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The Absence Of Harm

December 14, 2009

Our fearless leader Jaclyn Friedman wrote over at her Amplify column about a study that needs to get more attention.

The science itself should not surprise anyone who is an advocate for healthy, holistic views of sexuality. I don’t have the full text, but I trust the abstract to summarize the study better than science reporting. Here it is:

CONTEXT: Speculation in public discourse suggests that sexual encounters outside a committed romantic relationship may be emotionally damaging for young people, and federal abstinence education policy has required teaching that sexual activity outside of a marital relationship is likely to have harmful psychological consequences.

METHODS: In 2003–2004, a diverse sample of 1,311 sexually active young adults (mean age, 20.5) participating in a longitudinal study in Minnesota completed a survey including measures of sexual behavior and psychological wellbeing. Chi-square tests were used to compare the prevalence of recent casual partnerships by selected demographic and personal categories. General linear modeling was then used to compare mean levels of each psychological wellbeing measure between those reporting recent casual partners and those reporting committed partners; partner type was measured both dichotomously and categorically.

RESULTS: One-fifth of participants reported that their most recent sex partner was a casual partner (i.e., casual acquaintance or close but nonexclusive partner). Casual partnerships were more common among men than among women (29% vs. 14%), and the proportions of male and female respondents reporting a recent casual partner diff ered by race or ethnicity. Scores of psychological well-being were generally consistent across sex partner categories, and no significant associations between partner type and well-being were found in adjusted analyses.
CONCLUSIONS: Young adults who engage in casual sexual encounters do not appear to be at greater risk for harmful psychological outcomes than sexually active young adults in more committed relationships.

[Emphasis supplied.]

Considering this, Jaclyn remarks:

Not shockingly, this study has received precious little media attention. But if these results are replicable, and if they could be followed-up by a longitudinal study showing that those friends-with-benefits are just as happy as their more monogamous counterparts even later in their lives, it would go a long way to revealing the anti-casual-sex argument for what it is: a way to keep women’s sexuality taboo and mysterious, so it can be used to control our behavior and sell us things we don’t need.

[Emphasis supplied.]

I want to amplify that. There are large cultural forces that are primarily concerned with control of women’s sexuality. It’s always easier to try to control the marginal — the young, the old, the poor, and the nonconformists — than folks in the mainstream who have resources to fight back. So the bulk of the pressure goes in those directions: rooting gays and lesbians and bisexuals out of the US military; arresting trans women for prostitution even if they’re not doing any kind of sex work; blocking Plan B’s over the counter availability for minors; demonizing young black women as somehow excessively sexual … there’s an endless list of examples I could choose from where the culture applies the most stifling control to the folks with the fewest tools to advocate for their own agency. (And it’s not really about behavior so much as thwarting agency.)

Attacking youthful sexual agency is a core component of our culture’s overall attack on women’s sexual agency, and it is by no means new. But the rise of abstinence-only education came about in the world fearful of HIV and unwanted pregnancies, and had to eschew overt religious preaching (though it’s just under the surface), in order to get access to a captive audience of young people in the nation’s ostensibly secular public schools.

The arguments they had to use, then, were in large part pragmatic ones, coupling sex with pregnancy, disease and death. But we actually have the medical technology to substantially reduce or eliminate the risks of sexually transmitted infection or unintended pregnancy. (Yes, I said eliminate. In several ways. Avoiding or reducing the role of penetrative sex in favor of other kinds of sex; barrier methods; pharmaceutical contraception; Plan B and abortion which should always be safe, legal and accessible, ought to make the real risk of unintended death or birth from sexual activity zero.) Abstinence only programs work overtime to obscure this fact, mentioning all these medical marvels that have changed the modern world only in the context of saying that they don’t work and only abstinence will accomplish the same goal.

It doesn’t. It is not news that on a population basis, as a method of reducing STIs and unintended preganancies, ab-only is counterproductive. States around the country are turning away from it and back to comprehensive sex ed for just that reason. See generally this, which Jaclyn links.

It shouldn’t have surprised the abstinence boosters that this was a self-defeating strategy. Threats of disease, death and pregnancy didn’t keep people from having sex outside narrowly prescribed social boundaries at any other time in human history, even when the consequences were far less avoidable.

That throws them back to the less tangible arguments: God’s will and broken hearts. Nothing about either of these arguments has made them stronger in the last few thousand years, either. One might think they couldn’t get any weaker, but at least the broken heart argument can. Psychology can actually measure the long-term psychological well-being of people. I expect a lot of kicking and screaming from the conservatives, as this study gets replicated and replicated and the conventional wisdom that women are damaged by sex outside of committed romantic relationships loses traction. Which is not to say that every woman, or every man, wants sex without romantic love — some folks don’t want partnered sex with anyone. But for those os us who have chosen or choose sex on the more casual end of the spectrum, it is not inherently bad for us. That’s the truth, and it will win out. It’s a decades-long process.

The conservative forces of control will fall back on the argument that marriage among people with lots of sexual experience isn’t very resilient. Which makes me laugh — I’m married a decade, I’ve got a past full of sex partners and a present full of kinks that would make Pat Robertson vomit and give Jimmy Swaggart a raging erection. If the data to kill that one isn’t available yet, it will be. They’ll say anything … they’ll even argue that if you don’t do it (or … um … not do it) their way, you’ll get raped.

They’re losing. They can’t win.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will learn to talk frankly about sexuality to our nieces and nephews and our own kids, so that the next generation is better equipped to simply be themselves and make their own decisions.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. froglette permalink
    December 18, 2009 12:45 am

    Thanks for posting this study. As uninformed as it sounds, I’d been worried for a bit that my engaging in lots of relations might eventually cause me to have psychological problems, but felt conflicted because it seemed that doing the opposite would cause me problems too. Good to know that neither way has been shown to be worse than the other, and that my personal choice is probably what’s going to be best for me.

  2. osoborracho permalink
    December 26, 2009 2:15 am

    I always thought that the only reason women having non-committed sex MIGHT feel crappy is because of the naysayers’ finger-wagging, rather than the sex itself. Nice to see that this line of BS has possibly been disproved altogether.

    I had abstinence-only ed, and all the posters implying a connection between virginity and self-esteem for girls made me want to vomit. I still remember this slogan, “You can create life in a moment of pleasure, but abstinence makes you the treasure.” WTF was that supposed to mean? I’m worthless if I happen to enjoy pleasure? I am less deserving if I’m sexually active? Mothers are not worth treasuring? Greaaat messages.

    I really hope that research eventually gets rid of the teaching of madonna/whore complexes in public schools.


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