I saw a screening of The Education of Shelby Knox today at the UI Women's Center, and it made me think about the temptation to trade on one's privilege in activism. I've had lots of time on my hands since I got sick, so I've been trying to figure out if there's any kind of local sex ed program I could volunteer with, especially now that Idaho has rejected federal funding for abstinence-only education. Having never had an unwanted pregnancy or STD, I figure I can offer good first-hand experience to kids who are trying to figure out how to begin their sexual lives. I am not the cautionary whale. I also have benefited from economic and social privileges that surely have made coming out of my early sexual life mostly unscathed a bit easier. I had fairly comprehensive sex ed in my public school, and come from an economically and emotionally stable family. I married in my very early twenties, so I didn't have a lot of time to get into trouble. Middle-class white people in the Northwest US, who, it's true, are the only people I've slept with, are relatively hard to catch HIV from. So there is the temptation to say out of one side of my mouth that here I'm a perfectly good, unsullied white married woman, and out of the other that hey, stuff happens, but not to me!
It's not by happenstance that I've avoided becoming pregnant or catching any sexually-transmitted bugs. Birth control and condoms work most of the time. Over a lifetime, abstinence fails.
I basically am living the end result that abstinence-only education seeks, but if I were a lesbian, I wouldn't ever get to be the object lesson in the way a person can be comfortingly conservative and lustfully liberal.
In the film, Shelby makes clear that she does not plan on having sex before marrying, and distances herself from teens who do decide to have sex, and aren't conservative Christians. She can make political hay out of her identity, and in doing so, undermines her case for the uselessness of the abstinent-until-married ideal. Pledging abstinence did not help the youth of Lubbock, TX, so we don't have any reason to believe it's going to help Shelby outside of the political realm. It certainly won't hurt her, but neither will knowing how a condom works.
But Shelby is looking for results in the form of fewer teen pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases amongst her classmates, not guilt-free sex for teens. As far as I can tell, she thinks - or thought - guilt and fear are fair game for sexually active teens, but teen pregnancy and STIs just aren't necessary. To the parents and school officials in Lubbock, premarital sex itself was the problem ensnaring their children, and any means, like teen pregnancy or STIs, to keep them from engaging in it were going to justify the sexually pure ends.
If I'd reserved sex for marriage, I don't think I'd have ever gotten into a serious relationship with Andy. Abstinence pushers would call my premarital sex unnecessarily risky. Me, I'd rather have gonorrhea for a couple of weeks, or decide what to do with an unexpected pregnancy than have missed out on my marriage. Not only do I value my relationship with my husband, but I also value my premarital sexual experiences. I know it's cold comfort to be smart when you've been unlucky and had a great loss. In nonreproductive areas of my life, I've learned the intimate emotional details of when the smart decision turns out to be the wrong decision. You don't care that it was unlikely that you would get pregnant while you were on the pill and taking antibiotics, you care that you did get pregnant. I don't deny or downplay the downside of risk, but I revile and live to tell the tale of the intellectual dishonesty in abstinence-only attitudes about birth control and protection from disease.