Truth, Lies, and the Abstinence Study: Right Again!

Beware that sneaky word, “triumphalism.” It’s neutrally defined by the OED as “excessive exultation over one’s success or achievements.” But it has legitimate uses, particularly in some of the less travelled areas of religious thought. In politics, however, where the word now makes frequent incursions, there’s nothing nuanced about it. “Triumphalism” has become an all-purpose weapon, almost always hurled by the political left against the political right and always with the same purpose: preventing those who can now say “I told you so” from getting to say it.

This brings us to the latest battleground where the word will be surely be making cameo appearances soon, if it has not already: the recent study of abstinence education whose results appear in the new issue of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.

“Dramatic” understates the conclusions reached by this new exercise in social science. Led by Dr. John B. Jemmott III of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers tracked 662 African-American students at urban middle schools to reach a result utterly subversive of the secular wisdom about kids and sex: only about a third of the students who attended an abstinence-only class started having sex within the next twenty-four months, compared to half who did after being assigned to other health classes (including, suggestively enough, a “safer-sex” class).

Just how significant is this research, the first peer-reviewed study suggesting that abstinence education might work after all? “Landmark,” as the Washington Post put it. Or consider the word applied by the head of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy—a source, incidentally, that no one would accuse of being in the pope’s pocket: “game-changing.” Say what you want about the literary merit of its title: “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention over 24 Months” has not only galvanized the expected religious and other groups shouted down for years with the feverish incantation that “abstinence doesn’t work.” It has also garnered preliminary respect from some unexpected and significant places.

Which is exactly why the contrary cries of “not really” and “no way” and “yes-but” rippling immediately through the rest of the secular chatter in the study’s wake are so very interesting. Sara Kliff, a blogger for Newsweek, summarized this weirdly obstreperous reaction in a single title: “The New Abstinence-Education Study is Good News. So Why are Liberals Freaking Out about It?”

Good question. And as long as we’re asking, how about this deeper one: Why was abstinence education fought tooth and nail by secularists in the first place?

One, because the people pushing the secular moral agenda understand very well something that nefarious Jesuits of yesteryear were also said to know: the younger the age at which the message is instilled, the greater the chances of success. That is why frank talk about oral sex, for example, long ago migrated from high-school to middle-school classrooms. It’s also why, if our safe-schools czar Kevin Jennings has his way—he of the “Queering Elementary Education” school of thought— even more explicit instruction will soon seep all the way down to the baby-teeth and nap-taking set. These people know better than most what experience and research have shown time and again: the sooner children and adolescents are sexualized, the sooner they will be sexually active. And the sooner they are sexually active, the more promiscuous they will become. Note well: these are not outcomes that our secular education authorities seek to avoid. They are outcomes they are trying to ensure.

Second, in a way that many traditionalists have not understood (though many proactive secularists have), abstinence research stands over a critical fault line in the sexual revolution. If the Jemmott study is correct—that students living in a sexualized popular culture can nonetheless be reasoned into resisting it—then certain currently forbidden corollaries also suggest themselves. Maybe throwing condoms and sexually explicit reading and contraceptive pills at kids makes them more likely to have sex than not doing those things. Maybe traditional religious teaching about these matters is not so much antiquated as it is ferociously and sometimes mendaciously resisted by parties with a terribly large stake in self-exoneration.

And if these things are so, then much else might follow that punches holes in one of the chief fabrications of the time—the notion that modern people, especially young people, cannot possibly understand or follow the old religious rules about sex. Thanks to “Efficacy,” these and more countercultural ideas have now taken a big step back toward the public square. As it goes to show, the American teenager may not in fact be a sexual slave, after all, but a thinking human being susceptible to arguments against promiscuity. Who’da thunk it?

Yet if the University of Pennsylvania study has unexpected implications for the secular side, there may be a different message in all this for religious traditionalists, too. After all, much of the time, watching the world grapple (or more often, not) with all the fallout of the sexual revolution, it’s tempting just to throw up one’s hands and move on. Maybe those compassionate secular people do have a point, we secretly think. Maybe society after the Pill just does offer too many temptations for ordinary mortals to resist—especially ordinary kids who already have social and other strikes against them and just can’t be expected to behave otherwise. Maybe certain people just can’t be reached, period. And maybe the better part of valor is to stand aside as the sexperts of the world medicalize and monopolize and morally dumb down what goes into their heads.

And maybe, just maybe, some subset of 662 African-American middle-school students just proved all of those condescending assumptions wrong. If you wouldn’t mind being labeled a “triumphalist,” you might even call that a triumph.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, with a Foreword by Cardinal George Pell.