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August 20, 2014

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Sex is not our problem

There is often a simplistic, black-or-white, conservative versus progressive discussion around the dissolution of the traditional family and high single-parent birthrates in America and what these trends may portend for us as a country.

I don’t see the argument as completely binary or the problem as intractable. But I do believe that we must focus more on complex areas of causation. We can’t look longingly at the halcyon ideals of yore, where marriage held more primacy and premarital sex was considered more depraved.

Those days are gone. But there are ways for us to adjust to a new reality rather than simply bemoan it.

First, the parameters of the problems: According to the Guttmacher Institute, “about half (51 percent) of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended” and “the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate is significantly higher than the rate in many other developed countries.” Among teenagers in high-income countries, those in the United States have the highest rates of pregnancy and some sexually transmitted infections, according to a report released last year by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

This, even though young Americans are not necessarily the most sexually active youth of developed countries, according to a previous Guttmacher report. That report pointed out two important issues. First, “less contraceptive use and less use of hormonal methods are the primary reasons U.S. teenagers have the highest rates of pregnancy, childbearing and abortion.” Second, “more sexual partners, a higher prevalence of infection and, probably, less condom use contribute to higher teenage sexually transmitted disease rates in the United States.”

Now there are things that I assume most Americans still agree on. Most think young people should delay sexual activity until they are mentally and emotionally capable of reasonably consenting and comprehending the consequences. Most want fewer children born to parents unwilling to provide for those children, or incapable of doing so, emotionally or financially. Most want fewer unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. And most want fewer women to have to face the often wrenching decisions about what to do about such pregnancies.

There are some rather simple ways to move in this direction if we can agree to be less puritanical and more practical. We could, for example, begin teaching young people to value themselves in a way that contextualizes the initiation of sexual activity as a thing fully within their control and not so easily manipulated by peer and societal pressures. Abstinence can be honorable, but it won’t be for everyone. Everyone can be affirmed, though, in the fact that they must love themselves enough emotionally to be in control of whom they allow to love them physically, and when.

Furthermore, we must provide thorough and unimpeded sex education — in the home and at school — about how to engage in sex safely and responsibly. And, we must provide a full range of reproductive services — prophylactic and contraceptive as well as post-pregnancy. Here we are moving in the wrong direction. A Guttmacher report released last week found that more abortion restrictions were enacted in the past three years than in the previous decade.

Conservatives often stress marriage as a panacea for many of these problems, and indeed, marriage has its benefits. The fewer partners one engages sexually, the lower the risk of encountering disease. And, in terms of having a child, two adults in a home can often do twice as much as one. But, we must respect all family structures and encourage all parents to be active and engaged in child rearing regardless of living arrangements.

Furthermore, much of the discussion about single-parent families and births outside of marriage is focused too heavily on young women and is simply a form of sex shaming that blames them for not being proper guardians of chastity. The shaming itself is a shame, and often inflames the pathology of patriarchy in our culture.

We teach boys, overtly and implicitly, that sexual potency is a marker of masculinity and that empathy and emotional depth are purviews of a lesser sex. The ways we force boys to adhere to a perilously narrow reading of masculinity become a form of “oppression all dressed up as awesomeness,” as Lisa Wade, an Occidental College sociology professor, put it last month in Salon.

Boys are not taught to value themselves as fully human, but only as conquerors of everything — women, the workplace, the world. And men who are incapable of valuing their own humanity are incapable of fully valuing the humanity of a love interest.

We can address our societal problems, but to do so we must first address our societal issues.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.

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