Abstinence and the conservative project to restore patriarchy

The 3 May 2010 edition of Time Magazine had a feature marking the 50th anniversary of the contraceptive pill, noting that this invention has had profound effects on society. What struck me from the article, however, was its discussion of the counter-revolution that has recently begun. In particular, it traced the foregrounding of the abstinence message to US evangelical churches’ unease over the empowerment of women that the pill has led to. Limiting women’s access to the contraceptive pill is consciously or subconsciously seen as one way to preserve or restore patriarchy.

Before 1960, women could mostly expect to have many pregnancies, and consequently a life mainly lived as homemakers. Employers were reluctant to hire women because such employees were seen as unable to control their bodies and had to take too much time off. Universities offering costly professional courses, such as medicine, law, even business administration, discriminated against women on the ground that such education (and the public-financing involved) would be wasted since most of the female cohort would end up getting married and becoming full-time mothers and homemakers.

These excuses against gender equality can no longer hold today, partly because of  the pill.

The Roman Catholic Church has been against contraception from the beginning, but the position of US evangelical churches – and I suppose, through their influence, the fundamentalist churches in Singapore – is more interesting, changing over time.

Quoting some passages from Time:

… it was only after [the pill] had been in widespread use for years that some conservative Protestants began rethinking their views on contraception and the Pill in particular. “I think the contraceptive revolution caught Evangelicals by surprise,” observes Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “We bought into a mentality of human control. We welcomed the polio vaccine and penicillin and just received the Pill as one more great medical advance.”

But beginning in the 1990s, many conservative Christians revisited the question of what God intends in marriage and pondered the true nature of the gift of sexuality….


Women’s-rights leaders see multiple agendas at work in the counter-revolution: an attempt not just to roll back access to contraception but also to return women to more traditional roles…. says [National Organization for Women] president [Terry] O’Neill of social conservatives. “If the project is to re-establish patriarchal structures, where women are subordinate to male family members, they have to end women’s access to contraception.”

Mohler does not dispute every charge. That would be intellectually dishonest, he says. The Pill “changed the woman’s moral horizon from a likelihood of becoming pregnant to a total lack of likelihood. I’m certain feminists champion that as a tremendous gain necessary for their liberation in the workforce and elsewhere – I think it’s fair to say social conservatives have great concerns about that entire package.”

There you have it. He is conceding that full equality for women troubles conservatives.

I also tripped over Mohler’s use of the term “moral horizon”. How is the pill a moral issue? It has social impact but what moral impact is he referring to?

It doesn’t take a genius to see hidden behind that statement much fluster about promiscuity. In Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, promiscuity is considered immoral. It’s one thing for married women to take the pill to plan her pregnancies, it’s another for unmarried women to take the pill to avoid the consequences of their sins.

The upshot is the push to get unmarried girls off the pill, and in parallel, to preach abstinence before marriage. In some US states, the campaign is to enact laws that would deny girls access to the pill until a certain age, unless parental permission is forthcoming. A call to do likewise in Singapore was raised some years ago, by whom I’ve forgotten, but as far as I know, this proposal is being ignored by the state.

However, the Education Ministry has heavily bought into the abstinence message. This does not mean that the ministry is motivated by the goal of reinforcing patriarchy, but it does open the door for others to do so, especially as sexuality education is routinely outsourced, more often to Christian organisations than not.

Pinned up on the Ministry of Education’s website is this declaration about its conservative purity:

MOE does not condone promiscuity, sexual experimentation by teenagers or promote homosexuality. MOE teaches students what homosexuality is, and that homosexual acts are illegal. MOE teaches the values held by the majority, whether they are religious or not.


This is in addition to teaching teenagers how to say no to sex and promoting abstinence as still the best option for teens.

I won’t touch on homosexuality in this article. What I will say however, is that the ministry thinks too highly of themselves. Kids see gay people all around them today. The Sunday Times carries a big report about Pink Dot (16 May 2010). Ellen DeGeneres is a judge on American Idol, broadcasted weekly at prime time. To continue using as its main point of instruction the blatantly flouted rule that homosexuality is illegal only teaches kids how to laugh at the law. But of course, bureaucrats in their self-importance never imagine that anyone, let alone kids, would have the temerity of laughing at them or the state that they represent.

Coming back to the subject of abstinence and contraception, let me make this abundantly clear – I don’t think anybody should be promoting teen sex. Controlling one’s sexual urges is part of responsible relationships. The problem is the degree to which we stress one (abstinence) and ignore or downright delegitimise the other (contraception). We cannot assume that all schoolkids are virgins. Some of them are already sexually active by age 14 or 15 and to them the abstinence message will sound completely irrelevant. If the sexuality education package talks only about abstinence and nothing else, especially if it takes a moralistic position on sexual relationships outside marriage (as it already does on homosexual relationships), then in teenagers’ minds, it’s going to be trashed as out of touch with the real world as they experience it.

To be fair, the same website says that the ministry

teaches contraception to protect youth against diseases and unwanted pregnancy,

Then again, the ministry may wish it, but will the six agencies it has pre-qualified to provide sexuality education packages actually do it? Four of the six are Christian-linked. Are they going to gloss over the contraception part? I can well imagine that they will claim to protect kids from diseases and unwanted pregnancy by pushing just abstinence.

For now, the public does not know what exactly their content will be.  The Straits Times tried to get comments from them for an article 2 May 2010, but five of the six “either would not say what their stands on the issues were, or did not respond to queries.” (Straits Times, 2 May 2010, Govt calls for more transparency in sexuality education).

In the same story, the newspaper reported that

The Ministry of Education (MOE) wants greater transparency from schools that employ external vendors to provide enrichment programmes on sexuality education.

Schools that engage any of the six approved external vendors to deliver programmes – which complement the MOE’s core sexuality education curricula – will be required to publish information about the programmes on their websites, a ministry spokesman told The Straits Times.

Let me call on readers interested in this subject to go trawl the various schools’ websites to compile information so posted.

On a final note, I will draw your attention to a Guest Letter by Nina Carlina, pointing out that there is plenty of evidence that abstinence-only as a message does not work. See Abstinence-only programs do not work.

1 Response to “Abstinence and the conservative project to restore patriarchy”

  1. 1 Johnd03 22 November 2010 at 01:28

    It’s quite true and i believe only emphasizing abstinence won’t work to a certain extent. I view abstinence only as a moral teaching and no more than that. Curiously, i would like to know (not a parent myself) are there any other feasible materials that seems to be effective to teach, instead of abstinence?

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