In the early days of life on earth, when all life on the planet consisted of one-celled organisms that reproduced asexually by splitting into two new (and identical) organisms, sex began as a revolutionary new way to ensure the survival of species by combining the genetic information of two organisms to produce a third, with a new, unique set of genetic information. This allowed for the development of new features that could aid in survival, and thereby accelerated the process of natural selection and promoted biodiversity. As organisms became more complex, new innovations developed that further aided the process of sexual reproduction: gender, specialized anatomy, egg-laying, intercourse and finally, pregnancy and live birth. In the process, sexual reproduction also promoted more complex forms of social behavior in animals such as attraction, bonding, nurturing and family, but also companionship, affection, and even play.
For us humans and our closest primate relatives, the chimps and bonobos, sex isn’t just a way to make babies: our having evolved to find sex pleasurable has been an important evolutionary and survival tool by also promoting relationships that aren’t primarily about reproduction. Sex is used by us and by our primate cousins to express love and affection, to offer comfort in distress and to appease aggression, and also as play and recreation. There is a strong hypothesis in Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s book Sex At Dawn that while the first human hunter-gatherers certainly pair-bonded, they also had overlapping sexual relationships, with women having multiple partners among other men in the group, these multiple partners all claiming paternity in common for children born to the women with whom they had relations, believing that their semen accumulated in the woman and contributed to the growth of the child. These beliefs and practices are still seen in some human communities today. The hypothesis is more compelling when one considers two interesting fun-facts about human sexuality: one, that we, as well as the chimps and bonobos, are less fertile, statistically speaking, than other great primates such as gorillas, orangutans and gibbons (it takes us hundreds of acts of intercourse to ensure a viable pregnancy, as opposed to several for our less close relatives); and two, humans have, in proportion to our size, the largest penises in the animal kingdom, suggesting a further evolutionary advantage through genetic competition.
When humans developed agriculture and animal husbandry, we left our lean, wandering, foraging ways and settled down into stable communities. Our experience tending and domesticating animals also gave us further insight into the mechanics of sexual reproduction: we realized that only one male animal was necessary to impregnate a female. Society changed radically as a result. Men took a new, dominant role in human societies, children were recognized as the progeny of the father rather than the mother, and the notions of extended patriarchal families, private ownership, social hierarchy, and the legitimacy of offspring were formed. It became important to ensure that a family’s accumulations of wealth in agricultural land, produce, animals and slaves were not dissipated among illegitimate offspring, and therefore social customs developed to ensure that a woman only had sex with her husband and only bore his children, that sex for the begetting of legitimate children—as many as possible. in a time of high infant mortality and short life-spans—was prioritized over sex for pleasure. It was out of this social environment that we find the origins of religious sexual morality.
In many of the religious traditions that formed around this time and especially the Abrahamic traditions that led to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the only allowable purpose for sexuality became procreation within marriage, a codification of agrarian tribal customs. Relationships and acts which did not lead to procreation and legitimate children (such as pre-marital or extra-marital sex, homosexuality, oral or anal sex, masturbation, etc.) were classified as sins and punished. Laws against such conduct persisted in Western societies long after the social conditions which initially engendered them ceased to exist, punished by penalties of varying severity.
When we pass laws or in some other way discourage activities such as fornication (sex outside of marriage) or sodomy (defined here as any non-procreative sexual act or relationship), or single out persons for different treatment based on their sexual history or sexual orientation, we are acting on attitudes shaped by religious thinking. These prohibitions on private activity between consenting adults are not meant to prevent harm or to keep peace or good order, but to enforce religious rules of conduct, which brings them into conflict with secular, pluralistic ideas of personal responsibility, choice, and autonomy.
There are, in fact, aspects of sexual life which it is in society’s interests to curb or prevent, and these are for the most part not dealt with by religious morality: rape (which the Bible only deals with as a “poaching” of someone else’s property and not as an act of violence meant to terrorize and degrade the victim), sexual abuse of children by adults, and sexual exploitation of adults or children through force or coercion. These are different from the “sins” of adultery, fornication or sodomy in that they are all acts in which one of the parties has not and cannot give full, informed consent.
There’s a very good reason that Iron Age sexual morality does not deal with issues of consent and modern sexual ethics in practice does: at the time when prohibitions against adultery, fornication and sodomy were fixed, there were no concepts of individual rights. Men owned slaves, and women were treated, as a matter of course, as property. It took centuries of philosophical thinking to advance to the point, during the European Enlightenment, of suggesting that all human beings were free, equal, and autonomous, and that society existed to protect those freedoms. It was that line of thinking which led to the US Constitution and its derivation of authority from the consent of the governed, and to the concept of church-state separation. And it is on the constitutional principle of church-state separation, as well as reason, that atheists oppose attempts by religious authorities to enforce a specific code of conduct on individuals with regard to sexual or reproductive morality, while also offering a framework for a secular morality and ethics regarding sexual and reproductive life.
This section deals with three issues that are hotly contested between advocates of religious values and advocates of secular values: reproductive choice, the civil rights of LGBT persons, and sexuality education.
Atheism and reproductive choice
Most atheists agree with feminists and professionals in women’s health that the decision whether, when, and how often to bear children rests with the woman who bears them, and that to that end, the full range of sexual and reproductive health services—including accurate and complete information, medically sound advice, effective contraception and medically safe abortion—should be legal, available, and accessible to all women, without interference from church or state, and with full regard to the dignity of the patient.
Pregnancy is a physical condition that can profoundly affect a woman’s health, and frequent and numerous pregnancies can shorten a woman’s life. Parenthood is an awesome personal and social responsibility that requires full, informed and uncoerced consent by those involved.
This important prerogative is under sustained attack from religious leaders, most notably the Catholic Church but also many evangelical Protestant leaders and organizations. Arguing that procreation within marriage is the only legitimate purpose for human sexuality, that attempting to avoid conception is a sin, and that the conceptus is a person with a “right to life”, these believers exert considerable effort to impose their morality on the public in many ways:
- Introducing legislation to ban or to prevent approval of certain procedures and drugs, to discourage attempts to obtain health services with mandated waiting periods for “counseling” purposes or invasive medical procedures (regardless of medical necessity), to redefine “rape” in order to close exceptions for unwanted pregnancies due to rape or incest, or to hamper the functioning of clinics that provide abortion services with onerous and difficult bureaucratic regulations
- Statements that mislead the public about the actions and effectiveness of contraceptive methods and the effects of contraception and abortion: for instance by suggesting that condoms do not block sexually-transmitted infections, that hormonal birth control works by terminating pregnancy rather than by preventing ovulation, or that women who obtain abortions are under risk for diseases such as breast cancer
- Encouragement of ancillary health-care personnel such as pharmacists and nurses to interpose their beliefs into the physician-patient relationship and to compromise the ethics of their professions by refusing to fill prescriptions or to assist with certain procedures
- Attempts to exert control over the personal lives of employees by citing “infringements of religious liberty” as pretext for refusing to provide sexual and reproductive health-care as part of health insurance plans, including care not funded by employer contributions
- “Direct action” tactics such as harassment of women seeking reproductive health services, harassment of providers of these services, and threats and acts of violence to providers.
It is important to state from the outset that the arguments used against a woman’s right to order and control her own sexual and reproductive life are religious in nature: uppermost among these is the concept of the conceptus as a person with an equal “right to life”, which derives from the doctrine of ensoulment, the idea that a soul enters or is formed within the conceptus at some time during gestation. No one can detect a soul or determine whether or when ensoulment occurs: the notion of soul has no meaning in a medical or scientific context.
Nor does personhood have any meaning in scientific or medical discussions of abortion: personhood is not an observable physical condition or state, but a social valuation conferred on individuals. Just as we cannot detect a soul or determine when the conceptus acquires one, we also cannot detect personhood or decide when a fetus becomes a person. After a certain stage of gestation, the conceptus, naturally enough, begins to take on the semblance of a human being, but this does not, contrary to the suggestions of so much anti-abortion-rights propaganda, make any case for personhood, any more than we can call an apple an apple pie.
In practical terms, arguments for the humanity or personhood of the conceptus amount to a valuing of the putative rights of an immature organism over the accepted, accustomed, and legally guaranteed rights of the woman carrying it. If we clear the arguments against contraception and abortion of their religious baggage and their appeals to emotion, we are left with some clear and not-very-palatable messages about women and their sexual and reproductive lives:
- that women are defined by their ability to breed
- that women who do not wish to breed should not have sex
- that women who wish to have sex for other purposes than breeding must, nevertheless, be prepared to breed
- that women who do not wish to breed or have sex, but are forced or coerced into doing so against their will, bear the brunt of the responsibility for both the act and its consequences
- that the right of the conceptus to be carried to term trump the rights—to physical integrity, personal autonomy, safety and health—of the woman carrying it
- and that in important decisions about herself and her own life, a woman must consider the attitudes and priorities of church, state, family, and society before she considers her own.
This, in a nutshell, is a summary of the Iron Age patriarchal customs regarding sexuality and reproduction discussed at the head of this section—customs intended primarily to regulate and preserve a form of social organization that has largely ceased to exist in the developed West, but given authority by being considered divinely ordained, and tailored to appeal to modern sensibilities by appealing to the notion of universal rights. In spite of its broad appeals to “the sanctity of life”, few voices in the “pro-life” movement carry through their ideals to the extent of opposing, for instance, the waging of war, capital punishment or the use of animals for food, nor do they even consistently support the rights of children after they are born to economic security, education, or health care. For the majority of the anti-reproductive-rights movement, “life” is something very abstract, symbolic, and removed from life as we normally experience it.
A secular, pluralistic society defends the right to order and control one’s sexual and reproductive life, but it does not place obligations on those who oppose contraception and abortion on moral or religious grounds to use such methods and procedures. A person who, voluntarily and for reasons of personal conscience, abstains from non-marital and/or non-procreative sexual activity, who likewise avoids contraception and abortion, is still ordering and controlling her own life, and her right to do so is guaranteed by the free-exercise clause, as is her right to defend and advocate her choices in public. But it is not within her rights to impose such standards on another person, nor does she have a right to expect her own standards of sexual morality to be automatically validated by society, still less by the state.
Atheism and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights
Most atheists and secularists support equal rights for all Americans, including the equal right to employment, housing, public services and accommodations, and legal marriage, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We can base our support on principles of law found in the US Constitution: the establishment clause which separates religion and state, and which demands that civil laws have a secular purpose and justification, and the equal protection clause, which guarantees equal treatment under the law to all citizens of the United States.
The medical and psychiatric professions do not consider romantic or sexual attraction to one’s own gender or to both genders, or a personal identification with a gender other than one’s anatomical sex, to be a disease or disorder. There is no evidence to support the idea that LGBTs are more inclined to anti-social behavior than straights. Neither is homosexual behavior “unnatural” by any meaningful definition: zoology furnishes numerous instances, observed in the wild and in captivity, of animals of the same gender, from insects to birds to primates, engaging in sexual activity, pair-bonding, and caring for young. Homosexual behavior, pursued in private between consenting adults, does not disrupt the peace and good order of society. No one is trying to force their lifestyle down anyone’s throat, nor is there any “gay agenda” in politics besides equal rights and acceptance by the community.
In short, there is no compelling secular reason to single out LGBT persons for different treatment, any more than women, racial or religious minorities. As with attempts to legislate sexual behavior in general, when laws are passed that single out LGBT persons for different treatment or seek to stigmatize them, such actions are based on religious attitudes and religious law, and as such are inappropriate as public policy in a government that maintains neutrality regarding religious belief.
Same-sex marriage: In July 2015, the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty US states and most US territories in a 5-4 decision in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, after a roughly decade-long trend of increasing public support for marriage equality and legalization of same-sex marriage in thirty-six states. This is a human-rights victory of which all Americans can justly be proud. Nevertheless, marriage equality continues to be fought against by the religious right: in the media, in legislative bodies and the courts, in pulpits, and in communities. Officials in various communities have violated their obligations to uphold the law by refusing to honor requests for marriage licenses by same-sex couples, and various forms of “religious freedom” legislation have been introduced in various states that are essentially attacks on the rights of LGBT persons not only to marry, but to access goods and services, and even to use public accommodations such as rest-room facilities.
The definition of marriage: The central argument against legal marriage equality is that marriage is an institution with a single, unchanging definition ordained by a god (the union of one man and one woman, for the purposes of procreation and family) and that civil laws are under obligation to hold this definition as the standard.
In fact, there is no single definition of marriage, and there never has been. The social definition of marriage, throughout history, has included monogamous marriages and polygamous ones, arranged marriages and love matches, marriages which consolidate wealth and social position and marriages primarily for companionship, marriages with many children and voluntarily childless ones. In the text which many Christians hold as the standard for morality, men take multiple wives and concubines, marry virgin women captured in war, assign male and female slaves to each other, and settle the guilt for raping a virgin by marrying the victim and paying a cash penalty to the victim’s family.
Moreover, the Catholic church excludes divorced-and-remarried couples from their definition of marriage, many Orthodox Jewish congregations exclude couples of Jews and non-Jews from theirs, and some Protestant fundamentalist churches exclude interracial couples from theirs. Meanwhile, Americans live every day with two mutually exclusive definitions of marriage without experiencing any sense of contradiction: religious marriage, a ceremony which recognizes the couple as united according to the tenets of their particular faith community, and civil marriage, an agreement between two individuals which confers on them the privileges and advantages of legal spousehood (which mainly center on legal and financial matters: disposition of property and assets, joint filing of taxes, benefits and entitlements, legal kinship, end-of-life issues, etc.). One is defined in spiritual or theological terms and the other, in legal, administrative, and financial terms. While marriages have customarily been performed in a religious setting by an ordained member of the clergy, who first performs the religious ceremony and then signs the marriage license in his civil capacity as a legal officiant, a religious celebrant is not necessary for a marriage to be legally binding: a legal officiant and a marriage license is.
A legally-binding marriage is an institution separate from and parallel with religious marriage, and is secular in definition and purpose. The state cannot place on civil marriage the same restrictions and requirements as religious institutions do on religious marriage without violating the establishment clause.
Do rights for LGBTs threaten the rights of Christians? We often hear the objection that equal rights for LGBTs, including the right to marry, threatens the religious freedom of Christians in some way. This is a misunderstanding of what the free-exercise clause means, as it has been defined through legal precedent. When we talk about the “free exercise of religion”, we are talking about the right of Americans to determine their beliefs for themselves, to engage in religious practices, to associate with others according to shared beliefs, to order one’s life according to the dictates of one’s conscience, and to publicly advocate for one’s beliefs. These are individual rights, involving the individual’s own ability to determine his own life. The free exercise of religion does not include the right to determine the standards of conduct for an entire community, nor the right to interfere with the rights of others.
A business owner who deals in wedding-related goods and services may not choose to serve straight couples over same-sex couples, and cite a closely held religious conviction as a defense. A for-profit business is a secular entity, not a church or ministry, and the sale of goods and services to the public is not a religious practice, but an economic activity, and as such a private business has an obligation under the law to provide fair and equal treatment to all groups regardless of the owner’s personal beliefs.
For public officials, the standards are even higher. A public official has the responsibility to serve the public fairly and equally and to uphold the laws of the land, including the establishment and equal-protection clauses of the US Constitution. This means that officials, from public school teachers to county clerks, may not allow the beliefs they hold as private citizens to interfere with their duties as holders of office and positions of public trust. Just as a teacher may not espouse his private religious beliefs to students in his capacity as a teacher, a county clerk or other official may not refuse to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples and cite religious convictions as an excuse. To do so would be to imply that such private beliefs are also public policy.
The effects of discrimination against LGBTs, whether in commercial activities or in government, are twofold: business owners and officials who discriminate against LGBTs are deliberately placing practical obstacles in the way of persons exercising rights protected under law, while disingenuously claiming that the sincerity of their religious convictions relieves them of the obligation to serve the public fairly and equally. They are also using their position to press their views on a matter that does not concern them, to persons who find those views neither relevant nor welcome. Decorating wedding cakes does not give the baker an interest in his or her customers’ personal lives, nor does issuing marriage licenses give the official a say in the couple’s private affairs. It is not the couple’s job to accommodate the private beliefs or scruples of the business owner or the official. It is the business owner or the official who must consider whether their beliefs allow them to fulfill their obligation to the public to provide fair and equal treatment for all, and if not, act accordingly, that is, change their occupation, or resign their office.
Only opposite-sex couples can bear children… so what? Religious conservatives frequently object to LGBT rights (and particularly the right to marry) by saying that only opposite-sex couples can have children. This implies that marriage is about procreation and only about procreation. The law makes no distinction between fertile couples and couples who are infertile due to physical problems or age, or couples who choose not to have children, or who adopt rather than bear children, or couples who choose not to have sex. Fertility is not a precondition for marriage, nor are childless couples subject to social or legal consequences. A variation of this argument is that same-sex marriage will somehow harm children, although the causality of this is never explained. Children living in homes with LGBT parents (either from a previous relationship or through adoption) are not more likely to “turn gay” or otherwise have problematic development than children in more conventional homes. The decisive factors in successful child-rearing center not around whether the parents are an opposite-sex couple, whether they are married, or whether they are the biological parents, but rather the economic security of the home, the stability of the relationships within the home, and the commitment of the parents to the well-being of their children.
If we allow LGBTs to marry, what else must we allow? It is also objected that if we allow same-sex couples to marry, then marriages between three or more people, between adults and children, between close family members, or even people and animals, would follow. This is a “slippery-slope argument,” implying that things would rapidly get out of hand if we allowed same-sex couples to marry.
The argument assumes from the beginning that all relationships and behaviors generally considered taboo according to religious standards of morality share the same continuum, that non-monogamous sexual relationships and homosexuality are morally and ethically comparable to incest, sexual acts with children, and sexual acts with animals. In fact, these last three are different from the other forms of sexual activity precisely because they are either by their nature or in practice non-consensual. Most cases of incest are cases of non-consensual sexual assault, perpetrated by an older family member on a younger one, while sexual acts with children or animals, neither of which are capable of giving full, informed consent, are inherently harmful.
It is worth mentioning in this context that while most US states have a minimum age of 18 for legal marriage, every state also has statutory exceptions allowing minors younger than 18 to be married with parental or judicial consent, and 25 states have no “age floor,” that is, no minimum age for marriage if the statutory conditions are considered to have been met by a judge. This means that marriages between adults (usually men 18 and over) and children (usually girls from 14 to 17) are in fact already legal and tolerated in the US.
Transgender issues: More recently, as acceptance of marriage equality gradually takes hold and people realize that no catastrophic outcomes have taken place because people of the same gender have been able to marry, religious conservatives have shifted their offensive towards transgender people. In many jurisdictions, conservatives have mobilized opposition towards laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of gender identity, and in some jurisdictions have proposed or passed laws requiring transgender persons to only use sex-segregated restroom facilities that correspond to a person’s anatomical gender, as opposed to the gender with which the person identifies. Proponents of such rules have defended their positions largely by evoking fears of sexual predators using public restrooms to molest women and children, and identifying trans people with those sexual predators.
No evidence is available to justify such fears. Quoting human-rights commissioners, advocates for victims of sexual violence, and law-enforcement spokespeople, Media Matters reported in 2014 that in twelve states that have enacted legislation prohibiting discrimination against trans people in public accommodations, there have been no verified incidents of sexual assaults occurring as a result of such policies. In 2016, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women increased the number of jurisdictions with anti-discrimination policies to 18 states and over 200 municipalities, and likewise reported no increase of sexual violence or other public safety concerns due to such policies. Nor is it “only a matter of time” before such incidents inevitably happen: some of these jurisdictions have had such measures in place for more than twenty years—ample time for such a problem to come to public attention. On the other hand, transgender persons are at high risk for being victims of violence for being transgender. A study by the Williams Institute reported that up to seventy percent of trans people have been asked to leave, experienced harassment, or have been assaulted when trying to use the bathroom.
It remains to be mentioned that the overwhelming majority of people who commit sexual assault are heterosexual cisgender men, and in eight out of ten cases of sexual assault, the perpetrator is someone whom the victim knew personally.
The idea that there is some imminent danger of sexual violence if trans people were not prevented from using the public restroom that corresponds to their gender identity is no different from the idea that gay men are pedophiles: it is an unsupported assertion used to deny civil rights to a certain class of people, which is as succinct a definition of bigotry as can be found.
Conclusion: The LGBT rights movement has been one of the most remarkable success stories in the history of civil rights in the US and the developed West. In roughly half a century, LGBTs have gone from an isolated, secretive and particularly vulnerable group to one with increasing popular support from mainstream Americans and a distinctive voice in American culture and politics, and their history holds many lessons from which we can all learn in effecting change and humanizing the climate for minority groups in America.
LGBT rights are of immediate concern to atheists and secularists because the oppression of LGBTs is a very particular example of the harm religious thinking creates in the lives of people. The scientific consensus does not support the idea that LGBTs are damaged, diseased, or abnormal. Rational moral thinking does not support the assertion that non-heterosexual relationships or people with unconventional sexual orientations or gender identities are more harmful or evil than heterosexual ones. Today it is religious thinking, and only religious thinking, that supports the ideas that non-heterosexuality is pathological or evil, and it is the elevation of religious thinking to a position above critical evaluation that gives hatred, bigotry, and violence the appearance of morality.
Atheism and sexuality education
Atheists join with a majority of Americans in supporting an approach to sexuality education which emphasizes delaying sexual activity until young people become materially and developmentally able to handle the possible consequences of such activity, while also providing information about contraception, methods of avoiding sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), and skills in handling peer, media and social pressures to become sexually active (referred to as comprehensive sexuality education).
In spite of this support for comprehensive education, the federal government has poured over $1.5 billion, since 1996, into programs designed not to equip young people with the skills needed to effectively order and control their own sexual lives, but to promote abstinence only until marriage as the only admissible approach to avoid unintended pregnancy and STIs, while also withholding information about contraception and safer sex. Many of the curricula thus funded come from organizations affiliated with religious denominations (for example, the pioneer abstinence-only program True Love Waits comes from a private company affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) and equate education that attempts to address the problems of teen pregnancy and STI transmission with indoctrination in religious sexual morality.
Some of these curricula are more explicitly religious, others less so, but they all uphold the eight-point definition of abstinence education laid down by the 1996 Social Security Act, Title V, sec. 510. These points include the following: that abstinence education “(t)eaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children” (point 1), “that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” (point 4), and “that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects” (point 5). Initially, the definition of “sexual activity” in this context meant primarily vaginal intercourse, but in 2006, a federal grant announcement for programs funded through the Adolescent Family Life Act and Community-Based Abstinence Education broadened its definition (without identifying specific behaviors) to include (emphasis added) “any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse”, a wide definition that can include activities from masturbation or viewing pornography to kissing and holding hands.
In their fact sheet “In Their Own Words: What Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Say” the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) notes six common themes in the abstinence-only curricula funded by federal dollars before fiscal year 2010, along with quotes selected from student and teacher materials. These themes include:
- Discouragement of condom use: abstinence-only curricula are united in their condemnation of the use of condoms and other barriers, which, when used correctly and consistently, have been shown as highly effective in reducing risk of unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission
- Medically inaccurate information and distorted facts: abstinence-only curricula downplay the effectiveness of condoms and other barriers, but also suggest that HIV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and that cervical cancer “is positively correlated with promiscuous behavior”. (The use here of the word promiscuous is both morally judgmental and vague. Unprotected sex with multiple partners increases the risk of exposure to HPV [human papilloma virus], which can cause cervical cancer as well as other ailments.) The use of such language is intended not to inform but to frighten students
- The promotion of gender stereotypes as fact: abstinence-only curricula frequently rely on stereotypical notions such as the idea that boys are more interested in sex and are aroused more quickly than girls, that males sexual drives are difficult to control, that it is the girl’s role to “put the brakes on” an encounter that may develop into sexual activity, and that girls have the responsibility to dress modestly so that boys may not be aroused
- The use of fear and shame as motivators: abstinence-only curricula consistently suggests to students that sexual experimentation outside of marriage leads to dire consequences such as poor academic performance, loss of self-esteem, depression, loss of reputation and respect from peers
- The promotion of one lifestyle and the shaming of non-traditional families: because abstinence-only curricula focuses on marriage and procreation as the only acceptable context for sexual activity, it ostracizes and alienates the growing number of students who come from single-parent homes, who are adopted, or who come from families where both parents are of the same gender. Additionally, because same-sex marriage is illegal in most states, it also fails to address the needs of those students who are questioning their sexuality or who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, suggesting instead that the only viable option for these students’ lives is to remain celibate for life
- Biased language about abortion: abstinence-only curricula bring the politically-charged rhetoric of abortion into the educational realm by questioning the motivations of young people who obtain abortions or linking abortion with diseases, psychological and behavioral problems
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been extensively studied and evaluated at the federal and state levels and found ineffective in achieving their stated goals: they do not reduce teen pregnancy, STI transmission, or delay adolescent sexual activity; moreover, it has also been found that young people who have gone through an abstinence-only curriculum, when they do become sexually active, are more likely to not use contraception or to use it incorrectly or inconsistently, and less likely to seek treatment for STIs. Leading professional organizations in the field of medicine and public health oppose abstinence-only, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association, and the American Psychological Association. In a policy statement on abstinence-only education, the APHA made this observation which is worth quoting here: “While good patient care is built upon notions of informed consent and free choice, [abstinence-only] programs are inherently coercive by withholding information needed to make informed choices….” These groups and many others also support comprehensive sexuality education, also referred to as “abstinence-plus” education.
Although conservative rhetoric frequently charges that comprehensive education actively encourages teens to become sexually active, it actually does stress the value of abstinence until one is adequately prepared emotionally, mentally, and materially for sexual activity. But it also recognizes that the needs of adolescents (and the responsibilities of parents and educators) do not stop at their sexual initiation, and also teaches medically-accurate and complete information about methods of contraception, skills at negotiating peer and social pressures, communication with family about sexuality-related issues, and the importance of understanding how drugs and alcohol affect decision-making. It works in a wide range of areas to equip young people with the tools needed to make effective and healthy choices regardless of their personal decisions regarding sexual activity. It is evidence-based, supported by scientific research, and there is strong evidence that it is more effective at reducing unintended pregnancy, STI transmission, and delaying sexual initiation than abstinence-only.
The support among conservative politicians and religious leaders for abstinence-only is predicated not on scientific and medical accuracy but on ideological consistency with the values they preach. What matters to them in the end is not the health and well-being of young people but the social endorsement of their particular religious attitudes that federal funding of such programs implies. Abstinence-only is a message not about responsibility and healthy behavior but a promotion, in public-school classrooms, of sexual purity, chastity, and virginity, categories that have no meaning outside a religious context. Religious leaders are free to preach such concepts from the pulpit, religious schools are free to champion such concepts in their classes, and individuals are free to adopt a lifestyle that accords with their conscience. In public schools, students need scientifically and medically sound means to learn to manage their sexual lives and protect their own health and well-being. Those means are simply not to be found in abstinence-only education.
As we said at the top of the page, sex is for making babies, sex is for showing love, and sex is for having fun. Our gift of sexuality is the result of billions of years of evolution, and our ability not only to breed, but also to love and to play through our sexuality, are a large part of what makes us human.
Religious morality short-changes the gift of sexuality by denying people the free, un-coerced and generous enjoyment of it, by not admitting important concepts such as individual agency and autonomy, personal fulfillment, ethical reciprocity and informed consent.
Most religions make sexuality a means to control and manipulate their adherents by creating an atmosphere of guilt, shame, ignorance and fear around the normal experience of natural physical and emotional drives, which they then exploit, fostering emotional dependence on religion and on the approval of religious authorities. Fashioning its own restrictive and normative models for sexual expression, religious sexual morality condemns other models as being harmful, reckless, and irresponsible. It doesn’t cite actual evidence to support these assertions, but relies on its own authority to determine what is right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, about sexual and reproductive issues. And as we have seen above, religious authority demands (and too often gets) a privileged position in discussions on public policy concerning sexuality and reproduction, the results too often being that they wield an unwarranted power to control the actions of those who do not share their assumptions.
A secular morality concerning sexuality and reproduction simply takes secular ethics and values into our sexual lives: taking responsibility for our actions, anticipating consequences and minimizing risks, empathizing with others, and making informed choices in consensual relationships. It recognizes sexuality as a positive aspect of our lives and identities. It tolerates differences. And because it bases itself on verifiable evidence, not religious faith or dogma, it can play an important role in public-policy discussions without forcing people to act against their consciences.