Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Abstinence: We need a condom for religion

How ideological is the preaching of abstinence? That was the question that ran through my head after reading David Chan's Straits Times Online Forum letter (August 23, 2010).

How safe is 'safe sex'?

After reading the special report on sexuality education on Saturday ("Sex education: Too little, too late, and too vague?"), I am concerned as a parent of two children in primary school.

To what extent is "safe sex" truly safe in preventing unwanted pregnancy and sexual diseases? Even if it is relatively "safe" in the physical and temporary sense, how safe is it in the long run, when there are possible negative moral, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual consequences?

Unless a school can convince and assure me that the sexuality programme is truly safe in terms of its values, attitudes, principles, behaviour, skills and methods, I cannot afford to take a gamble on my children's safety and future. I can't allow them to learn how to practise "safe sex" before or outside marriage.

Instead, my wife and I will learn to be caring, responsible parents and teach our children abstinence through open, honest logical reasoning, real-life stories, case and character study, personal experiences, counselling and discipline.

We will teach them concepts like self-control and the postponement of gratification, and unconditional love.

The idea of "safe sex" is confusing, misleading and self-defeating. For any success in teaching our young about sex, it takes the combined effort and commitment of family, school, government and community.

David Chan

You see, the demographic with the biggest voice is not the middle-to-upper class, English educated, ethnic Chinese, Christian Singaporean, but all of the above plus the fact you can claim on paper you are a parent.

This is old school identity politics, vintage exploitation of rhetoric, to influence public opinion. What connects you with others, other than your bourgeoisie-ness, English educated-ness, Chinese-ness, Christian-ness, is the image of you as a family guy. And by family, we are talking about husband, wife, some children, possibly some grandparents and happy in-laws, more the merrier.

This is the "family" card some can play. In the Censorship Review Committee focus group, we are all engaging in a deep discussion on media censorship, when some guy opened his short monologue with a qualifier "speaking as a parent...". The room goes silent, either out of respect that he's a family guy, or we were screaming "FUCK" in our minds.

This is calibrated altruism, a political and ideological process in which one propagates a view/suggestion and make it seem like he/she is doing it for the next generation, and it appears to be of no benefit to him/her, but to others. I am especially reminded of this after reading David Chan's letter. Of course, I'm also reminded of George Lim Heng Chye's epic declaration in 2003 that he is a heterosexual man, married to a heterosexual woman, and having heterosexual children (and the closet runs very very deep by the way), but now isn't the time for our favourite George Lim.

Within the frames, domain, walls or bunker (whichever is cosy enough) of whichever ideology David Chan subscribes to, his concerns are very legitimate. It is true that most parents do not want their children to be harmed (although they don't have to spine to oppose National Service, oh wait, their sons will be the ones who'll go to jail, not them haha. Silly me).

It is very difficult to tell if the invocation of the rhetoric of family and children is actually serving to protect and preserve the alignment persons like David have with their respective beliefs. And normally these days, a belief system is only legitimised by the presence of group, and when people come together to instate and preserve a set of beliefs, you can bet your last dollar this is a political process.

In the Old Testament, the God of the Bible (most versions, he has a male pronoun "He" with a capital H by the way because we have to use cultural and linguistic cues to emphasise reverence) commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, a test to see if Abraham was God-fearing and abiding. In modern society (with alleged "open, honest logical reasoning"), the rhetoric used by people, suspiciously with the goal of ideological adherence and preservation, appears to parallel this fable.

It is the repetition of history, when we observe children being used as swords and shields for the "greater good" that is ideology. Remember the catchphrase "think of the children"? That rhetoric is up there with phrases like "speaking as a parent..." and "do you want children to see this?"

The act of speaking up for children, or appearing to do so, actually draws attention away from the ritualistic process of reinforcing one's ideological subscriptions in society. What is it about your beliefs and your relationship with your system of beliefs that makes you "speak up" for children? What is is about the relationship between your belief system and the rest of society when you talk about, for instance, abstinence being the best solution in sex education?

On the one hand, perhaps, children do become empowered to say "no" (which is a good thing in some cases by the way). On the other hand, people begin to think the same because everyone appears to share/impose the same mechanisms of thought and rationality. And what does this imposition serve? It serves the preservation of ideology, whose members demand social and political dominance and supremacy, and what better way to ensure longevity of ideology than to make it appear as universal and uncritically adopted by the next generation.

Of course, religion cannot take full credit. The narratives of abstinence and the postponement of desire are all part of religious and (post)industrial discourses.

In religious discourse, obviously policed by social norms, people believed you can never multitask. Therefore, pleasure and desires were seen as adversarial to faith and worship; they displaced one another. Dichotomies and boundaries work very well for the masses. So throw in "purity/sin" and make rules to draw the lines for desirable and undesirable human behaviours. You know, previous dichotomies used to include that of logical thinking being associated with men, and emotional thinking being associated with women, and these were institutionalised. But of course, who cares about history when it comes to a religious fervour that practices censorship?

So, the activities of pleasure, like heterosexual intercourse, or homosexual frottage, are read and deemed by religious authorities to be contrary to being pious. Well, there are religions that beg to differ, believing that you can still be pious, god-loving/fearing as you are engaged in sexual intercourse. The heart of matter is how authority (hierarchy of human beings wanting to be in power and stay in power) rationalises the organisation of society and demands specific types of human behaviour, based on the belief that pleasure and worship exist as imaginary poles on an imaginary continuum.

This religious discourse overlaps (or rather, influences) the industrial discourse. When we industrialised, people began working in factories, having bosses and hierarchies in the workplace and all. It led to a paradigm shift in how we approach leisure time. Suddenly, "weekday" and "weekend" meant something, so did "working hours". The times to be productive have been determined, and this displaced the time to be engaging in leisure and pleasure. Leisure time had become rationalised and compartmentalised.

The industrial reality of wage work also contributed to how people see leisure and enjoyment, and since they (leisure and enjoyment) were/are rationalised, they could certainly be postponed.

Well, the examples so far have been rather Eurocentric. Even in (East) Asian societies, the idea of discipline encouraged the postponement, if not suppression of desire and joy. I am not so informed in this area, but this is what we have in Asian martial arts. Of course, we had Samurai inter-generational homosexual sex. THAT'S ASIAN VALUES FOR YOU, MY CONSERVATIVE ASIAN FRIEND!

But you see, the East Asian idea of learning something to achieve something, involves the disassociation with things men assumed to be pleasurable, like sex. Therefore, discipline and desire/pleasure exist a polar opposites in this rubric. To save/prevent you from critical thinking, vocal religious fundamentalists will combine Western evangelist ideology, Victorian morality and the biggest lie that is "Asian values" all into one simple yet insidiously universal principle and shove it down your throat.

Any way, back to the postponement of pleasure. It is one of the greatest mechanisms of social control. That is why reward/punish systems work, or why the idea of "eternal life/damnation" work too. Pleasure will come at the expense of something more ideologically important. Yes, ideology does create a more cohesive society because people will reprioritise and postpone their selfish desires, yet ideology itself is a masquerade used by a more equal people (see Animal Farm) seeking dominance. They will use physical mechanisms of torture and death, psychological mechanisms of guilt and fear-mongering, and social mechanisms of excommunication and stigma, to ensure ideological alignment a.k.a. obedience.

As mentioned, the invocation of the rhetoric of family and children to claim a dominant position in a moral discourse, is in itself a political process. It is a reality that family and children are part of social life, and probably will always be, unless you're Taiwanese. At the same time, the discourse of family dovetails with the discourse of monotheistic abidance and nationalism. Hierarchy and authority must be observed and obeyed, unless you are Lee Hsien Loong's son with an email account.

Any hint of disobedience might pose a threat to the whole system because each subsystem is microcosmic of the supersets. People with unequal relationships always seek to replicate their interpretations of religious scripture in the domains they inhabit (look at the political system of the ancient Greeks vis a vis Greek religion). The demands for sexual abstinence are articulated within such a framework, circumscribed by human interpretation of religion, which according to some is itself a human creation based on the human interpretation of the natural world.

My concern is not about the constructedness of religion, but the use of rhetoric and the engagement of certain discourses which constitute a political and moral process that has social and political implications. The non-adherence to sexual abstinence is seen as affront to religious authority.

But why? Why do religious authorities want to control sexual behaviour? Why do people internalise these rules? There is a difference between others wanting us to be "good", and that of others wanting us to comply such that a unity of thought and action will contribute to the longevity of authority.

The want to control sexual behaviour draws attention away from efforts to provide people with useful advice to protect themselves and to be responsible. Saying "no" does not make you more responsible, but to some extent, makes you walk away from real problems.

We should be focusing on ways to ensure that sex education is conducted with the aim to equip the young with the skills, confidence and information, pertaining to emotional and sexual well-being, among others. Remember, if you really cared for your children, you will realise that they are growing up in an environment of multiple ideologies, different views, with emerging and varying social and sexual phenomena. Don't be an ostrich and stick your head in the ground. You will do more harm to your children if you only equip them with the skills to deal with some domains and some environments. Sure, you will just tell your kids to stay away from subcultures and minorities, right? This creates more social gaps and misunderstandings that will lead to distrust and stereotypes, but I guess that would be fine because it is all about ideological adherence.

In fact, you will probably be imparting your low degree of well-adjustedness onto your kids. You demand obedience in/from them, just for them to mimic your obedience to whatever constitutes authority to you. Instead of giving them the skills to deal with the wider world, you give them the same space authority gave you in the bunker. The idea of values to you is about continuity because ideology needs continuity, but it is always constantly under threat of being out of touch with changing social phenomena. And then, you will lean back on the prescribed purity/sin dichotomy and being to categories and demonise certain social phenomena and people, just to ensure members with the same ideological subscriptions will fall in line.

Does the preaching of abstinence hold water in changing society? Yes, but only if it is treated as one of the many techniques to protect our young. Abstinence is one technique, but not the main one. Sexual abstinence is the reason why we have oral sex, frottage, masturbation, anal sex, because authority is always (only) concerned about policing penile-penetrative vaginal intercourse. This concern is also built on heteronormative assumptions, that are oriented towards the productive nature of procreational sex.

Here, the prescribed norms gain moral ascriptions, and become guarded by an authority of "more equal" people. In this case, heterosexual vaginal intercourse is the only act that constitutes sex. Oral sex is not sex, just ask Bill Clinton.

The (ultra)conservative folks who champion their brand of sex education, only believe in the taming of the penis and the vagina. That is why they believe abstinence should be observed. The penis and vagina can only interact when authority says it can, and this shows how much penile-vaginal interaction has been ritualised and heaped upon layers of moral meanings inscribed onto it by human beings. Let us also not forget the Victorian moral belief that women and children (up to a certain age) are asexual, and this puritanical belief has obviously corrupted some Singaporean minds, who in turn seek to replicate it. It is truly a political process.

The problem with authority and order is their inflexibility and inability to adapt. They neither consider nor anticipate change or the possibilities of change. This quality is obviously appreciated by people who cannot deal with change too, and would bunker in at any experience of the slightest change. Change brings about uncertainty and diversity, because people become persons and begin to think differently and in turn form bonds to become other peoples. They cannot deal with the fact that abstinence is no longer the single most important solution to everything sex.

There is also the inability to reconcile one's ideological subscriptions with the changing nature of society, and this is manifest in strategies which involve the (very political) use of rhetoric to gain legitimacy in a discussion. There is the stealthy religious invocation of the rhetoric of family and children, something that also connects to the non-religious, but passed off as a universal principle. In Singapore, moreover, the non-religious receive no protection, which is why any English-speaking pan-Asian-looking ethnic Chinese Singaporean is not spared from proselytisation and the law will never recognise proselytisation as "injuring the religious feelings" of the non-religious. Some Singaporeans are definitely more equal than other Singaporeans. Hmmm.. If only we had a "condom" to protect us from religion.

If only among those who are religiously informed and preach (only) abstinence could be just upfront with their ideological positions, and say "We should have abstinence because my religion said so, and I adhere to it, and I believe it is a good thing that other people adhere to it too, because it shows that the values of my religion applies to many other people too, and because more believe believe in these values, my religion will enjoy ideological longevity." Keep it real, guys. Don't disguise your views with vague narratives, or use family/children rhetoric to mask your ideological preferences.

But remember, the next generation will live with and probably have to clean up the shit we have created for them. So it is better that we prepare them to be ready for the world, and not just dig a shallow hole in the ground for them to place half their heads in.

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