Let's face it, sex happens

Maggie Gilmour on the futility of preaching abstinence.

I dated a guy once I'll call Tim who told me he didn't want to sleep with me. Or anyone, for that matter, until he was married.

After I stopped hyperventilating with shock, I thought about the previous man I dated, for about seven minutes, before leaping into the sack with him. The next day, I felt so paralyzed with regret I lay in bed watching West Wing reruns and eating chocolate cookies until sunset.

"This whole no-sex thing," I said to this guy I'm calling Tim. "You may be onto something."

I'm a liberated girl. I understand that sex is for pleasure and that it's not necessarily supposed to "lead" anywhere.

Sex before marriage? Ninety-five per cent of Americans say yes, survey says. (Reuters) (Reuters)

But that doctrine, if followed indefinitely, can result in some pretty empty encounters. Lots of stupid sex leaves you depressed. I get that. The problem is, the other extreme is just as hopeless.

Trying to get people NOT to have sex doesn't work either.

St. Paul

Also, why has Christianity come down on this side of the argument, anyway?

To find out, I went along to St. Paul's Anglican Church in downtown Toronto one Thursday night, when it hosts classes on the Basics of Christianity.

There, I asked Randy, the tall, funny, 30-something minister who uses Power Point presentations to spread the message, what is the deal with the whole pre-marital sex ban.

He mentioned Corinthians 1:7, which says basically that sex should take place within the loving union of marriage; that it should produce children; and that sex outside the bonds of marriage is a no-no. Which made all kinds of sense to me at the time.

It's an attractive idea. There's only one problem: It doesn't work.

A comprehensive study published in a 2007 issue of Public Health Reports, the official journal of the U.S. Public Health Service, showed that 95 per cent of respondents had sex before they were married. That's pretty much everyone

"Premarital sex is normal behaviour for the vast majority of Americans and has been for decades," said study author Lawrence Finer. What's more, it seems that religious belief doesn't necessarily increase abstinence, either.

As Mark Regnerus points out in Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, evangelical Christian teens are more likely to have lost their virginity earlier than mainline Protestants.

They start having sex on average at age 16.3 and are more likely than other religious groups to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17.


But if the church fails at stopping sexual activity in teens, the schools have failed, too.

In fact, the New York- and Washington-based Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit agency that provides research, policy analysis and education in the fields of reproductive health, reported that teen pregnancy rates increased three per cent in the U.S. in 2006, after having declined every year since 1990.

"The reversal coincides with an increase in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which received major funding boosts under the Bush administration," observed the institute's Heather Boonstra.

The message here: abstinence-only policies in the States, whether taught in the church, school, or home, are a dismal failure.

Thankfully, for those who don't want to see a tsunami of pregnant teens, Barack Obama scrapped federal funding for these programs.

The U.S., it seems, is finally growing up when it comes to recognizing the futility of trying to control the murky world of sexual behaviour. So why aren't we?

Roxanne's law

In April, a Conservative backbencher, Rod Bruinooge, introduced a private member's bill that he called "Roxanne's Law," which is designed to protect vulnerable women from "abortion abuse."

The bill would penalize anyone who "coerces" a woman into ending her pregnancy against her will.

Many opposition critics saw Bruinooge's bill as an attempt to reopen the abortion debate in the House of Commons. Shortly after this, Harper moved to stop Canada from funding abortions in developing countries.

Like the Christian ban on premarital sex, these moves seem based on a lovely, albeit naïve notion that we shouldn't fund abortions because all pregnancies happen to women who are in a financial and emotional position to keep the child and, in the few cases where this isn't true, a loving community will step forward and embrace the child.

As with teaching abstinence, it hinges on the idea that we can tell people not to have sex and that they will listen, and abstain.

This is tragically untrue. Sex sometimes leads to pregnancy, which sometimes leads to abortion.

The consistent failure of abstinence policies in schools, and the impossibility of preventing premarital sex, should convince any government that you can't legislate sexual behaviour, or the resulting consequences of sex.

All they can do is offer a compassionate way out of an impossible, and totally human, situation.