Abstinence, or: "Don't have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!"
Ill-informed abstinence is dangerous.
Ahead of Lent this year, I'd encourage clergy, leaders, and teachers to think differently about the nature and application of abstinence.
That was my “hot take” on Lent which I shared on social media earlier this week. It’s hardly revelatory, but it is where I’m sat – and likely to be where many others are sat too.
But the enforcement of abstinence goes beyond the boundaries of Lent, and it is a tool that religions and societal groups have used for centuries as a means to control and monitor. The policing of our minds and bodies, and what we do with and put into both has been problematic for different groups of people for all kinds of different reasons. And the sought-out method of control? Abstinence.
You may or may not have noticed but Mean Girls has reappeared on Netflix in recent weeks, in which there are dozens of scenes that will live on as cinematic gold for generations to come. In one such scene, the awkward (and entirely problematic) coach Carr is dispensing advice in a sex-education class where he says:
“Don't have sex, because you will get pregnant and die! Don't have sex in the missionary position, don't have sex standing up, just don't do it, OK, promise? OK, now everybody take some rubbers.”
Behind him is a chalkboard that advises on the best way to have safe sex, the number one tip? Abstinence. In a later scene coach Carr adds the following caution:
“At your age, you're going to have a lot of urges. You're going to want to take off your clothes and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you will get chlamydia... and die.”
The melodrama and attempts at forced abstinence whilst also publicly acknowledging that this method just doesn’t work for everyone is something that many students of embarrassing PSHE classes (are they still called that in the UK?) and attendees of church youth groups will likely be able to share many horror stories about.
Of course, abstinence isn’t just about sex. In the West we are obsessed with our diets – not always the process of dieting, but rather what we eat and drink day in and day out. We are encouraged, often manipulatively and forcefully, to abstain from certain foods if we are to attain current standards of societal perfection, and often can be coerced into ignoring medical advice that says contrary. The co-option of food as a means by which to control is nothing new, but the means of delivery are increasingly invasive and targeted.
Abstinence has also impacted us in new ways since early 2019, as slowly but surely much of the globe has seen governments force their citizens into fresh forms of dystopian hell in an effort to control the spread of a virus. Through these measures we have often been forced to abstain from social interaction, travel, religious corporate worship, weddings and other family occassions, exercise (with the closure of gyms and restrictions on when, where, and how long you can exercise for), sustainable and meaningful employment (much of the burden impacting the most impoverished in society), and even healthcare for long term and often terminal illnesses. How many of us, I wonder, have felt it inappropriate to see their GP, dentist, gynaecologist, therapist, or religious leader this past year? We have been forced to abstain from not only the things in life that give life meaning, but to also be abstinent in areas that could well one day save our lives.
Abstinence remains a tool by which we are controlled, and not just by the problematic sex education class, or desperately concerning religious dogma.
Yet abstinence is not a magic wand, fix all solution that resets are thoughts, emotions, and practices to enable us to live happier and healthier lives. Abstinence, when enforced without consent or education, is dangerous.
As a teenager I gained much of my moral teaching from my evangelical church, which I attended with the ferocity of, well, a teenage evangelical. Through the enforcement of abstinence on my body and my mind, I became conditioned to view this kind of restriction as normative and helpful. All kinds of physical and emotional connection for me are now, and will likely forever more, be tainted by this lens of abstinence. The sex I enjoy, the food and drink I love, my friendships and relationships I am part of, the books and films and music I throw myself into – all have the potential to restrict me and trap me in an ideology of abstinence that I neither wanted nor consented to.
Abstinence is a powerful choice, but it ought to be choice. When we make decisions for ourselves and say, “this is not good for me” or “I want to do things differently” and choose to not do it from a place of informed consent, then we have created potential for growth and change. Yet when enforced, abstinence is only ever meant to stifle and control – something that is contrary to our individual and collective flourishing; a danger to each of us both now and in the long term.