In his recent column, Why Monogamy Matters, Ross Douthat uses a CDC study showing increased abstinence in teens and young adults to promote conservative values. He fails to acknowledge that comprehensive sex-ed, as opposed to ideologically based abstinence-only programs, also encourages abstinence and delayed sexual debut. Comprehensive sex-ed teaches reality about STDs and contraception, in case a teenager has sex. Unheard of, I know. Conservatives like to suggest the honest approach promotes sex. It's a great talking point for the base, but it isn't true and the study proves that too. More kids getting better information about sex helps.
I join Douthat in celebrating young people making wiser decisions for themselves. Many adults could do the same. Douthat misses the point, however, by focusing on monogamy. When it comes to sex, relationships, and especially marriage, there is a higher value: Honesty.
The most important relationship any of us will ever have is with ourselves. It takes time to get a handle on exactly who we are in the world and step confidently into it. It takes experience, in some cases trial and error. I didn't get what all the guys were talking about in high school, which was no reflection on the girls I dated. It took me being with a guy before sex, and what I felt inside, made sense.
Being honest with ourselves about who we are first, as opposed to trying to fit in, isn't something most teens spend time thinking about. Many parents are still figuring themselves out and may not have much wisdom to offer, but in our hyper-sexualized culture, and with so much information online, the families that communicate honestly are fortunate. And while the excellent discussion online about Douthat's column has focused largely on heterosexual relationships, it's important to recognize we're living in the first generations where people, on a large scale, are increasingly comfortable claiming different sexual and gender identities, and where women feel truly empowered. This is a significant shift, and transitions in any aspect of life or society are accompanied by clinging. In some way, we all seek validation when everything around us is changing.
What if every teen could be honest about what they were feeling as they started to understand sexuality? What if every parent could be just as honest in guiding their children, open to the discussions, willing to learn from their child's experience, not impose their own? That would require parents being open to the fact their children will live in a different world than they grew up in. Douthat prefers to see the data from the CDC as validation of his conservative values rather than a growing understanding of how important it is to be honest with, and respect, the self first, and encourage the same in our families and partners.
As a gay man, I've learned from periods of both promiscuity and celibacy. Neither was completely voluntary -- we sometimes find ourselves in the midst of something we don't understand -- but both were embraced and, at times, enjoyed and despised. It's why I value honesty above all else, realizing how difficult it is to face within ourselves.
Biology and chemistry are easy, so many people are parents for the wrong reasons, but love their kids no less, and do their best by them. Others get caught up in a moment of lust or lost in illusion, unwilling or unable to see a deeper connection. Each of us is on a different journey and we're learning in profound ways that some traditions don't work for everyone. But honesty could.
We are also learning the very real consequences of not being honest, of using sex for the wrong reasons, of falling into the trap of believing that it is just physical, not also emotional, and spiritual. Heterosexual, monogamous relationships and marriages have not exactly been a model. As Rev. Ty Sweeting of the Metropolitan Community Church in Topeka, Kansas recently posted on Facebook:
He encouraged others to re-post and many people did. Straight married people in long and successful marriages understand it's about honesty, even as some struggle with that value themselves. Gay people who seek or have long-term relationships simply don't want to have to lie, and are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities. If somewhere between Doutaht's traditional approach and the free-love of the '60's, each in some way responsible for where we are now, we emerge with more sexual honesty, that will be real progress. That is happening now for many people. It starts within.
At least for me and most people I know, once you can be honest with the mirror and find someone who is as honest in their life, monogamy looks easy. Honesty is the higher value we should aim for first.