At a side event for the Commission on the Status of Women today, I was once again saddened and frustrated by the disconnect between reality and theory that seems to exist for the abstinence-only crowd. They’ve co-opted the language of comprehensive sexuality education and are quickly learning to distort it. Abstinence-only presentations now talk about empowering women. They pay lip service to gender inequality, though they still talk about women’s honor and dignity instead of their rights.
Today I learned that they’ve also reclaimed “choice.” One presenter from Swaziland told us all about his faith values-based curriculum, which focuses on helping teens make their own choices. Except the only choice presented in the curriculum is abstinence. When an audience member asked about whether they offer information on condoms, the presenter resurrected the tired old stolen car metaphor – “teaching teens about condoms is like telling your kids not to take the car, but if they are going to take it they should use a seat belt.” Besides the obvious problems with the metaphor (umm, most parents would tell their kids to use seatbelts. Even if we agree that they shouldn’t be in the car in the first place, which I’m not sure we do, “seatbelts” SAVE LIVES. Kinda like, oh, I don’t know, condoms?), I have a problem with him using the word choice. Allow me to present the definition of the word “choice,” and highlight a few things:
1. an act or instance of choosing; selection.
2. the right, power, or opportunity to choose; option.
3. the person or thing chosen or eligible to be chosen.
4. an alternative.
5. an abundance or variety from which to choose.
6. something that is preferred or preferable to others; the best part of something.
So here’s the thing. For something to be a choice, you need options. Like, more than one. You can’t tell people all about the evil viruses that are out to get them and how scary sex is and how the only option is abstinence and then talk about empowering them to “make good choices.” I’m not even going to get into the way these people throw terms like “truth” and “trust” and “responsibility” around without seeming to know their definitions either, since I’m already getting a bit ranty. Empowering youth to make their own choices involves presenting them with unbiased, complete information on all the risks, realities, and incentives that exist in this crazy sexual world of ours, and then letting them actually choose. No agenda, no bias, just provide access to the information and let them choose.
Chelsea Ricker is the Program Assistant for the International Women’s Health Coalition’s Africa program. Read her bio here.