Given the fact that AOUM is an overwhelming failure in almost every measurable way it may be difficult to believe that it has supporters. One might ask how these supporters could continue to advocate for programs which are ineffective, at best, and, at worse, immensely damaging to the sexual and psychological health of adolescents, particularly girls.What needs to be pointed out is that the proponents and critics of abstinence-only until marriage education are talking past each other. Though each side has argued vociferously for their cause for over a decade now no real conversation has taken place they are having completely different, almost unintelligible, conversations.
As we have seen, the critics analyze AOUM in terms of its results. They do this because they view AOUM as one type of sexual education available to U.S. school systems, legislators, and medical professionals. For its critics, abstinence-only until marriage education is one option in a wide market of sexual education curriculums which includes comprehensive sex education (which details methods of birth control, prevention, and treatment of STI’s, as wells as abstinence) and sex positive education. Among the competition, AOUM has a high price in terms of the sexual and psychological health of young people and poor results in terms of reducing teen pregnancy and decreasing the spread of STIs.
Among the competition, AOUM has a high price in terms of the sexual and psychological health of young people and poor results in terms of reducing teen pregnancy and decreasing the spread of STIs. For the proponents of comprehensive and sex positive curricula exacerbates the problem. In fact, the primary political proponents of abstinence-only education believe that without abstinence-only education the United States is in imminent danger
From the outside looking in the idea that the doctrine of virginity until marriage and utter faithfulness within marriage, particularly for women, is connected to the strength and safety of the nation seems ludicrous. However, the reason these two groups have continued to talk past each other for so long is because they use the same words to mean different things. Both groups have fundamentally different definitions of what the nation is, what a woman is, and what the role of each is. This, of course, leads to different conceptualizations of danger and different definitions of safety. All of this necessarily leads to different ideas of what type of actions can keep the nation, and women, safe which leads right back to abstinence-only education and virginity being at the center of this debate.
The groups that lobby for the continuation and expansion of abstinence-only education are associated with the Christian Patriarchy movement. The Family Research Council, one prominent such group, employed Josh Duggar as the director of their legislative branch until he was embroiled in multiple sex scandals. Duggar achieved minor fame as one of the nineteen kids in the TLC show “19 Kids and Counting” which profiled the Duggar family and their lifestyle as part of the Christian Patriarchy movement.
The Christian Patriarchy movement is a fundamentalist movement which idealizes select forms of biblical social structures with an emphasis on paternalist patriarchy, what Pateman would call classic patriarchy, in which each father is the absolute head of his household. The Christian Patriarchy movement is not entirely homogeneous but does share some common tenets such as their belief in gender complementarianism, the natural authority of men over women, and the idea that the patriarchal family is the basic unit of the nation.
Within the Christian patriarchy movement the family is the paternal patriarchal family is the most basic unit of the nation and the nation is a large version of the paternal patriarchal family. This means that the president is viewed as the father of the nation which is, itself, a large family. The practical effect of this view is a limitation on who is actually a part of the nation. Because families are overwhelmingly reproduced along racial lines the doctrine of Christian patriarchy in the United States is inherently white supremacist. Although its adherents may not think of themselves as white supremacist there is a noticeable lack of diversity at Christian patriarchy gatherings such as homeschooling conventions and purity balls. (For more detail on this aspect of the Christian patriarchy movement see Kathryn Joyce.) In addition, if the nation is a large family then all of the forms of relationship, sex, and sexuality that do not fit into a heterosexual family are always-already excluded from belonging in the nation.
Further complicating the matter is that this form of the nation as a large family, whose inclusiveness is primarily defined by the many Others which are excluded, is divinely ordained in the minds of its participants. I can attest to this personally because I went to a conservative Christian school from 3rd grade through high school graduation and we, the students, were repeatedly told that God’s judgement was certain to come soon and swiftly because of all of the deviations from national order based on a paternalist patriarchy. These deviations included rights for LGBTQ folks, access to abortion, and premarital sex, among other things.
Essentially, sexual freedom for anyone other than straight, cis-men creates an imminent threat to the nation in the minds of adherents to Christian patriarchy. However, straight cis-men’s sexual indiscretions tend to be excused as unavoidable because of their supposedly unstoppable sex drives.
As someone who was immersed in this belief system for several years I won’t attempt to make it make sense to those of you who have never lived within it. I don’t know that I can and, more importantly, I don’t know that it matters. What does matter is that the most vocal advocates of AOUM genuinely believe that their policing of sexuality is necessary to prevent national catastrophe. Because of that, a conversation about the merits of comprehensive sex education, no matter how many statistics and facts it includes, can never be successful. It is always-already a failure because it seeks to legitimize the practices that put the nation in peril from the view of the Christian patriarchy movement.
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