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Sex, Lies and Statistics

Denis Solomon • 1,483 words

Religion has nothing to do with reason. There can therefore be no such thing as a religious reason for anything.

By the same token, religion has no place in argument, which by definition is the exercise of reason. But this has never stopped the followers of religion from attempting to impose their wishes by argument.

One of the ways they, and the intellectually dishonest in general, do this is by throwing facts, and particularly statistical facts, around like bricks. Statistics are not arguments; they are data on which conclusions, more or less tentative depending on the inherent reliability of the statistics, are based. And the process of deriving the conclusions must be in keeping with the basic principles of logic.

A common violation of these principles is the “post hoc, sed non propter hoc” error: for example, Americans chew gum: Americans are rich: therefore if you want to be rich, chew gum. This fallacy ignores the possibility of other causes. In other words, if you drew a graph of the relationship between gum-chewing and wealth the curve would be pretty flat. The other side of the coin is the invocation of precisely this lack of generality in some arguments to bolster wishful thinking in other cases where the graph shows a high probability of causal relationship: the “argument” that smoking doesn’t cause cancer because “my grandfather smoked for seventy years and died of an ingrowing toenail”. Then there is the fallacy that disregards what might have happened if something which appears to have no causal force had not taken place at all: sex education programmes are followed by an increase in promiscuity; so sex education is ineffective. But without the programmes, might the promiscuity not have been much greater?

A more serious error, because it is more conscious, is using statistics selectively. When the Club Pro Vita mixes statements about the supposed relationship between sex education and increased teenage pregnancy with assertions that pre-marital sex “only leads to disillusionment and disease” (Guardian, December 27) they are merely being silly; when the Emmanuel Community in Defence of Life put forward detailed (and presumably accurate) figures for increase in pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases after fifteen years of sex education in the US (Express, December 27), they are not only guilty of the “post hoc” fallacy but of outright dishonesty, since there are valuable statistics available for all to see that suggest why the US programmes have not succeeded while programmes in other countries have.

For example, figures are published by the US Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and the Harvard AIDS Institute to show that while age at first intercourse is similar in the US and Canada, Britain, France, Holland and Sweden, in the latter five countries teenage pregnancy rates are half or less than half of those in the United States. The study attributes the difference to a number of factors: on the positive side, to the fact that in those five countries the programmes are based on a policy explicitly favouring sex education; openness about sex; consistent messages throughout society; and access to contraception. On the negative side, to the power in the United States of lobbies that mix statements of value (“sex is wrong outside marriage”) with ill-interpreted facts and thus hamper the conception and implementation of sex education policies.

The studies also claim that in parts of the United States there are in fact programmes which show signs of success. These programmes are characterised by a number of elements, among them activities that address social or media influences on sexual behaviour, and by the fact that they target not only high-school but primary school children.

A more subtle device used by the religious lobby to bolster their cause is to invoke constitutional rights, specifically, the “right” of parents to decide what their children are taught. Here the anomaly is twofold. First, there are (at least) two kinds of rights: those that do not affect others, and those that do, such as the right to worship when it involves singing loud hymns and keeping your neighbours awake. Secondly, there is always selectivity here too.

To take the second point first: the same people who invoke a supposed constitutional right to control their children’s education fulminate against the real constitutional provision that enables condemned murderers to avoid execution. And on the side of omission, they do not complain that the right of assembly is diminished by the need to have police permission for a demonstration.

The first question, that of the conflict of rights, is of particular importance in the matter of sex education, since the promotion and protection of children’s rights is receiving ever greater attention in all civilised countries. This attention has resulted in the criminalisation by the European Court of Human Rights of corporal punishment in schools; greater vigilance in the courts and social services to root out child abuse by parents; and actions to counter the religious brainwashing of young people by sects such as the Moonies.

I am on record as considering religious education of any kind as child abuse. Indeed, in deference to those who share my view, many countries, including the United States, outlaw its compulsory inclusion in public education. The trouble, however, is that the people most guilty of this abuse are parents, who cannot be prevented from indulging in it at the time in the children’s lives when the weapons of guilt and sin are most powerful. Any right parents may have to control what their children are taught in schools might well be countered by the children’s right, if not to be protected against brainwashing, at least to be provided with information of use to the society as a whole and to which others, namely adults, have access. And there is no natural distinction between the parents’ refusal to send the child to school at all, a “right” whose exercise can land them in jail, and a “right” to prevent them benefiting from particular parts of the curriculum.

This is not to say that parents should have no say in the education process. Any ineffectiveness in sex education programmes must certainly arise not from the content of the programmes but from the conflict between the openness and objectivity children encounter in school and the constipated attitude of their parents. It is a psychological truism that conflicting stimuli lead infallibly to neurosis. Successful sex education is therefore also a matter of educating parents, and of inducing their co-operation, as well as that of other forces in the society, in sanely conceived programmes. Not all parents are by any means bigots; many are just embarrassed because of their own background, and are grateful for the existence of programmes in the neutral and rational milieu of the school. And of course teachers are parents too.

The current flare-up of opposition to sex education is not a reaction to any change in the policy of the Ministry of Education. The Ministry’s policy is to provide pupils, in the context of existing programmes of family life education, human biology and social studies, with information to enable them to make rational choices of benefit to the quality of their lives. In this the Ministry is supported by TTUTA. The recent seminar for teachers sponsored by the Family Planning Association and the Ministry, to discuss the methodology of these programmes, merely provided a further opportunity for religious groups to push their claim that morally neutral instruction in these matters is impossible, and that such instruction must be given by parents from a particular moral point of view – namely, theirs.

There is no denying that where sexual matters are concerned the whole of western society is a mass of hypocrisy. At the point in their lives when their sexual urges are strongest, we enjoin young people to delay sexual intercourse, even until marriage, while bombarding them with sexually-oriented stimuli in every possible domain, from fashion to popular music to advertising. To enable them to find their way in this moral labyrinth it is essential to reduce, not intensify, irrelevant psychological pressures, by assuming what all good education assumes: that not authority, but reason, will lead them to right behaviour.

What underlies the religious position is not the fear of an increase in promiscuity, teenage pregnancy or AIDS, but the fear that sex instruction in schools will loosen the grip of guilt and sin with which parents bind their children to themselves and their beliefs. The mainstay of the sexual education of children is the inculcation of responsibility in sexual relationships and safety in sexual practices. Both of these goals require the capacity to make rational decisions free of extraneous forms of conditioning. This means that there must be an end to people buying their way into heaven with the shattered lives of the young.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top