Sunday, November 25, 2007

What the heck is social conservatism?

After reading Amber's response to my last post, it hit me why social conservatism is so confusing. While it might seem like the answer to the (rhetorical) question about when the National Review thinks it's OK for anyone to have sex would be, when they're in a married, man-woman couple and looking to have children, things are clearly not that straightforward.

The fuzziness comes from the gap between social conservatism--its American incarnation a mishmash of Judeo-Christianity, 1950s-nostalgia, and pandering populism--and adherence to the tenets of a religious faith. For a Catholic, from what I understand, the sin is premarital sex, no matter how monogamous, not promiscuity or early sexual activity. For many Jews, marriage and children are nothing to celebrate if the union brings together a Jew and a gentile. Protestantism... is different depending which sect, and confuses me regardless, but I'd imagine no one variant matches up exactly with the Republican way.

Meanwhile, for a social conservative, there's a difference in outrage when responding to promiscuity and monogamy among the unmarried, along with a different attitude towards the sexual activity of youth (loosely defined) and that of indisputable adults, assuming of course that these adults are straight. Good, respectable choices according to social conservatism (also, as Amber notes, fiscal conservatism) include an eye towards productivity and a strong work ethic. To a certain extent, as long as a 23-year-old made it that far without getting pregnant or openly putting anyone else in that state, how this came to pass is irrelevant, whether from the perspective of social policy or socially conservative family members, who will look the other way unless something actually happens.

For social conservatives, the question is avoiding what they consider to be social ills--promiscuity, teen pregnancy, abortion, sometimes but not always homosexuality--and these 'problems' do not line up exactly with any one religion's understanding of morality. Yet they feel religious, and social conservatives often borrow from religion in ways that themselves end up contradicting social conservatism. Protesting cheap or free birth control for adult students is a perfect example of this. The social conservative, unlike the Catholic or the Hasid, not only wants to see large families but wants to see them start once both the man and the woman have completed their educations and once the man, at least, has a good, respectable job. Pragmatically this means birth control from (to give a conservative estimate) ages 18-23.


Miss Self-Important said...

This will not get at all the issues of the last three (sans Thanksgiving) posts, but let me at least try:

Abstinence education is not usually proposed because it is believed that contraceptives don't work. There are some semantic battles about whether condoms work 99% or 96% of the time or something like that, but that really is besides the point of most abstinence education. The argument of these programs doesn't really hinge on the effectiveness of contraception. When I did research on this over the summer, I found that abstinence education and what is called comprehensive sex ed (and this will also get at the idea behind social conservatism) are based on two completely different premises.

Comprehensive sex ed. is based on the idea that all unplanned pregnancies are basically bad, whether or not the pregnant woman is married. Planned Parenthood describes its efforts as a "war on pregnancy," as though pregnancy were an epidemic disease rather than a necessary and fundamental fact of society. For PP and similar organizations, sex is basically about pleasure, and pregnancy is an aberrant and unfortunate result, but not an untreatable one. Their website, for example, contains the following illuminating suggestion: “Recognition that sexual expression is a crucial component of teenagers' development will help guarantee teenagers the right to honest, accurate information about sex and access to high quality reproductive health services that will empower them to express their sexuality in safe and healthy ways.” If children are not a healthy expression of a couple's sexuality, I'm not really sure what is.

The age they select (rather arbitrarily, I think, but not unreasonably given their rationale) for the outer limits of danger is 20. Their materials offer no suggestion that it's ever acceptable to become pregnant before then (despite the fact that, according to Census data, 20 percent of 18-24 year olds are married) or even any positive reason to become pregnant ever. The assumption is that once you're over the 20-year mark and you want to give up your independence and your "healthy" pursuit of self-gratification, Planned Parenthood at least won't discourage you. And in no case do organizations like Planned Parenthood acknowledge the social nature of sex and childbearing. It's all about you alone maximizing your control over your biology. (Consider, for example, their extensive campaign against parental consent laws for minors seeking abortions.)

Abstinence programs, on the other hand, aren't really about reducing teenage pregnancy or STD transmittal rates. There is a famous quote from Rep. Tom Coburn about parental consent laws that advocates of comprehensive sex ed. love: “If we put in the [parental notice language], some additional young women will get pregnant; some will get a sexually transmitted disease.” Regardless of their PR efforts to dispel this idea, this is a basically acceptable trade-off for abstinence proponents. Their aim is not to minimize the national economic burdens of unplanned pregnancy, but rather to teach children to think of sex and childbirth in a marital, community, and frequently religious context. The curricula of these programs spend a lot of time painting pictures of healthy romantic relationships and making students discuss their goals for the future, and how marriage and family fit in to them. They emphasize that decisions about sex and reproduction don't just affect the individual, but partners, families, and communities.

And in a weird way, this is borne out by evidence: several studies (which I can cite, but this is already long enough) show that the most accurate predictors of sexual behavior in teenagers are the attitudes and behaviors of their friends, then their families, then their larger communities. Higher rates of religious observance consistently correlate with higher raters of abstinence and lower rates of risky behavior. It's possible that this is because religious teens are more committed to a certain set of ideals about marriage and family, but it's also possible, and I think more plausible, that these teens are more likely to spend time with people who support those ideals, and whose commitment to them reinforces their own, and vice versa.

The main contradiction in the Planned Parenthood/economic individualist approach to sex seems to me to be that, while it's based on a broad economic calculus that teenage pregnancy is costly to society in terms of tax dollars and, more importantly, human capital, it can make no coherent argument for why individuals should consider social costs at all when making choices about sex. It's all about the individual and her control over her body. Instead of acknowledging that theirs is basically a social end, they dodge the issue by appealing to a calculus of individual cost and benefit--if you get pregnant at 15, it will hamper your chances of being wealthier in the future.

But what if you want to get married early? What if you want to get pregnant early without being married? Is that not your individual choice? Planned Parenthood says no one should get pregnant before the age of 20. It has nothing to say to these people because it has no broader conception of the purpose of sex and the good of pregnancy, no idea of how sex might be more than a convenient form of pleasure-seeking, but might serve some end of human happiness, no vision of childbirth as anything more than an unfortunate burden for women who failed to exercise perfect control over their biological equipment.

The major shortcoming of abstinence education is that it doesn't work, even on its own terms, where it most needs to, that is, in neighborhoods that have the highest rates of out-of-wedlock birth. Ideally, even if the programs don't lower the teenage pregnancy rate, they should raise the marriage rate in these places. But they don't. So we continue to depend on schools to solve the social ills of America.

Social conservatism doesn't have a magic age for when it's ok to have sex, because its idea of appropriate sex-having does not depend on age or financial status. It's appropriate for a young married couple to have sex and even babies, even if neither partner has completed college and maximized his human capital, even if they are desperately poor, so long as both are committed to each other and to raising their children. The poor are also capable of good relationships and good parenting, and they reject the idea that a child is necessarily deprived if it isn't raised in affluence, which is an idea implicit in a lot of the PP-type rhetoric. Similarly, social conservatives would not suggest that a girl's future is ruined if she has a child at a young age. They believe that having babies is basically a good and happy thing, and raising children is as noble an undertaking as a higher education or a career. I think that it would be in line with the conservative position to expect the partner and parents of a teenage girl who gets pregnant to help her raise her child, and certainly to advise her (assuming they are not horrible people or entirely absent from her life) before she chooses an abortion, hence the support for parental consent laws. (PP, in contrast, assumes parents are one of the major obstacles to a child's getting good contraceptive information.) There is also a strain of abstinence education that attempts to teach men their responsibility for pregnancy and children, and generally the family and community involvement emphasis is supposed to diminish the isolation of women in the baby-making undertaking. Basically, social conservatism thinks that the answer to America's social ills is functional and intact families, and its policies aim at promoting that end.

None of that addresses the sex-in-college question directly, but I think you get the idea. This comment doesn't need to get any longer.

Phoebe said...

Interesting stuff. I have some questions/comments, but first, my own views on this subject are by no means the party line of Planned Parenthood or any other organization. Even though I agree with much of that approach, I think 20 is an arbitrary age, and if they indeed insist that pregnancy is bad even for those who want children, that is rather silly. However...

"Planned Parenthood describes its efforts as a 'war on pregnancy,' as though pregnancy were an epidemic disease rather than a necessary and fundamental fact of society."

It's a matter of context. What is necessary for human continuity in general is in particular cases far more devastating than many diseases.

"If children are not a healthy expression of a couple's sexuality, I'm not really sure what is."

Again, context. If having children would cause a couple to go broke, break up, or both...

"20 percent of 18-24 year olds are married"

What's the breakdown within that window? Presumably above 20% for 24 and below for 18.

"The curricula of these programs spend a lot of time painting pictures of healthy romantic relationships and making students discuss their goals for the future, and how marriage and family fit in to them. They emphasize that decisions about sex and reproduction don't just affect the individual, but partners, families, and communities."

There's a big leap from, sex is more than pleasure to, "healthy romantic relationships." Who decides what's healthy? Or is "healthy" anything that celebrates the not-yet-born? The obvious question: what about gays?

"There is also a strain of abstinence education that attempts to teach men their responsibility for pregnancy and children [..]"

Just one strain? Men are responsible for 100% of pregnancies, seems abstinence education should bring them in a bit more.

Finally, what this still comes down to for me is that I don't believe the message of sex being more than just pleasure, or of the value of monogamy, should be taught 'the hard way,' via the threat of unwanted pregnancies and STDs.

I'd have phrased that last bit better but maybe tomorrow when I'm more awake.

Phoebe said...

Also... I think there's a danger in institutions or sex-ed programs declaring babies *in general* a good or bad thing. Certainly by college (getting back to the previous discussion) men and women both should know what's out there in terms of birth control and disease prevention. Knowing how not to have a child at 17 can be useful to young women who hope to start huge families at 22.

And... I feel there's something patronizing in the abstinence-education take on teen pregnancy. Of course discussions of social mobility have gotten out of hand when people act like it's a tragedy that not every single person can be an ibanker in Manhattan. However, for anyone on the edge of extreme poverty, having children is only going to make working that much more difficult. What do social conservatives think about welfare? Telling impoverished 15-year-old girls to marry the boys or men who've impregnated them is at least as patronizing as telling them to use protection in order to finish school. Since fertility doesn't end at age 18, the social-conservative way cuts off options, while the PP way keeps them open.

Miss Self-Important said...

Planned Parenthood is a stand-in for general liberal premises of sex ed. and contraception. In reality, few schools promote them exclusively, and statistics suggest that most schools use some combination of contraceptive and abstinence education. However, the abstinence aspect of such programs (and I had one in middle school) is based on the same economic/value-free premise as the contraception aspect. That is, abstinence is presented as just an extremely effective form of contraception, rather than a moral decision based on some larger idea of the purpose of sex, love, and childbirth.

Most proponents of abstinence education do not think in terms of safe or unsafe sex, or planned and unplanned pregnancy in the sense that pregnancy is a punishment for bad behavior or a way of "learning the hard way" about the virtues of monogamy. It's not, for them, about conveying value-neutral information about how to put on a condom, but about conveying precisely the values that would give people a basis for making decisions about when and why to have sex in the first place. What they want to do is transform the economic paradigm which dominates our thinking about sex, marriage, and reproduction into a family- and community-centered paradigm. That is the major difference, and that's the reason why they can't answer your objections on your terms. They simply do not think that strict individualism is a valid worldview, or that economic considerations should trump moral ones. And it doesn't bother them that, when the abstinence fails, "some people will do it anyway." If they had it their way, those people will face the social pressure of a bad reputation, and their unintended pregnancies will be absorbed by the family and community.

You are imagining the 15-year-old or 19-year-old who acts on her right to dispose of her own body as she pleases by having sex. Hence, she needs to be protected from unintended consequences. If she accidentally gets pregnant, this is a mistake, and if the prospect of having the baby makes her unhappy, she exercises her right to abort. They think that no one has the right to dispose of their bodies as they please, that they have obligations to their families and their communities, and that if they should transgress those obligations and get pregnant, then the baby is a new person with value whose best interest must be weighed against the interests of the woman and her partner. And it doesn't matter if the baby's interests would interfere with the parents' future plans or diminish their prosperity. Now they are parents, and that is a happy thing, even if it was not a planned or intended thing. (On the question of intended vs. unintended pregnancy, JSTOR this: Laurie Schwab Zabin, “Ambivalent Feelings About Parenthood May Lead to Inconsistent Contraceptive Use-and Pregnancy.” Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 31, No. 5. (Sep. - Oct., 1999), pp. 250-251. It's short and really interesting.)

They would say that sex has a purpose, that purpose is procreation, and no matter how many medical interventions exist to sever that tie, the best approach to sex is one that keeps this connection in mind in all decision-making. In that sense, childbearing is the most healthy expression of sexuality because an unwanted pregnancy is a sign of unhealthy sexuality, that is, sex for mere pleasure. I haven't looked into their rhetoric about contraception in marriage, but I assume that there is tacit support for it since we're not seeing an outbreak of 12-child families. Abortion, however, is a definite no.

It is unlikely that the world will ever work this way, though abstinence supporters express relative willingness to accept occasional failure. At the same time, I think the emphasis on individual control based on momentary whim, and the all-importance of financial prospects in some ways lets men off the hook for their actions, and puts women, particularly poor women, in worse situations, financially and socially, than they would otherwise find themselves in. Most stable communities can absorb out-of-wedlock births to a great extent without seriously hurting the life chances of parents and children (for example, grandparents can raise babies if the parents are very young, and older parents can marry and share responsibilities, plus there are usually childcare and other social services around). But that safety net doesn't exist in poorer neighborhoods, and that's where out-of-wedlock births pose more serious problems, problems which it's not clear that comprehensive sex ed. is any better at fixing.

The other things:
- By a strain of male-targeted education, I just mean curricula aimed at only boys, as opposed to the general mixed-sex curricula which talk up monogamy, family, and commitment to everyone.
- There is no room for homosexuality in this vision, and even childless coupledom is suspect. This should not come as a surprise to you, I think.
- Marriage generally increases income and financial stability for both partners, no less among the poor as the rich. That is the economic justification for encouraging poor men to marry the poor women they have knocked up.