A friend’s journal entry on abstinence-only sex education prompted me to think about my own youth, lo these many moons ago.
When I was a kid, quite young, I considered the issue as carefully as a child can, and vowed in my secret heart that if I was ever offered the chance to have sex, I was gonna try it. This joined many other vows, such as “If given the opportunity to visit the moon, take it.” At the time, the two seemed of equal likelihood.
My point, however, is not to diverge into the grand world of sex-ed follies, but to contemplate an interesting point. I had as moral an upbringing as a fundie could hope for. We went to church twice a week, we talked about Jesus, the family prayed together, we read a devotional pamphlet at mealtimes. My mother was deeply devout. My stepfather was a neurotic slimeball, I’ll grant you, but he was the sort of slimeball that attends Church discussion groups and was condescendingly Christian in a major way. Prior to that, we were Catholic. The notion of sex before marriage was never anything BUT taboo. You didn’t do it. My grandmother’s serial marriage sprees were basically the Catholic version of sleeping around, but she, by god, did it by the Book, even if the paperwork occasionally got crossed. One Did Not Have Sex Outside of Marriage.
And at no point in my entire childhood, as I contemplate it now, did it ever occur to me that this applied to me.
Sex is the best example of this, but many of the other conventional moral teachings can also be slotted in. Sin did not worry me. Yes, people could sin, in general, but me, specifically? Nah. Obviously if I did it, it was for a damn good reason. (Thankfully, we left Catholicism before my first confession, or this attitude would probably have gotten me into serious trouble.)
This sounds like raging egotism, I realize, and of course it is, since I was a kid. Kids are compassion and cruelty and curiousity, wrapped up in solipsism and leaking random fluids. But it wasn’t that I thought I was above sin, or perfect, or anything like that. I would have been shocked by the very idea. I just…didn’t think it applied. If there was a box marked “sin – Yes/No?” I would have written “N/A.”
On the subject of sex, people talk about waiting for marriage, and that was indeed a good and commendable idea, I was all for it, it just had nothing to do with ME. Not only did I feel no guilt about my resolution to have sex at some point (which was motivated by scientific curiosity as much as anything else) but it didn’t even occur to me that guilt was a possible reaction. I knew I’d probably have to hide it from my parents, because they wouldn’t understand, but again, it simply did not occur to me that this was bad, it was simply that my parents had some irrationalities one needed to work around. It was like hiding books with evil religions in them, which content freaked my mother out–I knew she was crazy and didn’t understand that many stories require evil in order to move the story along, so it was simply easier for everyone if these never came to her attention. But sin? No, complete non-issue. God obviously would know that decent storytelling requires an antagonist. It wasn’t my mother’s fault that she’d been born with a defective sense of plot,* but there was no reason I had to suffer for it.
My eventual disillusionment with religion probably was made a lot easier by the fact that I had never internalized any religious guilt. This is not to say that I didn’t have guilt–you don’t grow up in a household with that many Catholics and post-Catholics without getting guilt like a mutha–but where I felt plenty of guilt for making my mother feel bad, say, I felt none at all for potentially making God feel bad. I believed in my faith, sure, or at least, I believed that I believed in it. Nevertheless, I never bothered to think about it in the rest of my life. Ten thousand lectures about carrying God with me everywhere would have resulted in ten thousand earnest nods, and the firm belief that yes, this was a good thing, certainly one should carry God everywhere, immediately forgotten when my attention wandered. In my defense, I was not a conscious hypocrite. I was a kid. I did not have the self-examination neccessary for that. Signing a pledge to save myself for marriage, knowing as I did so that I had no plans whatsoever to honor this piece of paper,** it still did not occur to me that I was lying. It didn’t feel like lying. It didn’t really feel like anything. It just didn’t matter.
Now, I am not complaining by any stretch. I like being me, quite a lot. It’s neat in here, and the colors are awfully pretty. But here I am, the product of many years of intensive and relentless moral programming, and it simply failed. Not for any reason I can detect, not for lack of trying or parental involvement–believe me, nobody ever tried harder to set a good example of moral behavior than my mother–not for any particular subversive influence. It just didn’t take. Long before I was even a recognizeably sentient being, long before I could make reasoned arguments or feel beady-eyed anger at someone dissin’ my beloved dinosaurs, I had groomed my feathers with nonapplicable oil, and the waters of moral absolutes beaded up and rolled right off.
My experience is not universal. My mother internalized every shred of guilt, and worried relentlessly about sin. I know a few of my readers did, too! And yet, there are undoubtedly some, like me, to whom it never occurred to worry. There are many reasons why religious educations fail people–hypocrisy, loss of faith, etc, etc. For some of us, however, I think they just fail for no reason at all. We are the wrong clay for that particular mold. Sheep may stray, they may fall off cliffs, they may be eaten by wolves, but some of us are just born goats.
And this, to finally wind up at the end of my speech, is why I think abstinence-only education and all the others based on fundamentally hammering home a morality, are so doomed to failure. I had the benefit of every possible moral teaching, I had church seminars and chastity pledges and devout parents and a grandmother who ran through annullments like underwear in order to stay on God’s good side, and at no point did I even THINK of staying abstinent. It didn’t apply to ME. I was exempt.
It was a damn good thing, therefore, that I received a very solid grounding, once in high school, in birth control and STD prevention, which I followed with the confident bafflement of someone reading the instruction manual to put together exercise equipment–partner, check, gyencologist, check, birth control prescription, check, profession of undying love, check, partner STD free, check. Okay, insert Tab A in slot B and let’s see how this sucker works. I may not have been romantic, but I was thorough, by god, and I have been grateful to the Salem Public School System for handing me most of the pages of that manual ever since.
I would have done it anyway, I had vowed to do it back when I had some damn peculiar notions of how the anatomy was likely to fit together, and it was a good thing somebody told me how to do it safely instead of relying on telling me not to do it.
Alas, I have still not made it to the moon. But I’m young yet.
*Although she was probably right about the Road Runner.
**It’s worth noting that D.A.R.E. education, which also had me sign a little pledge saying I would remain drug free, failed utterly as well. As I was signing, I was thinking “Dude, if I decide I want to do drugs, this little bit of paper is SO not stopping me.” Somewhat later, I did a report for health class, and added LSD to the list of “Things I Would Do Given The Chance.” In defense of the health class, however, it never occurred to me to take up smoking, and I never had more than a passing interest in alcohol. The problem with education is that people tend to think for themselves with it.