Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Outmoded Gender Norms and Teen Pregnancy

Check out this awesome post by Amanda Marcotte over at the RH blog. She really hits the nail on the head with her discussion of how dated attitudes toward sex lead to teen pregnancy. And how, as a result, abstinence-only education problems are doomed to lead to the same result.

"In lieu of teaching people how to use contraception safely and effectively, the programs spend most of the time on teaching "relationship skills," i.e. pushing old-fashioned ideas about gender roles. Which means teaching girls that good girls don't, and that means not just "don't have sex" but also "don't want sex," "don't take initiative," and "don't take control." Sure, maybe some of the girls in an abstinence only course will have sex at 17 or 18 instead of 15 or 16. But when they do, will they be more afraid that bringing birth control along will mean that they're not good girls? It's not more fun to be pregnant against your will at 17 than 15."

These attitudes, of course, are born out of an ideology that has lingered in the United States for quite some time, and continues to be pushed by fundamentalist Christians and their ilk. And this is an ideology that is inherently sexist. While we're all aware that sexism is a societal issue that needs to be dealt with, we often are incapable of recognizing all of its faces. But under the notion that good girls don't want, prepare for, or have sex is a very nasty, if well hidden, misogyny. Marcotte explains it beautifully:

"I have a pet theory as to why, out of all the various agencies and clinics dedicated to furthering sexual health and reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood gets the most abuse from the anti-choice set--it's all in the name. By putting the word and concept of planning in the very name of the organization, Planned Parenthood frames women's agency as a positive value, which social conservatives take as a direct assault on their belief that women are passive objects. The anti-choice steadfast refusal to accept female agency explains the stammering discomfort from anti-choicers when asked how much a woman should be punished for abortion. Legal punishment for abortion upholds the idea that women have agency like men. It's not that they're against punishing sluts, but the punishment is about returning the slutty, agency-possessing women to her rightful passive state, and the proper method of doing that is putting her body at the mercy of the pregnancy. Every other possibility is just upsetting."

She's exactly right. And it should not be surprising that this idea - the idea that good girls don't - comes from an era in which female agency was denied all the time. It stood right along the idea that there was something seriously wrong with a single mother, a married women in the workforce, or single woman in any position of authority and importance. All of these notions have, at their root, the idea that female agency is negative. And this idea, of course, was a necessary component of a belief-system that saw women as inherently weak and properly submissive.

It should be no surprise that those people who insist on pushing these outmoded ideas on the next generation are the same who are fighting to deprive women of any sort of control over their own bodies - be it the right to an abortion or the right to birth control. Once you view women as properly without agency, it is a short step to viewing them as without rights, without domain over themselves. If women can't do anything, then someone has to look out for them - the same way we look after children, who we do not consider to be full agents until they reach a certain level of maturity. Of course, it is a huge mistake to assume that women are without agency. And most people (at least 'round here) would not be willing to outright claim that female agency is negative. If that's really the case, though, we need to beware of the norms that we are teaching young girls and boys. If women really are to be treated equally, and our rights are to be preserved, there must be a change in the basic attitudes that people have toward women and sex. It's not that good girls don't have sex, it's that they don't have sex until they're ready. It's not that good girls don't want sex, or that they don't initiate it, it's that they don't do it unprotected.

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