Melissa D Browning. Theology & Sexuality. Volume 16, Issue 2. 2010.
The house lights dimmed as two screens on either side of the stage came to life. A film began to play. News clips of Bristol Palin as a new mom were edited together with sound bites of teenagers talking about sex. The subject was prom, or more accurately, what goes on after prom. In between the pieces of Bristol’s interview, the audience listened to clips of street interviews with teenagers who joked about sex juxtaposed with interviews where teenagers talked about abstinence. Every so often the screens would transition to statistics about STDs, teen pregnancy, or still photos of young pregnant girls. The teenagers in the video told the audience “it’s our choice,” and “we choose to wait,” and “don’t let someone else choose for you.” Then the screens went dark, the house lights went down, and the music began to play. A group of teenagers entered the stage wearing matching baggy T-shirts and baggy khaki pants, and there, on a dark stage, sandwiched by statistics on STDs, they began to dance. They danced to heavy rap music, and to pictures of pregnant teenage girls, and to words about choosing what to do with one’s body.
This article explores faith-based, performance-oriented abstinence education through the lens of feminist theology by drawing on fieldwork with a US, urban, young adult dance and drama team whose mission is to promote abstinence through performances at high schools and church rallies. Through observation of performances and interviews with performers and program leaders, I analyze the fieldwork by looking at the way gender was performed both on stage and in everyday life. I argue that the performances observed in this fieldwork setting can provide a space by which to examine the gendered nature of abstinence pledges. I then ask how the gendered nature of faith-based abstinence- only education affects limitations of agency as I suggest that the gender roles present within this and similar abstinence education programs could be the greatest obstacle to encouraging a delay of sexual debut among adolescents and young adults.
Method and Field Site
By way of introduction, the field site I observed is a US, urban, faithbased dance and drama team that is funded through a federal grant and private contributions. The particular group I observed was located in the Midwest, but the national organization had multiple groups in other major US cities as well. The participants ranged in age from 14-21 and the leaders of the program were young adults in their mid to late 20s. The membership of the group was racially/ethnically mixed with students who identified as Black, Latino/a, and White.
The organization gave frequent performances at the city’s public schools as well as at churches and other community rallies. When presenting at public schools, the faith-based component was separate from the actual performances, yet was still the primary motivator for the programming. In this way, the faith-based message was implicit but not explicit. For example, the performances did not use Bible verses or directly refer to God, but the message of the performances was closely aligned with evangelical interpretations of biblical passages on abstinence. The leadership and the team members reported faith to be an important aspect of the work, as the director pointed out by telling me that all the participants were “believers.” Additionally, before each practice the team members met in two groups (separated by gender) for a Bible study.
In conducting this research, I observed performances and practices of the dance and drama team and also observed various educational programs sponsored by this organization in local schools, such as parent education programs. I interviewed the leadership in the program and informally interviewed and talked to dance/drama team members who were both youth and young adults. Beyond the fieldwork, I also analyzed the scripted drama that was performed by the drama team and researched the various religious texts and literature that the team used during the devotional times, which took place before each week’s practice.
The analysis of the fieldwork does not seek to be representative of all faith-based abstinence education programs that use drama or dance, but seeks rather to provide a space to draw connections between abstinence education and interpretations of gender. The field site observed in this fieldwork will function as a lens with which to view the intersection of abstinence education and gender from a feminist theo-ethical perspective. Future research is needed to understand the ways in which this particular fieldwork can be generalized through comparison to other abstinence education programs and models.
Abstinence Education in the US
The field site studied in this research utilizes the pledge model of abstinence education. The pledge model, where young people are asked to make a verbal or written commitment to abstain from sex until marriage, is primarily a “risk avoidance” rather than “risk reduction” model of sex education. In other words, the primary ideology is that young people can “choose” to completely avoid sex and can (and should) enter marriage while still a virgin. Faith-based versions of risk avoidance programs often used terms such as “born-again virgin” for those who have made an abstinence pledge after sexual debut. Popular programs of this type include True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, both of which use religious conviction as a the foundation for abstinence-only education. True Love Waits, a program started by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1993, operates primarily at a denominational level through curriculum in local churches and church-based rallies. Silver Ring Thing is a travelling rallybased movement that sets up in cities and is sponsored by local churches. Both movements use rallies and both use symbols, such as a silver or gold ring similar to a wedding ring, to represent the abstinence pledge.
Another major pledge-model program is the Purity Ball movement, where fathers take their daughters to a dance that culminates in the daughters’ pledging to their fathers that they will not have sex until they are married. The fathers, in turn, pledge to help guard their daughter’s virginity until marriage. News reports cite girls as young as four years old attending these events. While Purity Balls focus specifically on girls, other abstinence pledge models maintain a gendered division in more implicit ways. In most of the major pledge programs, and in the program I observed, everyone is encouraged to be “chaste,” but different arguments are used according to gender.
One example is seen in the literature used in the Bible study sessions at my own field site. The team members were divided into two groups according to gender and both groups used gender specific evangelical texts for these sessions. The girls’ group used a book titled “Lies Women Believe.” In this book, the author, Nancy Leigh DeMoss names beliefs such as: “I have my rights,” “I can’t control my emotions,” or “If I submit to my husband I’ll be miserable” as the “lies” that women believe. The book uses a diary format where “Eve” from the biblical creation story talks about her relationship with “Adam” and her children. The prologue of the book begins with Eve eating the forbidden fruit and then giving it to Adam. The book outlines familiar evangelical themes such as submission within marriage and love defined as self-sacrifice. Similarly gendered, the boys group used an evangelical book called “Real Men.” Ironically, I was strictly not allowed to observe the girls’ Bible study group during my fieldwork, but the boys’ group allowed me to listen in on their Bible study sessions.
While the program I observed was not a part of any of the previously mentioned national movements, it is also part of a national movement, which functions in a similar model, using a rally format and verbal and written abstinence pledges. Many of the participants used symbols, such as a gold or silver ring, to symbolize their own abstinence pledge. For this group, dance and drama are utilized primarily as a means of speaking about abstinence and also as a way of developing leadership skills for the young people who participate in the movement. During the performances, members of the audience were invited forward at the end of certain events to make a pledge that they would be abstinent until marriage. At the events I observed, both very young children (around the age of 10 or 12) as well as young adults in their early 20s participated in the pledge event.
A quick look at the media coverage of abstinence-only education shows that the subject is a controversial topic. But while the popular press often frames the issue as the debate over abstinence versus condoms, the academic literature is more nuanced. There is a general agreement by theorists and practitioners that delaying sexual debut is a good thing. Those who are speaking out “against abstinence education” are more likely to be against “abstinence-only” models, which often utilize abstinence pledges. These same people will also take issue with the “abstinence-until-marriage” paradigm, citing it as unrealistic and naïve.
But abstinence-only and abstinence-pledge models are not the only examples of abstinence education. Many proponents of abstinence-only education would be surprised to learn that organizations that focus on comprehensive sex education, such as Planned Parenthood, also give instruction on abstinence education but do so outside of the abstinence- only paradigm. Comprehensive models are often called “abstinence first” or “abstinence plus” because they encourage a delay of sexual debut while still giving information about methods of safe sex. However the debate ensues, when it comes to the terms of abstinence- how long should young adults wait? Should protection be offered if they are not willing to wait? And what expectations are realistic and promote the overall health of young adults?
While religious traditions have been teaching abstinence in various forms for centuries, public abstinence-only education programs are a relatively new endeavor. In the US, these programs were introduced under President Ronald Regan in 1981, but they were not popularized until 1993 when True Love Waits began holding abstinence rallies. The movement was born out of concern over the high rate of teen pregnancies and the disapproval of “safe sex” methods being taught in schools. Jimmy Hester, one of the developers of the True Love Waits program said in a 1994 interview that, “Parents were hearing messages-whether it be safe sex messages or whatever-that they just didn’t believe were true to their faith.” True Love Waits gained momentum quickly as the movement in the churches soon began to be popular in both public and private schools.
With the popularity of this and other movements, the question at stake became the efficacy of these programs in actually delaying sexual debut. This question is especially paramount in light of recent studies that have consistently argued that abstinence-only programs are not as effective as they claim. Perhaps the most important recent study on this topic comes from the field of public health. In 2009, Janet Elise Rosenbaum published a five-year study comparing virginity pledgers and matched nonpledgers using respondents in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. In this study Rosenbaum uses the Rubin Causal Model (RCM) rather than regression analysis. What this means is that she matches pledgers and non-pledgers with similar ideologies and beliefs in order to obtain a more accurate understanding of whether or not the pledge alone affects whether or not the individual remains abstinent. Previous studies did not take into account that for many pledgers, religious belief and church attendance alone might have caused the individual to delay sexual debut with or without an abstinence pledge, making Rosenbaum’s study even more accurate. In this study Rosenbaum summarizes her findings, saying:
Five years after the pledge, 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers did not differ in premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and anal and oral sex variables. Pledgers had 0.1 fewer past-year partners but did not differ in lifetime sexual partners and age of first sex. Fewer pledgers than matched nonpledgers used birth control and condoms in the past year and birth control at last sex.
The significant piece of this and similar studies is the evidence that those who take an abstinence pledge often do not use birth control or condoms when they break their pledge. In this way, taking an abstinence pledge could lead to more dangerous conditions when the pledge is broken. One of my informants indicated that abstinence pledgers would not carry condoms because having a condom means you “plan” to have sex. They continued by saying it would be better to make a “mistake” and have sex without protection because at least a mistake would not be planned.
In another study on abstinence education, Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner found that for abstinence pledges to work, pledgers must be part of an “embattled minority,” not the majority. The critical point was 30 percent. Once this boundary was crossed, pledgers lost their sense of uniqueness and did not keep their pledge. Bearman and Brückner found results similar to that of other researchers-that when pledgers break their promise, they often do not use protection.
In his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, Mark Regnerus argues that while religion shapes a teenager’s ideological beliefs about sex, it is less likely to affect their behavior—especially when it comes to sex. Regnerus found that while evangelical teens—such as those who participated in my own fieldwork-were less likely to expect sex to be pleasurable, they were still more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, or Jews. They were also the least likely group to use condoms. Regnerus proposes that this could be due to the rhetoric within abstinence education programs, which claims condoms do not work.
In my own fieldwork, my intention was to move beyond the scientific analysis of whether or not abstinence-only education works and instead ask the question of why it might not be working. In attempting to answer this question, I engage the wider interdisciplinary literature, particularly that on gender theory, feminist theology, and theologies of embodiment to ask whether or not the gendered nature of these programs are the biggest obstacles to their achieving the goals they seek to realize. To do this I will first present descriptions of my fieldwork along with my own analysis. These descriptive pieces will be divided into three main categories, which I see as the generative themes emerging from this study: gender roles, purity and eschatology, and condoms and culpability. I will then put the fieldwork in dialogue with the literature to create a feminist theo-ethical interpretation of abstinence-only education programs and the gendered nature of abstinence commitments.
Gender Roles: Performing Gender, Promoting Abstinence
The program I observed used dance and drama as the two primary ways to communicate abstinence education. A typical performance would start with short films of teenagers talking about sex along with statistics about STDs. The performance would then move to an opening dance routine, which would be followed by a sketch. The sketches were thematically connected, allowing the audience to follow the story of a handful of teenagers as they prepared for their high school prom. In between sketches, the dance team took the stage to perform a dance connected to the previous or following sketch. While pieces of the performance were occasionally tweaked or reworked, the group used the same basic scripts for all their performances.
In the first sketch of the performance, the characters were five months from Prom. As the skit opened, two girls, Ginny and Sandy, walked in carrying baskets of laundry and ran into three guys standing on the street. Ginny encouraged Sandy to take back her ex-boyfriend so she would have a date for Prom, even though he had not treated her well. Sandy was not convinced that this would be a good idea. The boys begin to try to impress the girls, but while Ginny was interested Sandy was not. Then the lights dimmed and then the girls re-entered, this time shopping for prom dresses. Ginny was singing while looking for a dress until Sandy showed her the price tag and said the dress was too expensive. Ginny responded by saying her “man” was paying for it and that he was paying for everything-“the limo, the dress, dinner, and the hotel afterwards.” Sandy then responded by asking if she was going to have sex with him. Ginny said, “He’s paying for everything, it’s the least I can do.” Then Sandy began to total up how much each thing cost, and then said, “Is that how much you’re worth? Besides, who gets paid to have sex?” At this point, the characters both became quiet, the lights were dimmed and they exited the stage.
In these two related sketches, the performers in the drama performed typical gender roles. They were carrying the laundry while the boys were standing on the side of the street. The boys were cast in the role of “player” while the girls were on the receiving end of their advances. And it was the girls who were shopping for prom dresses and the boys who were paying the bills. Even the comeback response of “who gets paid to have sex” fit the stereotypical gendered assumption of women as sex workers and men as clients. In other sketches, the female characters were asked to “babysit” children belonging to the male characters. One character played a teenage mom with a “deadbeat” boyfriend who would not respond to the child’s needs.
Gender stereotypes were also reinforced in talk about sex. During the performances, the male characters talked frequently of sexual conquests and of their sexual needs. Male sexual pleasure was elevated while female sexual pleasure was downplayed and even silenced. The characters reinforced the common myth that men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love. The goal for the female characters was getting or keeping a boyfriend while the goal of the male characters was getting sex. In this way, the performances asked young men to delay sexual pleasure to avoid STDs while it asked young women to delay sex to make oneself a more attractive future mate.
The stereotype of woman as seductress was also present in the portrayal of two characters that had taken a pledge to wait until they were married to have sex. In this sketch, the male character is determined to keep the pledge while the female character tries to “tempt” him to get a hotel room and spend the night when he drops her of fat college. In this scene, the gendered image of woman as Eve, the temptress who causes Adam’s fall, is portrayed as women are cast in the role of weak while men are portrayed as strong.
In reflecting on the stereotypical gender roles portrayed in the performance, the question at hand is not a new one: does art imitate life or does life imitate art? One could logically argue that in places (such as when girls carry the laundry or boys take on the role of players) the drama was simply showing things as they are. In other words, it was being true to the lived realities teenagers face. Yet, within the sketches, the gender roles are not challenged, in fact, they are reinforced. This is problematic because when gender roles are inscribed, the choices of an agent are automatically limited. The performance simultaneously asks women to be both vulnerable and strong. They are expected to not break societal expectations regarding gender, but to break other expectations surrounding sexual activity. They are being taught to be submissive while being told not to submit, at least not yet. This leads to the second generative theme: purity and eschatology.
Purity and Eschatology: The Great Orgasm and the Pie in the Sky
Within the performance another prominent theme was the theme of “waiting.” The idea of waiting within an evangelical abstinence-only model functions on multiple levels. In one way it is used to preserve the evangelical ideal of purity (especially that of unmarried girls) while in another more practical way, it is seen as the answer to STDs or teen pregnancies. Yet, I would argue that waiting also functions eschatologically, so to speak, with the final goal of abstinence being “great sex” within a perfect marriage. I have chosen to stretch the meaning of the word “eschatology” here in order to show the significance of the concept, yet even within the theological meaning of the word there are connotations of marriage. Eschatologically speaking, Jesus is seen as the bridegroom and the church is seen as the “bride.” Even in the New Testament a story is told of five virgins who were punished for not having enough oil in their lamps when the bridegroom came.
While in the field I heard repeated stories about how sex would only be pleasurable if one waited (a message primarily geared toward young men), or how “one mistake” could ruin your life (a message primarily geared toward young women). In abstinence-only programs, the choice to wait takes on epic proportions as heaven and hell are said to literally hang in the balance of adolescent decision-making. At the end of one of the performances in my fieldwork, a youth worker approached the stage and told the audience, “We want young people to understand that one decision, one night can even change the rest of their life.” While the statement is not necessarily untrue, it lacks real veracity in that it separates the sexual act from the sexual person. By focusing on one response in one moment, this type of logic neglectfully ignores that as moral people we are the sum of our actions and embodiment. It implies that morality is not an embodied process, but the result of a quick test—that morally, we are made or unmade in one moment. When waiting on sex is framed in terms of salvation-being saved from teen pregnancy, being saved from heartbreak or STDs-then the heaven of waiting for the eschatologically minded teenager becomes marriage-the great orgasm and pie in the sky.
While one could argue that marriage is in fact a moral good and reasonable goal, the use of marriage within abstinence education must be interrogated in light of its heterosexual assumptions and in response to the early marriage tendency for some who make abstinence pledges. An additional problematic aspect of the use of marriage is found in the “fairy-tale” reasoning that accompanies marriage speech in many of these programs. In one speech by a youth worker at the end of a performance, the speaker told her own story of making an abstinence pledge at sixteen and then later marrying her “one in a million.” The retelling of her story was couched in fairy-tale language complete with Princess Diaries’ “foot-pop” animation. In many ways, this creates a gendered “knight in shining armor” type expectation where marriage is expected to be the perfect reward for sexual chastity. Simply speaking, this is just not realistic.
When interviewing an informant (not connected to this organization) who had taken a True Love Waits pledge in high school I heard this same story of waiting nuanced as “waiting for.” This informant, who was thirty-two, identified herself as a virgin, but lamented she had not saved “every physical act for marriage” and said she admired couples who did not kiss until their wedding day. In analyzing this articulation of abstinence, we must question whether or not this understanding puts too much pressure on marriage and even too much pressure on adolescent pledgers, almost setting them up to fail. In the performances I observed, prom itself took on an eschatological significance. As paramount as Armageddon, the high school dance was constructed as the ultimate test of faith-the one moment where everything can go wrong.
Condoms and Culpability: “What if I Stumble, What if I Fall?”
Interestingly enough, within the pledge model of abstinence education, the pledge event is remarkably similar to an “invitation” time in a typical evangelical worship service. Since the revival meetings of the Great Awakening, evangelical churches have ended their services with what is called an “invitation,” giving members of the audience a chance to come forward for “salvation,” to repent of sins, or to join the church. This public walk down the aisle is meant to represent a public decision to change one’s life direction. Similarly, abstinence pledges mirror this type of call and response.
In considering recent studies that show abstinence pledgers are less likely to use contraceptives when they break their pledge, we are leftasking if such a public commitment ceremonies are helpful for young adults. Perhaps the public nature of these commitments is likely to increase the shame felt by a pledger when the pledge is broken, therefore increasing the likelihood of risky behavior. The primary argument against comprehensive sex education is that information about condoms would encourage their use. With this protest in mind, it is logical to assume that participants in these programs may feel that carrying a condom would signal a premeditated promiscuity. In other words, like one informant told me, it would better to slip up and make a mistake than to plan on breaking your promise.
Regnerus’ argument that condom use could be low due to the propaganda against condoms in abstinence-only education was in part supported by my field research. When condoms were mentioned in the sketches or in interviews with the performers, they were always cast in a negative light. In a poem by a spoken word artist preceding one show, the artist quoted the following lyrics: “Oh, but condoms protect me, Wrong, they’re great marketing schemes that steal young men’s dreams because they’ve been taught to feign on the lies that fill the Hollywood screens.” In a second poem, the same artist talked about the saying “taking advantage of opportunity” and asked, “what would happen if opportunity were a woman?” His poem, which was a response to that question, included the following lyrics:
Our opportunity pants and yearns for human beings
who feign for more than pearl white laced kicks
or Victoria Secret white laced tricks
Or treats that defeat the purpose of the male apparatus
White laced Moby… (long pause)
Tricking them into spitting but not supporting…
While condoms were not explicitly named, they were certainly implied as the “treats that defeat the purpose of the male apparatus.” The artist also seems to imply again that condoms do not work when he says men (presumably) are tricked into “spitting but not supporting.” The implication is that condoms do not protect against pregnancy, a presumption that is confirmed as the poem ends with lyrics that speak against abortion, as he says that, “opportunity…should never be aborted, but conceived.”
In another sketch I observed, two characters named James and John are talking about babies. James asks John if he “always wears a condom” and he replies that, yes, he “always wraps it up.” James responds by saying, that even still he might have a baby that he doesn’t know about. He tells John, “First of all, girls be lying, and second of all, remember from health class, condoms reduce the risk but they don’t eliminate it.” In this dialogue, the appeal to “health class” is meant to give legitimacy to the repeated message that condoms don’t work.
Right after this scene, John-who in the previous sketch says he always uses condoms-goes to the side of the stage and tells the audience he has chlamydia. He says, “James was right, girls do lie about who they’ve been with.” He continues by blaming a girl for giving him chlamydia. He goes on to say that “they’ll get what’s coming to them because it’s not like I’m going to quit having sex.” In this dialogue, blaming of the girl for getting pregnant or for spreading an STD is never interrogated. Male characters like John are cast as players whom girls should beware, yet the dynamic of blame goes unquestioned.
In drawing on these three themes: gender roles, purity and eschatology, and condoms and culpability, we are able to more clearly analyze the goals and priorities of faith-based abstinence education. First, as gender roles are performed rather than challenged, we see the underlying expectation of gender complementarity rather than gender equality within relationships. Within this goal exists the assumption that relationships are based on gender binaries and should be between “one man and one woman.” Here, we are leftasking the question of what shape abstinence education might take if equality was embraced as a goal and heteronormativity was not expected. This is a topic we will return to at the conclusion of the article.
Second, the frequent encouragement to “wait” is also gendered as young men and young women are asked to wait for different things and different reasons. In this fieldwork, girls were encouraged to wait for a fairy-tale ending while boys were encouraged to wait to learn responsibility and to exchange pleasure now for greater pleasure later. Third, these performances, based on the foundation of gendered role-playing and eschatological waiting, set participants up for failure in that they place “safe sex” out of reach by promoting “no sex.” Condoms, which can keep teenagers safe from pregnancy and STDs, are set up as an evil akin to having sex in that they constitute pre-mediated sex, which is worse than making a “mistake.”
Gender Binaries and Abstinence Education
In isolating these three generative themes from the fieldwork, I have attempted to demonstrate the ways in which gender binaries and socially constructed gender roles are at play in this program and in similar abstinence-only faith-based initiatives. In the performed dances and dramas, in interviews with informants, and in observed interactions at practices and performances, I watched as gendered boundaries were visibly (re)performed by my informants. In scripted and unscripted moments of group interaction, these boundaries were both fixed and shaky as group members teased each other during practice about “acting weak like a girl” or not being a “real man.” At times it was hard to discern what was being taught-gender roles or sexual abstinence.
To further analyze this discovery, I now turn to the work of Judith Butler who argues that gender itself is performative. For Butler, gender is something one does, not something one is. It is “unnatural” and performed, yet the performer, set in a socially constructed existence, does not have an infinite range of choices as to what they chose to perform. Gender for Butler, is a discursive series of acts that create an identity, either supporting or opposing socially constructed conceptions. Butler argues that there is not necessarily a relationship between one’s body and gender. The relationship between the two is a social construct, performed rather than prescribed.
While Butler speaks about gender as performative in a primarily metaphorical sense, her theories still hold true as a means to analyze the implications of the performative aspects of the gendered (and sexual) binaries at play in abstinence pledges and abstinence education. We can draw on Butler’s theories to ask what happens, both on stage and in real life, when adolescents act out gendered roles. We can ask whether the roles they play actually limit their agency and the possible choices they can make about their sexuality. In programs such as the one I observed, adolescents are asked not only to subscribe to binary understandings of male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight, but are also asked to make pledges and choices about their sexual bodies within the confines of these binaries. Moving beyond Butler’s binary categories, we can add additional binaries that come with the act of pledging, such as the yes/no response or the virgin/slut stereotype.
Of interest to this discussion is research that shows that some pledgers equate breaking the pledge with vaginal intercourse only. In other words, oral sex or anal sex wouldn’t count as a broken vow. In this sense the binaries of penis/vagina and penetrated/penetrator (or top/ bottom) are also at play. In his book on Christian sexual ethics, Miguel de la Torre raises the issue that students at a Christian college where he taught were eager to speak about their abstinence pledges, but did not consider oral or anal sex as breaking this pledge. In this way, the abstinence pledge is dependent on a gender binary in that it defines sex so narrowly that it could not even fully protect those who make a pledge.
Of course, the pledge itself is performative in its very nature. In the text Bodies That Matter, Butler pulls from J. L. Austin to articulate two types of “utterances”: those that report something and those that perform something. In the second category, Butler gives the example of a priest pronouncing a couple as married. This is not merely a report, but a performative speech-act. Because of the social constructs that surround that speech-act, the very words spoken enact something into existence. In pulling from Butler, I would argue that abstinence pledge programs are attempting to set up a performative speech-act on the level of a priest presiding over a wedding ceremony. Yet as Butler reminds us, a social construction must reinforce a speech-act for it to retain its validity. If the same words were spoken by someone who did not have the authority to make this pronouncement, then the speech-act would not be understood as valid.
So in a sense, abstinence pledges may not work because they lack the social constructions to support them. And the social constructions that do support them are based heavily on gendered binaries that are simply not helpful because they are not subversive enough. This leads us to ask the question of whether or not the gender binaries present in the pledge event are precisely the reason that abstinence commitments are not kept. If this is the case, could removing these gendered boundaries lead to more confident, self-assured adolescents who delay sexual debut, not for fear of repercussion but as a process of identitymaking?
As previously mentioned, research shows that pledgers keep their pledge when they are a part of an “embattled minority,” which could theoretically indicate that pledges might also be kept if room were given to make (re)definition of gender a part of sexual education. Perhaps a teenager would be more likely to make wise sexual choices if not confined by the boundaries of masculinity and femininity.
Further Directions: Hybridity as a Way Forward
Since I am, by training, a theological ethicist, I cannot leave this article simply at the stage of description, but must take a second step toward normative ethics. To begin, I must reiterate that the gendered roles I discovered in my fieldwork were highly problematic. The lived reality for these teenagers is that there is no abstinence pledge that is not gendered. These pledges rely on gender binaries to exist and the arguments for their use are also gendered. In this sense, the agency of the potential pledger is also limited as the binaries that shape the pledge are problematic, yet are never called into question.
As an ethicist I recognize that delaying sexual debut is a good thing. We certainly do not want the youngest members in any community to feel pressured into sex or to be hurt by too early a sexual debut. However, even as a Christian ethicist I can no longer say that abstinence until marriage is a prescriptive norm within the Christian faith. Within the biblical record where such mandates are recorded, women were seen as property and abstinence was prescribed to protect the woman’s dowry and the honor of the father or future husband. Yet at the same time, I believe sex to be important, even communal, and believe we should be concerned about justice within the sexual act. But fidelity, and in my view abstinence, is not a virtue on its own, but is a servant virtue because it serves life and love. In other words, abstinence should not be taught as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. The question we are leftasking is to what end is abstinence being taught? Is it being used to give young people time and space to think about love and life, or is it being used as a tool to reinforce gender roles and heteronormative assumptions about relationality?
Abstinence should be taught as an option, especially to the youngest adults among us. Yet, in light of its failures, we must spend time questioning how it should be taught. Toward this end, I argue that abstinence education must be freed from the gender binaries that constrain it. A degendering, and perhaps even a queering of abstinence education is in order. This turn away from gender constructs could give needed attention to hybridity and relationality rather than the binary boundaries based on anatomy. And perhaps more performance is needed-a little drag, a little cross-dressing, masculine-females and feminine-males.
Of course, my suggestion to queer or degender faith-based abstinence education most likely lies within the realm of the impossible. Organizations that are hesitant to even promote condoms will certainly reject the idea of shaking up gender roles within their performances and curriculums. Yet, within this impossible possibility we can at least learn why abstinence-only education and abstinence-until-marriage paradigms are destined to fail. They are not subversive enough. They are weighted down with gendered binaries and heteronormative assumptions. They ask young people to wait for a fairy tale that is not true to life rather than teaching them to discern the conditions for a sexuality that is just and life-giving. To correct this problem, new goals are needed more than new methods. For if abstinence education is to be successful, subversion is needed. And there is too little subversion when art merely imitates the socially constructed gender binaries of life.