, ESV)

There are several things wrong with this argument. One is that the priest is supposed to be pure after marriage too, and if sex is impure then how is he going to remain pure if he has sex with his wife? Another is that there's a reason give, one that doesn't have to do with the purity of the bride but with the offspring. I suppose it's possible to take that as assuming the offspring will be polluted because the mother is polluted, but I don't think that's what's going on here. One of the priestly requirements during Ezekiel's vision of a renewed temple in the last chapters of his prophecy sheds some light on this issue:

They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest. (Ezekiel 44:22, ESV)

If the issue were some animus against people who had had sex, then why would a widow of a priest be ok? Presumably if pollution from sex itself transferred pollution to any offspring, then wouldn't the widow of a priest be just as problematic as the widow of anyone else? This suggests some other reason why priests needed to marry virgins in Leviticus, a reason that must be consistent with marrying widows of priests in Ezekiel. It's unlikely that there's different reasoning involved in the two cases, even if you don't accept divine inspiration behind the two passages.

A much more likely explanation is that the issue with offspring is that virgins raise no problem for offspring having been fathered by someone else prior to the marriage. If a priest marries a virgin, any child she gives birth to will be of the priestly line. If he marries someone who is not a virgin, there is always the possibility that any offspring might have been fathered by someone who is not a priest. At least that's true if her previous sexual activity was with someone who was not a priest. If she was married to a priest, her offspring would still be assumed to be of priestly descent. So this interpretation makes sense of the second allowable condition in Ezekiel, in keeping with the spirit of the Leviticus passage.

Those who begin with the assumption that the Bible is anti-sex like to come up with these implausible claims, and someone who doesn't think carefully about the biblical passages in context can easily come away with the conclusion that these charges have some foundation. Biblical passages certainly do assume a sexual morality that differs from popular views today, but it doesn't follow that the assumptions behind that sexual ethic are anti-sex. Even ignoring the celebration of sex in the Song of Songs and Paul's insistence in I Corinthians 7 that sex should be a normal and regular part of marriage, you still can't easily get the conclusion that sex itself is impure unless you ignore much of the ancient context and often even the literary context of biblical statements.

Contact

    The Parablemen are: , , and .

    Twitter: @TheParableMan

Archives

Archives

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently