The Ascetic Presidency


SELF-RENUNCIATION AND sacrifice have been running themes for the Bush Team. It began with 9-11 and the war on Iraq. Now, Mr. Bush wants our kids to stop screwing around and to weigh the consequences of indiscriminate sexual activity: in his State of the Union, the President proposed $270 million on abstinence-only education, compared with $100 million annually when he took office. “Decisions children make now can affect their health and character for the rest of their lives. All of us,” Bush says “parents, schools, government – must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture, and to send the right messages to our children.”

Is Big Brother Bush drawing a line in the sand amidst a culture war that he is destined to lose?

What critics consider significant about the abstinence-only education is that it bars discussion of birth control or condoms – a relatively pedestrian observation in my mind because any no-nonsense abstinence-only program would never include a discussion on contraception. The president also would move the programs into the same agency within the Health and Human Services Department that oversees faith-based programs and the president’s equally controversial proposal to promote marriage.

Critics have pointed to a Minnesota study that found sexual activity doubled among junior high school students taking part in an abstinence-only program. The independent study, commissioned by the state’s health department, recommended broadening the program to include more information about contraception.

Regardless of how one feels about sex or its moral implications, abstinence-only works to help teens make better decisions every day. We should be cautious of the oft-mouthed argument that teens must know “methods” of contraception and disease prevention if they should decide to be sexually active. Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective method for avoiding unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. This premise is undeniable. Surprisingly, given the potentially remarkable effectiveness of a fully-committed abstinence-only strategy, it has still been blasted as unrealistic.

By whose standards?

The over-sexed, over-medicated, selfish flower children of the Sixties?

Let’s face it: self-renunciation has never been in style for our parents’ generation – pre-disposed to SUVs, lattes, abortions, and low-taxes at the expense of their children – our ascetic president has broken from the mold and is now keen on renunciation – ever since he married Laura and put down that bottle of Jim Beam. He figures it can’t hurt the rest of America if we gave up a little sex in our cities. And it certainly can’t hurt our kids.

It didn’t hurt Jenna and Barbara, patently familiar with what dad is talking about.

Opponents to Bush’s plan say kids need to have the entire package of information about sex, and that his program fails to do that. Such an approach does not allow an abstinence program to work in its own right as it siphons away the disciplined charge of the President and reads more like: Well, they’re gonna have sex anyway so ….

Sex certainly is everywhere. It’s inescapable. Janet and Justin’s escapade is merely the tip of this tit for tat. Britney refuses to wear clothes anymore. MTV and BET flash young dynamic scantily clad bodies for our viewing pleasure virtually 24/7. And then there’s the internet, where more than half of all requests on search engines are “adult-oriented.”

Filmmaker Larry Clark and the folks at Planned Parenthood want you to believe that all teens are as oversexed as they are/were, and that no abstinence-only propaganda will alter that. Vice President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Susan Martinez said “there is no credible evidence that abstinence-only programs have any impact on reducing teen pregnancy.” But how do we know abstinence-only is not effective? President Bush is going to give us his best shot, and we’ll see for ourselves. We know that a comprehensive program that extols the benefits of contraception and abstinence represents the best case scenario for any sexual education strategy – and even though we know that a program which places abstaining from sex at the center may “leave the kids in the dark on sex,” not every parent may want to have that enlightened discussion with their 12 year old daughter about using condoms. Should parents not be allowed to decide when they want to broach the subject on sexuality? Not every household in America is governed by Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne.

Abstinence-only is not a mistake. It’s a challenge to America’s young people. We live in a society that quietly condones casual, reckless, indiscriminate decision-making about just about everything – from war to sex. Abstinence-only needs some time to take hold and work itself out. The money that the Bush Administration has proposed will certainly impact the public discourse on early sexuality. A good father, Bush takes the dangers of sex at face value and tells young Americans the truth: abstinence is the only safe sex.

It’s unfortunate that we think our young people are so self-centered, so pleasure-oriented, so undisciplined – to say that they lack the capacity to “say no” to anything – least of all sex? President Bush deserves praise for his courageous, hopeful, and pro-active stance, for there can be no doubt that young people in this country will start to enjoy the benefits of Daddy Dubya’s ascetic charge: “Just don’t do it!”

We know Jenna and Barbara already do.

Garry Grundy’s column appears biweekly.

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