Editor’s Note: This article resulted from an accumulation of stories in the newspaper that demonstrate how strangely conflicted we Americans are about our sexuality. I suppose it’s no coincidence that the United States is the most-religious nation in the industrialized world. I couldn’t resist mentioning Ted Haggart ... for people who write op-ed pieces, fundamentalist preachers and evangelical Christians are the gifts that keep on giving.
Let’s try a little thought experiment. Imagine that Pfizer has invented a pill with absolutely no side effects that’s 100% effective against all the unpleasant side effects of sex ― chlamydia, herpes, AIDS, syphilis and any other STD you can think of, as well as unwanted pregnancies.
Now, ask yourself a question: Would Americans call it a miracle drug, or would we launch a crusade to make it illegal? More to the point, would such a pill make Americans any less conflicted about sex?
From TV, magazines and the Internet to movies, music videos and Howard Stern, we’re all hip-deep in sexually explicit subject matter. Yet, more than any other nation in the developed world, America has a love-hate relationship with its sexuality. It may drive our species’ life force, but for many Americans, particularly on the right, the “pro-life” position has become increasingly “anti-sex.”
Pro-lifers’ professed reverence for the sanctity of life would be more admirable if it weren’t so often linked with a rabid hostility toward birth control. Contraception should be a win-win proposition for both pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates, but Catholics and many evangelicals see sex as becoming sinful once the risks of unwanted consequences are removed. According to Mel Gibson, the decision to have children “doesn’t belong to us.” Randall Terry, of Operation Rescue, calls birth control “anti-child” and says he “cannot be too hard on Christians who use it.”
You’d think people looking to lower the abortion rate would welcome emergency contraception, but that benefit seems to be outweighed by the desire to punish the sexually active. Pro-lifers initially called the Plan B morning-after pill an abortifacient, but that position is untenable, because the drug doesn’t work on women who are already pregnant. Their argument has since morphed into one of cause-and-effect: Emergency contraception retroactively promotes promiscuity. This contention, which is contradicted by the available research, is similar to the notion that sex education (other than abstinence-only programs) encourages sexual activity.
Despite more than 20 years of safe use in Europe, the FDA dragged its feet on approving Plan B, then hampered its use by requiring a prescription. Currently, users must be 18 to buy it over-the-counter, despite the fact that 45 nations — from Canada to Uruguay — have no age restrictions, and 70% of Americans have sex before they’re 18.
Meanwhile, Catholic hospitals oppose dispensing Plan B to rape victims in emergency rooms. Evidently, women who’ve been assaulted need to be punished a second time by being forced to carry their rapist’s child, rather than receiving birth control after the fact.
Perhaps the most-bizarre objection to emergency contraception comes from the right-wing group, Concerned Women for American (CWA), which claims rapists could use the drug to cover up their crimes. Conservative sexual phobias elicit the strangest sorts of logic.
Such attitudes on birth control come straight from the top. President Bush has steadfastly declined to answer the simple question, “Do you support the right to use contraception?” Citing Mr. Bush’s support for “a culture of life,” his press secretary was more emphatic: “I’m just not going to dignify that with a response.”
In November, Mr. Bush appointed Eric Keroak to head family-planning programs at the Dept. of Health and Human Services. An outspoken critic of birth control, Dr. Keroack is the medical director of A Woman’s Concern, a Christian group that opposes abortion, sex education and contraception. To scare women away from abortions, the group’s counseling clinics use the long-discredited old wives’ tale that abortions cause breast cancer, and the clinics refuse to dispense contraceptives, even to married women.
It’s a cliché in slasher movies that sexually active teenagers end up hacked to pieces by demented psychopaths. This must seem an apt metaphor for groups such as Focus on the Family and CWA, which support policies that are both anti-sex and anti-life. Obsessed with promoting virginity, they’ve opposed making the vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV) mandatory for children, as are measles and polio shots. HPV causes cervical cancers that kill 4,000 women a year, but believing the vaccine gives teenagers a green light to have sex, many “family-friendly” groups support gambling with children’s lives, rather than gambling with their chastity.
The pathetic story of defrocked evangelical pastor Ted Haggart epitomizes American’s intense fear and loathing of sex, as well as our ambivalence about it. Haggart was willing to acknowledge buying methamphetamine (which is a felony), but unwilling to confess to homosexuality (which isn’t). Not surprisingly, some of his sermons equate gay sex with murder, and he eventually admitted, “There’s a part of my life that’s so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”
The self-loathing homophobia that’s so thoroughly poisoned Reverend Haggart typifies America’s conflicted attitudes about human sexuality, which are considered backward by most of the developed world. Sadly, there’s no pill we can take for that.
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