Paul Mero’s Defense of HB 363 Invokes Contested Notions of Freedom, Virtue and the Role of Government

Paul Mero’s defense of HB 363, the now vetoed “never have sex unless you’re married and straight and do it in the dark in the missionary position” bill is an interesting read (I was traveling and missed Mero’s piece the Trib when it was published).  In his op-ed piece, Mero invokes freedom, virtue, the proper role of government, the need for laws to teach us what to do, and the view of sexuality as a dangerous narcotic.  Despite a rich array of arguments, his argument can be summed up as “It’s wrong to have sex before marriage so we should teach people that it’s wrong to have sex before marriage.”

Most abstinence only folks seem to believe that supporters of comprehensive sexuality education want to sponsor orgies in middle school gym class and gay marry kindergarteners off to each other.  It’s good to see that Mero doesn’t buy into the view. 

Both comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education are premised on educating youth prior to a choice being made. Even most supporters of comprehensive sex education aren’t cheering on youth to have premarital sex . . . Proponents of comprehensive sex education (i.e., opponents of HB 363) are attempting to influence the choices of youth in a good way, just as proponents of abstinence-only sex education are.

However, beyond agreeing we have the same goals, he dismisses comprehensive sexuality education, not because it’s ineffectively but because he perceives it as immoral:

The difference is that comprehensive sex education undermines, or at least severely contradicts, that attempt to influence those choices. Because law is educative and public schools are government schools, youth receive a mixed and confusing message under comprehensive sex education: Public authorities tell me no, but then go out of their way to show me how.

I believe this view greatly underestimates young people who are more than capable of understanding the message of comprehensive sexuality education; it also misreads that message.  We know that a majority of teens will engage in intercourse before graduating from high school.  They may do it only once or they may do it repeatedly.  What we also know is 99% of Americans will be sexually active as adults and as adults they need information about pregnancy, STDs and contraception.  Providing that information while saying, “it is healthier to delay sexual behavior, but if you choose not to delay, here are ways to manage the risks” is a message teens can easily understand.

I think this passage show the primary mistake advocates of abstinence only education make.  They take the uncontroversial fact that the abstinence is the only certain way to avoid pregnancy and STDs and extrapolate that out to believing that teaching abstinence only is an effective educational model.  All the mainstream research shows that comprehensive sexuality education is far more effective at achieving positive behavioral outcomes than abstinence only.  Some research actually shows that teens who have abstinence only education are indistuinguishable from teens who have had no sexuality education in terms of sexual behaviors.  The preponderence of evidence is clear – abstinence only education doesn’t work.  Paul Mero is smart enough to know that so he avoids making the effectiveness argument.

Instead, his first point invokes a very particular notion of freedom:  [freedom] = [good behavior]

As he puts it: ” A complete definition is that freedom is the sum of liberty and virtue. Freedom requires human beings to be their better selves. ”  This is a nearly textbook example of conservative freedom; it’s a way of saying freedom belongs to people who deserve it and who prove they deserve it.  We know they deserve it because they are virtuous.

What then does it mean to be virtuous?

. . . a society interested in lasting freedom requires human beings to responsibly procreate and avoid irresponsible choices that burden society. Responsible procreation, as we’ve discovered over millennia, happens within the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman.

In other words, responsible sex education in our public schools must be set in the context of no sexual relations outside of the bonds of marriage.

The definition of virtue then is not having sex outside of marriage; it could also be stated as engaging only in “responsible” procreation. 

Simple: a society interested in lasting freedom requires human beings to responsibly procreate and avoid irresponsible choices that burden society.

So freedom is individual liberty – doing what you want – within the bounds of traditional sexual morality.  Being free means not “burdening” society.  This is where the definition of freedom starts becoming extremely contested.  Hidden within the claim of not burdening society is a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.  The undeserving poor have sex outside of marriage, they “burden” society with children they can’t afford, they fail to marry and conform to the norms of moral sexual behavior.  This argument assumes without evidence married sex is moral sex.  It’s a circular argument – it’s immoral to have sex outside of marriage, therefore marriage makes sex moral.  It’s worth pointing out that there are host of assumptions within those two sentences and unpacking those assumptions is a real job of work.  By arguing freedom is liberty and virture, Mero points us in the direction of a conservative notion of freedom.  Freedom is defined as the freedom to obey moral authorities and moral rules. George Lakoff describes this as conservative freedom – freedom requires us to obey a set of rules which prevents bad things happening and which demonstrate personal moral responsibility.  Liberal freedom can be stated very differently – it is the freedom to realize one’s goals; it is effective freedom that matters.  I may be completely free to move across the country for a new job, but if I am unable to do so because of legal or institutional bigotries, then I am not free.

Contested ideas of freedom aren’t the end of the contested notions – responsibility is a contested idea as well.  For instance, responsible procreation in Paul Mero’s construct takes place within marriage.  But conservative responsiblity means behaving in certain ways, willingly bearing the consequences when you don’t obey the moral strictures and ultimately pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  Liberal responsibility means a mutual accountability to one another and responsibility for one another. Liberal responsibility is grounded in empathy.  Conservatives see that empathy as a needless coddling of people who could and should be doing more for themselves.  From the liberal perspective, responsibility with regard to sexuality means understanding the risks of sexual behavior and taking steps to manage those risks (as for example using contraception).  From the conservatie perspective, sexual responsibility means obeying the moral rules through self control and self discipline. 

As his essay works it way to its conclusion, Mero invokes another favorite trope of the right: sexuality as dangerous narcotic.

We don’t teach youth how to drink liquor, not even responsibly. Nor do we teach youth how to consume narcotics, not even responsibly. We tell them not to. Teaching youth to have “safe sex” is like teaching youth to “drink responsibly.” Can people have “safe sex”? Yes. Can people “drink responsibly”? Yes. But in both cases we don’t teach youth to do either. We tell them don’t do it at all.

At its most basic, we’re supposed to understand that sex is dangerous.  It is as dangerous as narcotics and alcohol.  Teenage sex is like drunk driving.  This passage says simply that there is no viable way for teens to have rewarding and developmentally appropriate sexuality.  It’s all or nothing in this world.  If you have sex, you are engaging in dangerous and irresponsible behavior.  What’s more, you are endangering your freedom by being irresponsible.  As an interesting aside, conservatives favor prison for drug offenders because they made bad choices and should be punished so they will see the error of their ways and not re-offend; liberals would prefer treatment since addicts are victims of a disease.  From a conservative perspective sex is dangerous and having it outside of the boundaries allowed by the rules is irresponsible and lacking in virtue.  The liberal view on sexuality sees the possibility of both fulfillment and harm and takes steps to reduce harm while increasing fulfillment.

Freedom and virtue – the intertwining double helix of freedom.  Take away one and the other vanishes – freedom cannot exist without virtue, but neither can virtue exist without freedom.  They are mutually dependent on one another.

Interestingly, on the third contested notion he raises, Paul Mero shares some common ground with liberalism:

To help human beings be our better selves, we surround ourselves with social encouragements: family, friends, religion, community groups, philanthropic and civic groups, educational opportunities, etc.

We also create governments.

Government’s job is to make us better.  That’s a controversial notion.  Despite his apparent need to dress it up in the langauge of limited government, what Paul Mero is proposing is a very activist, engaged government which teaches us the rules and then punishes us when we fail.  He would have government step into the role of strict father, giving us rules, keeping us in line and punishing us when we misbehave.  It is limited government only in the sense that it doesn’t nurture us.  The liberal notion of government is very different – it exists to assist each of us in becoming and being free.  Freedom is a constant balancing act between anarchy and order.  Government serves as both a means of enacting the public will and of protecting the liberty of individuals.  Too much of either snuffs out freedom.

In the end, Paul locates the debate on sexuality education between those who would try to influence kids to make the right choice (abstinence) and those who would try to mitigate the consequences of the wrong choice (premarital sex).  If government exists to help us be our better selves and having premarital sex is not being our better selves, then government’s job is to teach us to not have sex before marriage.  Government which fails to do that is failing in its role.

There is a flaw in that vision.  Rates of adolescent sexual activity have remained largely unchanged in decades.  What has changed are teen pregnancy and STI rates.  Students who receive comprehensive sexuality education have lower incidents of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  The liberal approach argues that teaching morality is not the government’s role because there is no single agreed upon morality.  Teaching abstinence only does not reflect a shared moral vision; instead it’s about trying to impose a single moral view on the community.  Americans agree that teens should wait to have sex but do not agree that everyone should wait till marriage before having sex.  Based on surveys of American sexual behavior, huge majorities of Americans agree that premarital sex is unproblematic for adults (according to a recent SL Tribune editorial, 60% of couples live together before marriage).  Comprehensive sexuality education aims to help individuals identify their own moral positions and to make informed choices without stigmatizing individuals.  To take one example, many teens have been coerced or forced to have sex and feel guilty about doing so.  Abstinence only programs can reinforce that guilt, but also fail to give such teens tools for understanding the STIs they may have been exposed to and how to treat them.

Paul Mero’s understanding of the debate is flawed.  He argues it about teaching morals (no sex before marraige) versus limiting the impact of bad morals.  The discussion should be about what works.  In the real world, comprehensive program have proven effective at delaying teen sexual activity and in reducing STIs and unintended pregnancy.  And in that same real world, abstinence only have proven woefully ineffective at delaying teen sexual activity, reducing STIs and reducing unintended pregnancy. 

In any classroom, even in a relatively religiously homogeneous place like Provo, you will have students from many faith traditions and holding many moral views.  The desire to teach them morals is grounded in a desire to keep teens from harm, but it doesn’t work.

  1. #1 by Cliff Lyon on March 29, 2012 - 6:07 pm

    Ah, Paul Mero. Still out there cashing in on his amazing arguments.

    He sooo clever.

  2. #2 by brewski on March 29, 2012 - 9:26 pm

    Not nearly as interesting as Joan Miro.

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