Sex and Sexism

Women’s reproductive health in America is under assault. Many state legislatures have recently debated or passed laws requiring women to undergo patronizing, invasive, and expensive procedures before they are allowed to have an abortion.  Contraception, too, has suddenly become a topic of debate among politicians and pundits, although 99% of American women who have sex have used birth control and public health experts widely agree that it is an essential part of women’s health care.  Rush Limbaugh even went so far as to defame Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” for the sin of testifying before Congress on the necessity of insurance coverage for birth control. These events demonstrate a troubling attitude in America: that it is acceptable to demean and disparage women for their sexual and reproductive choices.

This attitude pervades our national discourse, and Harvard is no exception. Last month, a poster campaign across campus promulgated the following, seemingly benign, message: “I want to be 34 percent less likely than my peers to experience separation or divorce.  My sexual choices now are making a difference.”  This campaign was an effort by True Love Revolution, in coordination with the inter-collegiate Love and Fidelity Network, to convince students to wait until marriage to have sex. Below the tagline, the posters elaborated: “Women who had their first sexual encounter prior to their first marriage have been shown to be about 34 percent more likely to experience marital dissolution.” Though much more polite than Rush Limbaugh, and less invasive than state lawmakers, this campaign exemplified the troubling national attitude that misunderstands and demeans women and sexuality. Although there are legitimate reasons for making the personal choice to abstain until marriage, this campaign did not make those arguments, and instead presented misleading statistics and patronizing gender stereotypes.

Briefly ignoring the posters’ social message, the campaign has an enormous flaw: correlation does not imply causation. These posters take a correlational statistic—that people who have sex before marriage get divorced more frequently than those who do not—and use this to claim that by having premarital sex now, you putting your future marriage in danger. Although the survey in question consider certain possible confounding factors, including religion and education level, it is impossible for any survey to determine that one factor causes another. A randomized, controlled study would be the only way to demonstrate such causality—based only on the data from this survey, it could just as easily be that people who decide to have premarital sex are also independently more likely to decide to divorce. For example, perhaps women who feel empowered to have sex before marriage might feel similarly empowered to leave an unhealthy or abusive marriage. From the opposite perspective, perhaps women who are less devoted to the idea of abstinence also tend to be less devoted to the idea of marriage.

However, True Love Revolution is not only guilty of a poor understanding of statistics. By targeting women specifically—whether this was intentional or merely thoughtless—this poster campaign perpetuates sexist attitudes by placing unequal demands on women and men. It implies that women bear the responsibility for refraining from sex, and that any woman who does not follow these standards deserves blame for ruining both her own and her future husband’s marriage, while the man, apparently, remains blameless.

Not only does this poster campaign create a double standard for men and women, but it also denies women agency in their married lives. By referring to “marital dissolution” as something one might “experience,” the posters imply that divorce is something that just happens to you, dictated unavoidably by your past. In reality, divorce is a decision made by one or both members of a marriage, something that you as an individual have control over. After putting the entire burden of responsibility on women to abstain from premarital sex, these posters suddenly deny women—and also men—any of the same agency in the process of divorce.

Moreover, this campaign implies that divorce is something to be avoided at all costs. While divorce is by no means a pleasant experience, it may be preferable to staying in an abusive or miserable marriage. It is judgmental and unfair to assume that you know whether it is right for someone else to remain married—not to mention to draw conclusions about marriages that haven’t even happened yet. These posters function on the assumption that a woman must want nothing more than to be married to one person her whole life, no matter how circumstances may change over the course of that marriage or what sacrifices she must make to reach that goal.

If the members of True Love Revolution believe that it is morally wrong to have sex before marriage, they should say so, and we can debate that idea on its own merits. However, it is intellectually dishonest to present misleading statistics. It is demeaning and offensive to create a double standard in which women, and women alone, are to be judged for their sexual behavior. And it is equally demeaning and offensive to deny women’s agency in their future married lives. If True Love Revolution wants to make a case for abstinence, they should do so without hiding behind faulty logic and patronizing rationalizations. Let’s talk about these issues, but let’s do so in good faith.

Emily S. Unger '13 is a organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Quincy House. Rachel E. Zax '12 is a mathematics concentrator in Adams House.

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