Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey




login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Palin’

Abstinence Only Until Marriage? Basta Cosi…

July 28, 2011

Back in 2008 when Bristol Palin “lost her abstinence,” her mom Sarah was a staunch supporter of abstinence-only-until-marriage “education.” So when unmarried Bristol turned up pregnant, her mother did a very effective job of denying the reality that not only do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs not work, but they also are, as Bristol herself said, “unrealistic.” Now, Palin’s son Track has a wife of two months, who is visibly pregnant, which means that she became pregnant before the wedding. (Clutch the pearls!) Yet Grandma Palin remains strongly opposed to comprehensive sexuality education. And she is not alone in her denial, her resistance or her hypocrisy.

Palin's views on sexuality education

I don’t know what is more troublesome: the idea that social conservatives continue to push for the propagation and funding of these programs that have absolutely no research demonstrating any long-term effectiveness; the fact that the federal government continues to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs (over $1 billion to date); or the “holier-than-thou” attitude that empowers conservative politicians to publicly and unapologetically tell the country how we should live our lives (until they or a member of their family contradict the party line and suddenly, conveniently, the entire issue becomes “a matter of privacy”). It makes me think of a young child being told by her parent, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That doesn’t fly with young people about anything, especially something as significant to them as sex and sexuality. And by withholding life-enhancing, sometimes lifesaving, information from young people, we are setting them up for unhealthy interactions with unpredictable outcomes.

What if we were to acknowledge the reality that some people choose to wait to have sex until they are married, and some do not? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, because in acknowledging that, we would need to acknowledge some concepts that alternately terrify or are irrelevant to social conservatives. For example, we’d need to acknowledge that not everyone who is in a sexual relationship is heterosexual and therefore “until marriage” is an exclusionary time frame. We would need to acknowledge that young people can and do make decisions for themselves, including decisions about sexuality. We would need to acknowledge that, as parents, one of our most important jobs is to talk with our children about sexuality from the very youngest ages and keep talking about it with them through their lives—and that means talking about much more than telling our kids to “just say no.” And we would need to acknowledge that, since far too many parents feel uncomfortable with or unprepared to discuss sexuality, they need the support of educational professionals to teach comprehensive sexuality education at school. That means teaching not only about abstinence, but also about contraception, safer sex and much more.

Enough excuses. Enough faux moralism. As my late grandmother would say, “Basta cosi.” Enough is enough.

Oh, Bristol and Levi Are Getting Married, but Should We Really Care?

July 15, 2010

I overslept yesterday morning and paid a price. Usually I get up at 6:30, catch the opening of the TODAY Show, and am out the door for a run. Not yesterday: I walked into the kitchen and flipped on the TV just in time to catch the 7:30 segment on Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston’s announced engagement (nice, big ring) and impending marriage.

I didn’t intend to start my day with this “exclusive” from Us Weekly, and for a moment I thought I’d tuned in to a story from The National Enquirer rather than NBC.

Then I remembered that Gail Collins had indicated last week in her column, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” that a reconciliation was imminent, and she wisely warned other young women, “Don’t have unprotected sex with your boyfriends, girls. Look what he might turn into,” i. e. someone so taken with celebrity that he will do anything to make sure he remains in the spotlight. However, she never went so far as to talk engagement or impending marriage.

So, I put down my running shoes and listened instead to Matt Lauer interview the

publisher of Us Weekly, who was about to burst for joy at her magazine’s great scoop.(I must admit that the cover picture of the threesome was winsome and quite gorgeous. Tripp, where did you ever get those luminous blue eyes?). I listened while they discussed the couple’s decision to go ahead and get engaged “without her parents’ permission (!),” their decision to practice abstinence-until-marriage (!), and their plans to “see a marriage counselor once they were married (!).”

About my first exclamation mark: The couple’s proclamation that although they posed for pictures and gave the scoop to Us, they needed to ask her parents for permission to marry seems ingenious to me. In the 21st century, most young adults in America (Bristol is 19 and Levi 21) are making this critical decision on their own. Of course neither Bristol nor Levi have any visible sources of income, unless you count her speaking fees and freebies such as the Us Weekly photo shoot, so perhaps it really is essential that they get her parents’ permission before planning what will surely be one of the celebrity weddings of the year and living happily ever after.

My second exclamation mark: I just don’t know how any young person who’s had an unplanned pregnancy can pretend to be a poster child for abstinence-until-marriage. It boggles my mind; at the very least, it is silly and contorted to take this position, and it sends a totally mixed message to other teens.

I’m aware that Bristol has teamed up with The Candies Foundation and, for a rather high fee, speaks to young women around the country on the advantages of abstinence-until-marriage. Why is virginity such an important issue, particularly for young women? Most young people have sex before marriage. There is nothing shameful about this conduct, unless sex is forced or unprotected and unless a person violates a religious principle that requires one to abstain until marriage-but that is a personal matter.

I would prefer that Bristol talk about how condoms can break, how it can be difficult to negotiate with your partner to use them and how, in the heat of the moment, a lot of young people don’t use them. Points like these, I think, would really be helpful to a teen audience.

My third exclamation point: the need for an early visit to a marriage counselor reminded me of a friend who, many years ago when trying to juggle the lives of five very active children, said she needed a live-in-driver. I have always thought this was the smartest idea I’d heard to help harried young women with children keep their sanity.

When Us Weekly mentioned that Bristol and Levi were going to see a marriage counselor once they married, I wondered if marriage counselors rather than live-in-drivers are the way to go for this generation. Periodic visits to a marriage counselor are wise, but I wonder if in Bristol and Levi’s case, with so much early stress in the relationship, the visit should precede rather than follow the wedding.

When the segment was finally finished and Lauer had moved on to another topic, I picked up my cup of coffee and glanced at my local paper, The Times of Trenton, and read the headline: “In India, divorce or die.” It turned out to be a rather fascinating segue from the Bristol/Levi tale.

This story centered on a newly married young couple, Ravinder Gehlaut and Shilpa Kadiya, who are in mortal danger of being killed because of an ancient mediaeval custom requiring that members of the same clan not marry. (Clan in India is not to be confused with caste. These two are members of the same caste.)

The marriage of the young couple had been arranged quite properly by their families as required under Hindu law and took place in March. Then the older male elders of the village, frustrated and angered by rapid social change, intervened and ruled that Ravinder and Shilpa were members of the same clan, making them brother and sister to each other, although they were not related by blood. The elders said that the couple had “dishonored the village” and demanded that they divorce. Although Shilpa is pregnant, the elders insisted that she marry another man. The couple refused and after warding off the blows of an incensed mob, fled the village. They are presently hiding out among Ravinder’s extended family, but fear constantly for their safety.

No glossy magazine cover for these two. They are fleeing for their lives.

These two unions represent extremes along the bell-shaped curve of marriage. Somewhere there must be a middle, where we stop fawning over every little move that celebrities make and where we offer, through the U.N. or our foreign policies, to provide protection to young couples whose lives are endangered by ancient rituals.

My head is still spinning from all that I had to think about with Bristol and Levi and my heart still hurts from reading about the plight of the young Indian couple.

Perhaps the only and best thing I can do is to make sure my alarm is set properly tonight, so I will not oversleep again tomorrow.

Oprah Winfrey’s Words of Wisdom about Sex

February 17, 2010

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.

A Panel of Palins

March 5, 2009

Let’s give credit where it is due: I am pleased that Bristol Palin and her mother, Sarah Palin, the Alaskan Governor and former vice presidential candidate, are speaking out about the birth of Bristol’s son, Tripp. Tripp was born two months ago when Bristol was barely 18. His parents are still in high school and, although engaged, have no immediate plans to marry.

Hurrah for Bristol and the governor for telling Greta Van Susteren of FOX that they are now opposed to abstinence-only-until marriage (AOUM) education in public schools.  (See video of the interview below.) Governor Palin calls abstinence-only “naïve,” and her daughter, although saying everyone should be abstinent, calls it “not very realistic.” These are small steps in the right direction.




It would be great if Sarah Palin and Bristol wrote to the president, their senators and congressperson and asked them to remove funding for AOUM from the federal budget. The unplanned pregnancy that brought little Tripp into the world is a perfect example of the results of incomplete sexuality education for teens.

Given her interview with Van Susteren, it’s clear that Bristol is willing to become the celebrity poster gal for preventing teen pregnancy. (The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate among Western industrialized nations, although it has plummeted in the last decade.) Bristol told Van Susteren, “I’m not the first person that it’s happened to, and I’m not going to be the last.” Later, she added: “Kids should just wait. . . . It’s not glamorous at all.”

I combed a recent People magazine article about Bristol to see if she was going to say something more substantive beyond, “I hope that people learn from my story.”  She added that it was her decision to have the baby, not her mother’s, and that she wishes she had gotten an education and “started a career first.”

However, her message is contradictory, as are most messages when they involve unplanned births; she also told People, “He…brings so much joy. I don’t regret it at all.”

I think Bristol should appear as part of a panel of teens who have been affected by teen pregnancy. For example, consider a panel composed of Palin and teens who’ve had the following experiences:

  • a teen girl impregnated by an older man;
  • a teen girl whose family is entirely supportive of early child bearing;
  • a teen girl who has chosen abortion with her parents’ support;
  • a teen dad who had to drop out of school to work in a dead-end job; and
  • a teen who is having sex but using reliable contraception.

This “panel of Palins” would represent different races, ethnicities and classes and would answer all questions put to it by a teen audience. Teens’ questions would be written anonymously and placed in a large Question Box on a table onstage. A trusted faculty person or student would read questions aloud, without embarrassment or editing, to the panel for answers.

My hope is that such a panel would get to the heart of the matter about why and how teens get pregnant and have babies while still in high school. Bristol Palin can really make a difference if she tells the truth and doesn’t gloss over details. She will need to be exceptionally honest and not mouth platitudes such as, “I wish I had waited.”

Bristol needs to tell her peers about the failures of abstinence-only and the importance of using contraception. She can always make a pitch for remaining abstinent, since many teens choose this route. But she also needs to explain how important it is to talk to parents about sex and urge students to use good teen sexual health Web sites like Sexetc.org.

I don’t envy Bristol the role of becoming the nation’s poster teen for pregnancy prevention. But if she does it well, she could make a real difference. This coming May is teen pregnancy prevention month. Bristol and her potential panel members don’t have a moment to lose.

Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a People.com reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.


Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)

(more…)