"Raising Sexually Pure Kids"
Sexual Abstinence, Conservative Christians and American Politics
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009
Cloth. 276 pages. ISBN 978-9042026780. €70.00 / $93.00
Reviewed by Guillaume Marche
Université Paris-Est Créteil
Published in 2009, this book by Claire Greslé-Favier (PhD Universität Dortmund) offers a detailed account of abstinence-focused sexual education in the United States from the 1980s to the end of the George W. Bush presidency. After tracing the history of abstinence education from its early, experimental stages to its rise to mandated federal policy, the book examines various types of discourses recommending abstinence for youths. These range from the religious to the medical, the political, and the governmental. Just as she distinguishes abstinence-only-until-marriage from “abstinence-plus”—i.e. teaching abstinence though not to the exclusion of other forms of appropriate sexual behavior for youth—Greslé-Favier carefully accounts for the diversity in motivations, rhetoric, and significance among these different discourses. She points for example to the favorable depiction of sexuality as a God-given benefit of marriage by such influential Christian conservatives as Tim and Beverly LaHaye. Greslé-Favier then links abstinence education to various broader social and political issues—such as creationism, the role of religion in politics, welfare, the “culture war”, and more generally the political import of “family values” in US politics—in order to demonstrate that “premarital sexual abstinence is not a marginal moral agenda but . . . a cultural and political issue of great significance . . .” [xii].
Taking issue with the notion that “morality” issues are just a diversion from “real politics” is one of the merits of this very well documented book. Greslé-Favier shows in particular how moral conservatives’ “values” agenda is not simply consistent with their economic ideology of individual responsibility—to the exclusion of collective or mutual responsibility and liberal government intervention—but is actually instrumental in promoting it. In order to map out the contemporary landscape of Christian conservatism she traces concerns about youth sexuality back to the early twentieth century—a useful reminder of the recurrence of sex panics in the U.S. But Greslé-Favier does not take a one-sided view of the question and also considers for instance the notion that choosing abstinence can be a way for youths to assert sexual agency in a culture which tends to socialize them into a form of “devoir jouir” . She also exposes the contradictions underlying the moral conservative obsession with teen sexuality, and shows how these contradictions in fact serve as a tool for enhancing traditional forms of domination—adult over youth, male over female, rich over poor, white over black.
One of the book’s shortcomings is that it does not directly deal with the epistemological questions the subject raises for the social sciences. Greslé-Favier’s argument essentially pertains to discourse analysis, but the reader does not get a very explicit sense of whether moral conservative discourses translate into widespread or marginal practices: considering that abstinence-only-until-marriage rhetoric emphasizes parental authority, does its influence extend to “mainstream” parents, or does it serve mainly as an internal motivational tool for already mobilized parents? The author analyzes in turn governmental action—the laws that have encouraged, mandated, and funded abstinence education—and militant action—the books, websites, and mobilization efforts by various types of abstinence proponents; but she does not directly address the issue of how ideology relates to practices. This is in part due to the book’s thematic organization: each chapter reads well, but because the various themes are interrelated, it results in a certain amount of repetitiveness.
Greslé-Favier’s "Raising Sexually Pure Kids" contributes to a better understanding of the political significance of abstinence education by carefully documenting its ideological tenets, and by taking its subject seriously enough to avoid oversimplification and caricature.
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