Monday, January 19, 2009

Abstinence and Atheistic Religion

I recently read this and, due to a terminal lack of creativity, resolved to exploit this post for a topic of my own, and then promptly died. Fortunately there was another me to take my place, and this – dear imaginary readers – is due to sex.

Human beings, by and large, have a strong desire to engage in sexual activity – it’s one of the things which has allowed our species to flourish and survive as long as we have. In addition to the replacement me, it’s also produced innumerable (well, 106 billion, or 45 – 125 billion, according to the legendary researcher citation needed of U-wiki) human beings over our species’ history. Sex makes babies (a shock, I know), but that desire to procreate has, over these millions of generations, generated a lust for sexual contact more often than is strictly required. This gross unfairness to Dungeons & Dragons fans everywhere has far more dangerous consequences, however, for those unfortunate enough to be attractive. Were there to be studies done on teen pregnancy and STD prevalence among the former populace, I’m certain they’d be an inspiration to Christians everywhere. (Except for the whole Satan worshipping thing they all do.) Sadly however, where abstinence is a choice, it fails about as badly as an Emmental condom. (cheesy joke) {in incredibly bad taste} [dear god, must stop] (please do) {blog post continues}.

Abstinence is a good idea to avoid pregnancy and STD’s. That’s pretty much beyond doubt, and furthermore, it should – ostensibly – be the easiest to implement as it requires no other apparatus than a willing mouth. Excuse me, it’s difficult to put the subject matter firmly out of my mind, I’m trying my breast. Unfortunately, this wonderfully simple Utopian ideal has shown itself to be point of contention, and a remarkably sticky one at that. As Ken Binmore says “Utopians aim at first-best solutions that inevitably fail, leaving us with a third-best solution or worse”, this is clearly illustrated by the effects of abstinence-only (hereafter jauntily referred to as Ayoh) sex education in the USA.

Underhill et al. reviewed 13 trials of Ayoh programmes in the US, surveying some 16 000 youths and concluded that there was no effect on “incidence of unprotected vaginal sex, number of partners, condom usage, or sexual initiation”. Score! Oh wait, no, that’s bad news. There’s more of the same from a 2008 editorial in the AJPH by John Santelli, where it turns out Ayoh programmes tend to be driven by ideology. Who would have thought, (if they’d been allowed to)? Furthermore, those which are most ideologically driven, in the form of Virginity Pledges, have no effect at all on preventing amorous behaviours, are frequently recanted, or opted into post-sexual-intercourse, and are correlated with underestimating the risk of STD infection from sexual activity. Pledges don’t work, Ayoh doesn’t work – and Uganda is not some kind of miracle story, for those about to raise that issue.

ABC – Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condomise.

Sure, abstinence is in there, but the evidence suggests that it’s not enough. Especially (though I am loathe to generalise) considering that customary polygamy is still widespread in many parts of Africa. Fundamentally, one of the issues noted by the Ugandan government is that Abstinence is an imperative that is incredibly difficult to sustain. Anecdotally, we can describe this as familiarity breeding contempt, or familiar contemptuous breeding if you are so inclined, but the issue ranges further than mere saturation of the message. For this kind of insight, we have to examine how we act when we’re aroused versus how we act when we’re not.

Dan Ariely wrote about this in his book Predictably Irrational, taking students from UC Berkeley and having them answer questionnaires in both unaroused states and those of arousal. Students were roughly 25% more likely to engage in some kind of risky sexual behaviour in the aroused state. One example of which was not going to get a condom if it might decrease their chances of completing the sexual act (30% increase). Ariely writes “…’Just say no’ assumes we can turn off passion at will, at any point…”, a notion which is attractive to our conception of free will and responsibility, but totally irresponsible when we consider the data gathered on this subject.

At this point I’m sure you’re asking “But, “I”, how can you possibly have written such a boring article about sex… it’s sex for god’s sake”. Lie back and think of England, dear (imaginary) readers, and I shall impress myself upon you.

The blog post I linked to above is a trifle confusing. Like an inverted nipple, its point is elusive. What it seems to suggest is that there is an ideological reason for dismissing Ayoh education. The atheists have a problem with anything they perceive as coming from a religious background, and they think Ayoh does. First (base), allow me to offer a potential mantra for these bigoted, disgusting atheists.*kissez*

Second, it’s quite simple that reality dictates this position, not any massively evil posturing. Denying the virtue of a good idea for ideological reasons is utterly shameful, and one of the reasons why Ayoh programmes should be being beaten to death by a condom gloved boxer. The evidence is against these programmes, and we should be placing the emphasis on those areas most likely to affect a change. *squeeze squeeze*

Third, and most closely related to the inspirational post, none of the examples mentioned therein promote abstinence per se, only virginity in women. They’re not rejecting “sex outside of marriage” they’re rejecting the appropriation of their property. A wonderfully ridiculous idea “new and unproven – that people have to have their sex” is just begging to be severely fisted. What exactly is new, or unproven about the hypothesis that sexual desire is a powerful motivating factor in human existence? Furthermore, “abstinence has been around a lot longer than the concept of multiple partners” is an equally risible contention. No, sir, this is not the case, unless you consider the important part of that sentence to be “concept”. Abstinence is a delightful idea provided we are in the situation that modern society finds itself. The survival of the species has for the most part been based on having as many (surviving) offspring as possible, as fast as possible. Holding off from sexual desire is simply not something that humans evolved to do, thus, it’s difficult for us to do so at the drop of a hat (even more so at the drop of a skirt). *schlick/fap*

Sliding into Home, Abstinence is largely an idea foisted onto us by the remnants of patriarchal norms about “purity” and other ideological absurdities. It is a great way to avoid pregnancy and STD’s but doesn’t work at deterring sexual behaviour on its own, and cannot be considered a reliable way to solve the problems created by sex. Some of the evidence even suggests that those exposed to Ayoh programmes have a substandard understanding of the risk of STD’s, and simply define other sex acts as “outside” the realm of abstinence.

Cectic makes the absurdity of Ayoh quite clear, but to be honest, by now I’m just flailing around in the dark (as if the first three bases hadn’t made that clear) because there are no references and no coherent line of argument in the post that provided my inspiration. If we include the comments section as fodder for discussion we can be slightly more fruitful, but not much. The reason abstinence shouldn’t get as much attention in serious anti STD/HIV/Pregnancee programmes is because it’s just not as effective to advocate “just say no” than it is to make sure that when resolve slips, as it invariably does for the vast majority of people, there are alternatives available which can stem the epidemic, lower rates of unwanted pregnancy, and the spread of STD’s and still allow for the kind of sexual contact which so very many people crave. Ayoh? Just say No (oh)! (and thus my contrived reason for using the shorthand).

So, was it good for you?

Some references

Uganda AIDS info:

Virginity pledge retractions:

Janet E. Rosenbaum, Reborn a Virgin: Adolescents’ Retracting of Virginity Pledges and Sexual Histories, American Journal of Public Health 96:6 (2006) pp. 1098 – 1103.

Review of Abstinence Only programmes for HIV/AIDS infection.

Kristin Underhill, Paul Montgomery & Don Operario, Sexual abstinence only programmes to prevent HIV infection in high income countries: systematic review.

Editorial on accuracy of info in Abstinence Only programmes

John S. Santelli, Medical Accuracy in Sexuality Education: Ideology and the Scientific Process, American Journal of Public Health 98:10 (2008) pp. 1786 – 1792.

Friday, January 16, 2009


The world needs my blog like a fish needs a bicycle, but if overused similes are your cup of tea, (see what I did there) then this is the place for you. I will need to dazzle you with arrogance, sarcasm and cynicism. I will need to amaze you with ignorance, bigotry and malformed logic. I will very likely never have anyone read this post.

It's done, though. The seal is broken, and thus, I shall blog. What I need from you, dear, imaginary reader, is commentary, especially stupid commentary (preferably about comma splice). That and the regular rolling of your eyes, perhaps an I, too, once in a while.

In this blog I'll deal with the various meaningless trivialities which occupy my curmudgeonly brain, as well as the occasional interesting journal article from the world of Cog Sci, Neurosci, and anything I feel like slipping in... OnTheSly. (If you didn't groan at that, this is not the place for you.)

That's enough for now. Real posts to follow.