Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Shame and Sex

When I was growing up, I had it in my mind that when my mother was my age--in the early 50s--the world was more wholesome. I am not sure how I got that idea, other than the fact that I spent many hours in front of the TV in the late 70s and early 80s watching reruns of shows from the 50s. The families in those shows seemed incongruous with the families I knew.

My mother's parents--my grandparents--always lived near by and represented to me real examples of Mayberry. They were from Minnesota and Iowa. They loved playing cribbage, good fun consisted of drinking pop and eating popcorn, and their values were solid Christian ones.

Only when I got older did I realize that my mother worried intensely about me when I was in high school. She thought perhaps there was something wrong with me because I never had any boyfriends. I showed no evidence of a rapacious libido and I was content to spend time with my female friends. Was I gay? My mom never confessed any of these worries to me until I was much, much older. This conversation started after I had read her diary and learned a bit more about her own childhood. She certainly wasn't the model child. By gosh, she had actually snuck out of her house and stayed out until 2 am. I couldn't believe it. She also had lots of boyfriends, being a beautiful woman. I had tried to be a good girl, to live up to my mother, and instead, she was worried that I was just plain frigid.

I thought of this today while ruminating on an email conversation that I had with a 70 year old woman who was part of the repeal movement in the Bible Belt. She expressed her fear that women 45 and older simply don't know how desperate times were before Roe. She knew of a woman who sought out an abortion from a "back alley" doctor, and woke up from her anesthesia to find him raping her. She knew of other stories where women were manipulated into having sex with their abortion doctor because he threatened to tell others what she had did. And, she told me about women she knew who self-aborted, almost died, and found themselves in Catholic hospitals. She said you might as well have painted a scarlet "A" on her forehead; they treated her like a sinner and wheeled her out of the hospital with no more information than she had before on how to prevent a pregnancy.

While mulling over these stories, I thought back to what the Mayor of Grove said about young people today. She was articulating something that is present in the minds of many folks who fervently oppose abortion today. The idea is that since abortion became legal, and birth control available, and sex education made its way into public school curriculum, young people have lost their morals. The idea is that in the 50s young women knew how to properly behave. They wouldn't let a boy get "fresh," and they certainly wouldn't consent to sex before a wedding ring. People in the 50s had "morals." This is what I always thought about my mother, and by and large, it is true. But, my mom wasn't asexual. She had yearnings, desires like any other young person falling in love for the first time.

But, for some reason, we have constructed the 50s in our imagination as a lost era; a time when people had values. Men were men, women were women. Sex was restricted to marriage. Abortion didn't exist. These are the fantasies that we have about that era. And I really want to emphasize that these are the fantasies that WE--those of us 45 and under--have of that era. The reality is far bleaker, especially for many women who lived through the pre-Roe era.

I think that the Mayor of Grove was expressing something quite understandable. Who among us doesn't worry, from time to time, that young people are thrown into a highly sexualized and sometimes predatory time? Certainly many parents--whether they be liberal or conservative or somewhere in between--worry that their children will start having sex, get hurt, get pregnant, or be harmed by some molester. Sex seems to be everywhere.

And, frankly, it is quite easy to blame this on the 60s, the sexual revolution, and the women's movement.

Many people want to find a cause, the one thing responsible for this time of sexual chaos, and all too often people attribute this to the damn feminists and hippies. But something I kept asking the Mayor to consider was that in the 50s, Doc Henrie was performing approximately 500 abortions a year. Women who weren't getting abortions, might be sent away to relatives with a story that they had a heart condition and needed to be near a good hospital. They would give birth and then return home, and no one would peep.

Shame. Shame about sex is what gave shape to the fantasies that we have of the 50s. It wasn't that people didn't have sex back then, rather it was that the shame of having others find out was powerful enough to drive you to get an abortion. You might perform it on yourself. You might kill yourself rather than have others find out that you had been having sex. Shame lead to untold numbers of deaths, and probably untold numbers of abortions.

Many pro-lifers believe that abortion rates will drop if you ban it. But, if you pay attention closely to the reality of the 50s--not the fantasy--you will realize that probably nothing is more likely to shoot up abortion rates and female suicide rates than prohibiting abortion, contraception and sex education. The fact is that our own times, which seem to be full of sexual dysfunction, are probably not a whole lot different than the 50s, except in one way: women don't have to be as ashamed of themselves now. If you find yourself pregnant, you really do have the option of keeping the child, being a single mother, and continuing on in your community. You have that option because shame is no longer the single most important force directing your life.

Legalizing abortion, making contraception available, and teaching comprehensive sexual education doesn't make young people have more sex. It just brings out into the open what generations before tried to bury. We have to confront, wide eyed, a part of our human nature. We are sexual creatures. Nature gives us a healthy sexual appetite, especially when we are young. What culture is supposed to do is help us make better decisions about when to give in to our impulses. The abortion debate is over what cultural practices are better at helping us redirect those sexual impulses in ways that don't harm us.

What is clear to me is that any cultural practice that uses shame as the guiding force to redirect young peoples' sexual impulses is dangerous. If you are someone who truly believes that abortion is murder, then it behooves you to fight against a culture that makes young women feel horrifically ashamed--to the point of self-mutilation--when they find themselves pregnant and not married.