I’m grateful to Oprah Winfrey lately and here’s why: She saved me from writing another column about John Edwards by interviewing Bristol Palin about her recent vow of chastity until marriage.
I first wrote about Edwards in August 2008. Back then, he admitted to his affair with Rielle Hunter while his wife recovered from breast cancer. As is old news now, Edwards’ fathered Hunter’s baby, although at the time he denied paternity. (He also gave an improbable excuse for his behavior: that his wife’s cancer was in remission!) I used his affair as an example of how educators can use current events to discuss sex, love, relationships, contraception (or lack thereof), values, and morals as impromptu lessons, if they have the courage to depart from the prescribed curriculum.
Edwards recently finally came clean and admitted that Hunter’s child, Quinn, was his daughter. I figured that, once again, I had to write something more about his shoddy behavior, perhaps this time encouraging parents to use his sudden reversal as a way to talk about sex, and pregnancy and its lifelong consequences with their preteen and teen children. But I didn’t really want to give Edwards more attention.
Then, mercifully, along came Oprah and her interview with Bristol Palin, daughter of Sarah Palin, now a brand-new Fox News commentator. On the Oprah show, teen mom Palin—now 19 and the mother of year-old Tripp—again promised in front of millions of viewers to abstain from sex until marriage. Winfrey asked Bristol, “I am just wondering if that’s a realistic goal.”
Oprah told Bristol that she was “going to give you a chance to retract or ease that statement if you want to and not say categorically, ‘I’ll never have sex until I’m married.’ But if you want to hold to that, may the powers be with you. So, you’re going to hold to that?”
Bristol did not waver.
Oprah is on to something: Abstinence before marriage is no longer a viable option for almost everyone, if it ever has been. In the 2007 study “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” which appeared in Public Health Reports, Dr. Lawrence B. Finer, author and research director of the Guttmacher Institute, concluded that “premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans and has been for decades.”
In fact, my generation may have been the last to follow the stricture “don’t have sex until after the ceremony” along with the words “you are now man and wife.” In my era, the early 1950s, young women were supposed to be virgins on their wedding day—although there was no such prohibition for young men. Most of my friends and classmates got married immediately after graduation, and a friend once confided, “We’re getting married so we can finally have sex.” I often wondered how fulfilling many of these relationships turned out to be, as they focused so relentlessly on this one aspect of marital life.
Oprah—wise woman that she is—really pressed her point when she said to Bristol, “Why set yourself up that way? It may be ten years before you get married. Why set yourself up so that everybody you go out with, you date—the media is going to be looking at that person, trying to get that person to sell you out, to say, ‘Did you have sex or not?’ It is nobody’s business when you chose to have sex.”
Dr. Finer also showed wisdom when he wrote that because of his findings, our society should stop focusing relentlessly on preventing premarital sex and promoting chastity. Instead, we should ensure that young people like Bristol get all the information they need to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease when —not if—they have premarital sex.
I would also add that we need to discuss sexual intercourse as just one aspect of many that make up an intimate relationship, and perhaps not the overriding one. True, sexual compatibility is an important ingredient in relationship and durable marriage, but it is often learned over the course of many months and years. This is a fact that young people need to know before they rush headlong into a sexual relationship-set up as the be-all and end-all of teen relationships—after knowing someone for a scant three months.
Sex is a primal force in human relationships, but other attributes are important, too. A recent eHarmony ad talked about the importance of intelligence and values in relationships. That’s more like it, I thought. We should concentrate on these attributes and not exclusively about sexual intercourse. It was, after all, the lack of both intelligence and values that brought John Edwards’ political career to an end and untold pain to his wife, mistress, and four children.
But to get away from the singular act of sexual intercourse and focus on relationships would take a sea change of huge proportions in our society—since we all know how fixated our culture is on sex. (And I write this just as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue hits the stands.)
As for politicians, I would like to see them relax, take a deep breath, and drop their concern about wiping out premarital sex among older teens. Rather, I would like to see them shift their thinking—and funding—from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs to comprehensive sex education, which gives young people complete information about the elements of healthy relationships plus knowledge about unhealthy relationships, sexual abuse and violence, and the latest information about pregnancy and disease prevention.
Bristol Palin was in a tight spot when Oprah interviewed her. Her mother sat right next to her, which must have been intimidating. Sarah Palin is the darling of the dwindling abstinence-only movement, and her daughter certainly couldn’t have spoken against the effort with her mom sitting cheek by jowl.
But I hope in the years to come, she will remember and take Ms. Winfrey’s wise words to heart. I wish her luck in forming her own conclusions—free from political ideology—about when and why to have sex in the future.
Perhaps we should name Oprah “Sex Educator in Chief of the U.S.,” and have her talk more about this tough topic. Perhaps she should invite Edwards on her show and try to knock some common sense into his head. But on second thought, maybe she shouldn’t, because then I would have to write another column about yet another male politician behaving badly—and I really don’t want to do that.