Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On Drives and Driving

I often hear from students who are concerned about women "using abortion for birth control" that if people aren't prepared to accept a pregnancy, they shouldn't be having sex. Not all of these students are Catholic, so this assertion doesn't merely reflect the Vatican line.

These are people who are just a couple of years out of high school. Viewed through the lens of (im)maturity, their position probably makes a lot of sense in their own lives. Plenty of young people make the leap into sexual activity before they're old enough to know their own desires. Too many begin before they can untangle their desires from those of friends or potential partners. Waiting is a good thing.

But as a prescription for a lifetime? Well, I suppose you could mandate lifelong abstinence (even within marriage!), which is the logical extension of "no sex if you can't handle a pregnancy." Or you could decree that everyone gratefully embrace as many babies as God sends us. That'll work just great – in a theocracy. (Speaking of which, see Blue Gal if you want to join in Blog against Theocracy on Easter weekend.)

Realistically, people will have sex, for all sorts of reasons – some of which you or I may not like – without being prepared to "accept" a resulting pregnancy. Thousands of years of human history show that apart from a select and diminishing few, most humans are not interested in a celibate life, and most don't couple only because they want a child.

But beyond this pragmatic level, people also have a right to sexual expression. Of course we aren't entitled to a partner; that requires some effort, patience, and luck. But the drive to seek sexual happiness is a basic part of being human, and the pursuit of it thus ought to be considered a basic human right.

It occurred to me only after discussing this with my classes last week that driving is a good analogy to sexual activity. Yeah, you could survive without driving a car, just as you'd survive without sex. But in most parts of the United States other than a few cities, your life would be terribly circumscribed. You would be dependent in a host of ways, almost infantilized.

Sex and driving have a whole lot in common. They're both part of a fulfilling adult life, and they're both risky. Both can be approached responsibly or recklessly. Oh, and they're both fun.

By a funny coincidence, just a few hours after the comparison occurred to me it also popped up in the highly entertaining novel I'm currently reading, The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. The title character, Ruth – a sex educator in the public schools who's pressured to teach an abstinence only curriculum – is under orders to begin a lesson with the all-caps slogan, "THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SAFE SEX." Ruth reflects:
Well, of course there wasn't, not if you defined safety as the impossibility of anything bad ever happening to anyone. There was no such thing as risk-free automobile travel, either, but we didn't teach of kids to stay out of cars. We taught them defensive driving skills and told them a million times to wear their seat belts, because driving was an important part of life, and everyone needed to learn to do it as safely as possible.
I was lucky. I first learned to drive on dirt section-line roads in North Dakota, a set of parallel ruts leading in a perfectly straight line over and beyond the horizon. By now I've driven in Los Angeles, New York, and Berlin, but I'm still grateful for my gentle introduction.

Now imagine if we taught our children that driving is sinful; that it's sure to kill you; that air bags are a bad idea because they can't promise perfect safety. (Hmm. I actually remember hearing that last one when I was a kid.) Imagine if the U.S. withheld foreign aid from countries that offer comprehensive driver's ed. Imagine telling people who get in an crash that they deserved it because they're bad people and shouldn't have been driving in the first place.

We'd put the brakes on that imaginary world. Wouldn't we?

Bad driver LOLcat from I Can Has Cheezburger?


Sugarmag said...

What a great analogy! Thanks for the reminder about The Abstinence Teacher, I will add it to my list.brax

Sungold said...

Glad you liked it. It's got its limits, like any analogy. For instance, if you run over a pedestrian, that to my mind is a whole lot worse than getting pregnant! But I wasn't going to work my way through all the caveats. We got back from the airport after 1 a.m. last night, I'm sick, and I am just too bushed to think very systematically. It'll be an early bedtime for me tonight.

Mollyfa said...

If that isn't a well known analogy, it should be.

Smirking Cat said...

The abortion as birth control argument always mystified me, as I've never met these mythical woman who have sex, get pregnant multiple times, and dismissively say, "What the hell, I'll just another abortion." So many anti-choice attitudes are based on myths, stereotypes, and a fundamental lack of logic or common sense. And the "accept consequences of sex" statements remarkably don't appear to apply to males, do they?

Sugarmag said...

You are so right, Smirking Cat. I have never met a woman like that, either. The thing is though, is that if such a woman exists (I'm sure there is at least one), I don't think that forcing her to bear a child would be a good thing. Would such a a person be a good mother? Would such a person take care of her pregnancy, see the doctor regularly, stop drinking, smoking, taking drugs? Oh, right! The reason is to punish her for having sex!

Sungold said...

Thanks, Molly. It's too bad the analogy won't fit on a bumper sticker. :-)

Smirking Cat, I've tried using your point in the classroom when we discuss abortion: "How many women do you actually know who use abortion as birth control?" And in a class of 40, there's always one student who pipes up that they knew someone just like that in high school. This is of course impossible to verify, and so the discussion goes nowhere. I've stopped asking my classes that question, as a rule.

I suspect very few women rely on abortion as a primary means of birth control. Legions of women use it as their backup method to their regular b.c. method and I have no problem with that.

I tend to think the women who "use abortion as birth control" are those who don't publicly express remorse about having chosen an abortion. Many Americans (maybe even the majority?) seem to expect that as penance.

Sugar Mag, you are absolutely right. The anti-abortion response to your point is, "well, she can always give it up for adoption." But the odds of that are slim unless a court orders her to do so.

This is absolutely about punishing sexual women. You can see that in the fact that most people who oppose abortion rights also favor allowing it in cases of rape or incest - in other words, when the woman is "innocent."