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A Brief History Of: Abstinence

2 minute read
M.J. Stephey

Correction Appended: Feb. 19, 2008

“Everyone should be abstinent,” Bristol Palin said during a Feb. 16 Fox News interview, just two months after the 18-year-old daughter of Alaska’s Republican governor gave birth to a 7-lb. 7-oz. baby boy. But abstinence is “not realistic at all,” she added. Evidently not.

Suppressing one’s earthly desires until marriage is a tenet of nearly all religions, though the burden of premarital abstinence has largely rested on the bride. Prepubescent marriages and gruesome practices like genital mutilation and the imposition of chastity belts have long been used in the name of guarding a girl’s “purity.” Tales of famous (and famously celibate) females like Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I and Florence Nightingale, to name a few, have helped uphold this chaste ideal, while medical literature from as late as the 19th century advised men to preserve their semen to boost vitality–a notion that dates back to Hippocrates and continues to this day among superstitious athletes. In recent years, the case for abstinence has broadened to include sexually transmitted diseases, with members of the True Love Waits movement arguing that celibacy is the only way to prevent AIDS.

Palin’s anecdotal evidence aside, federal studies have shown that abstinence-only education has done little to curb teen-pregnancy rates, despite the nearly $1 billion in federal funding that such programs have received since 2000. More than a third of all births in the U.S. are to single women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That an unwed teenage mother, the eldest daughter of a prominent politician, no less, can chat about the birds and the bees on national TV speaks volumes about changing attitudes–even if the young lady’s message contradicts itself.

The original version of this story wrongly stated that Bristol Palin is Sarah Palin’s eldest child. She is, in fact, the eldest daughter of the Alaska Governor, whose oldest child is her son, Track, age 19.

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