Rooting for virginity

The old truism about lies, damn lies and statistics is graphically demonstrated today by two equally dodgy ideological warriors from opposite sides of the barbed wire fence. Writing in today’s Australian, the Right’s Janet Albrechtsen predictably joins the Bush/Howard push against gay marriage. Incidentally, I fully agree with her remarks about gay activist Rodney Croome’s disgraceful apparent threat to invoke “anti-vilification” laws against Archbishop George Pell: these are laws that have no legitimate place in a free and democratic society. However, Albrechtsen then tries to bolster her argument by gesturing hypnotically in the direction of statistics, but not quoting them:

The conservative case for gay marriage is that it will not undermine traditional marriage; if anything it will enhance it by showing the innate desire of people, gay and straight, to enter into a deeper, state-sanctioned form of commitment.

But that hypothesis has been tested in Scandinavia and found wanting. With all eyes turned to Denmark for the royal wedding in Copenhagen on Friday between Tasmanian Mary Donaldson and Crown Prince Frederik, it is interesting to look at how marriage there has fared after a decade of legal gay marriage.

Writing in The Weekly Standard earlier this year, Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, pointed out that in Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, where gay marriage was introduced, de facto unions and out-of-wedlock births have risen significantly. …

It’s true that in Scandinavia, co-habitation and out-of-wedlock births were on the rise before gay marriage became legal. But a decade or so of legal gay marriage has done nothing to make marriage stronger. Indeed, sanctioning gay marriage has only served to send the message that all family forms are equal, increasing the trend to out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, George Moonbat cites an entirely different set of statistics, albeit talking about a slightly different though closely related topic. Moonbat focuses on the Bush Administration’s Canute-like program to promote sexual abstinence before marriage, and associated attempts to make contraceptive advice and sex education for teenagers more difficult to obtain:

The prevalence of both teenage pregnancy and venereal disease in this country and the US is generally blamed on lax morals and a permissive welfare state. Teenagers are in trouble today, the conservatives who dominate this debate insist, because of the sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s and the willingness of the state to support single mothers. On Sunday, Ann Widdecombe maintained that sex education has “failed”: those who promote it should now “shut up” and leave the welfare of our teenagers to the virginity campaigners. Denny Pattyn, the founder of the Silver Ring Thing, calls this “the cesspool generation – suffering the catastrophic effects of the sexual revolution”. These people have some explaining to do.

Were we to accept the conservatives’ version, we would expect the nations in which sex education and access to contraception are most widespread to be those that suffer most from teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The truth is the other way around.

The two western countries at the top of the disaster league, the United States and the United Kingdom, are those in which conservative campaigns are among the strongest and sex education and access to contraception are among the weakest. The US, the UN Population Fund’s figures show, is the only rich nation stuck in the middle of the third world block, with 53 births per 1,000 teenagers – a record worse than those of India, the Philippines and Rwanda. The UK comes next with 20. The nations the conservatives would place at the top of the list are clumped at the bottom. Germany and Norway produce 11 babies per 1,000 teenagers, Finland eight, Sweden and Denmark seven and the Netherlands five.

Unicef’s explanation is pretty unequivocal. Sweden, for example, radically changed its sex education policies in 1975. “Recommendations of abstinence and sex only within marriage were dropped, contraceptive education was made explicit, and a nationwide network of youth clinics was established specifically to provide confidential contraceptive advice and free contraceptives … Over the next two decades, Sweden saw its teenage birth rate fall by 80 per cent.” Sexually transmitted diseases, in contrast to the rising rates in the UK and the US, declined by 40% in the 1990s.

“Studies of the Dutch experience,” Unicef continues, “have concluded that the underlying reason for success has been the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception.” Requests for contraceptives there “are not associated with shame or embarrassment”, and “the media is willing to carry explicit messages” about them that are “designed for young people”. This teeming cesspool has among the lowest abortion and teenage birth rates on earth. …

If all this were widely known, the conservatives and evangelicals would never dare to make the claims they do. So they must ensure that we don’t find out. In January, the Sunday Telegraph claimed that Europeans “look on in envy” at the US record on teenage pregnancies. It supported this extraordinary statement by deliberately fudging the figures: running the teenage birth rate per 1,000 in the US against the total teenage birthrate in the UK, so leaving its readers with no means of comparison.

Breathtaking as this deception is, it’s not half as bad as what Bush has been up to. When his cherished abstinence programmes failed to reduce the rate of teenage births, he instructed the US Centres for Disease Control to stop gathering data. He also forced them to drop their project identifying the sex education programmes that work, after they found that none of the successful ones were “abstinence only”. Bush should also hope that we don’t look too closely at his record as governor of Texas. He spent $10m on abstinence campaigns there, with the result that Texas has the fourth-highest rate of HIV infection in the union, and the slowest decline of any state in the birth rate among 15- to 17-year-olds. …

As a paid-up member of the Troppo Armadillo post-moral majority, I’m temperamentally inclined to accept Moonbat’s version of reality. However, as a dedicated sceptic who knows that both Moonbat and Albrechtsen are notoriously unreliable sources, it would be safer to assume that they’re both distorting and selectively quoting figures for their own purposes.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2024 years ago

I was going to be a smarty-pants and quickly and come up with some statistics but I couldn’t find any. :(
Instead I’ll say that at regardless of Janets statistics, her arguement is not persuasive, “all family forms are equal, increasing the trend to out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation”, I see no problem with any of those things.

2024 years ago

Andrew Sullivan has been all over this topic. I’ve got a summary on my blog, here.