“Just Say No”: the appeal of abstinence-only to control freaks

Abstinence-only sex education and “just say no” anti-drug campaigns are known to fail.

There is ample quantitative, indisputable evidence that contraception is more effective than abstinence at preventing pregnancy, particularly unwanted pregnancy that ends in abortion.

And while some fairly sophisticated drug-resistance strategies have a positive effect, simple-minded “just don’t do it” campaigns are known to be ineffective, as are simple-minded drug prohibition strategies.

Drug prohibition does not reduce the number of users nearly so effectively as harm reduction does: while drug use has declined in the past 30 years, addiction rates have stayed the same while the “war on drugs” as destroyed lives by criminalizing a medical problem. But there are still plenty of people out there for whom attempts at enforcing and abstinence-only solution to drug addiction through legal sanctions on drug users appears to be a viable strategy for fighting drug addiction, despite complete agreement that it does not reduce addiction (seriously, read the link above: the “pro” side admits that drug use but not drug addiction has decreased, and then says the War on Drugs has been effective at reducing addiction).

Since prohibition of alternatives is a known-failed strategy, one has to wonder what people who advocate it are really after. Either they are idiots (not impossible) or they are deliberately advocating a strategy that has been proven over decades to not work.

It is quite reasonable to assume on this basis that abstinence-only advocates are more interested in controlling people than solving the problem they purport to be concerned about.

If anti-drug campaigners cared about preventing addiction and reducing the harm drugs do, they would focus on the things we know–through solid empirical research–have a positive effect on reducing the harms drugs most certainly do. They would not advocate increasing efforts in areas that are known not to reduce harm, and which themselves destroy lives.

Likewise, if anti-abortion and abstinence-only campaigners cared about preventing unwanted pregnancies and reducing abortions they would advocate things that are known to do this, like ensuring easy access to contraceptives and abortion services. It doesn’t matter whether or not these things “just make sense”: they work and have been proven empirically to work by people who had the guts to investigate the full range of policies open to us rather than obdurately insisting that the only acceptable “solution” to the problem of unwanted pregnancies was the one they were advocating for moral reasons.

Remember: drug laws do not reduce drug abuse or addiction… they just make them even more unsafe and add another way drug user’s lives can be destroyed. And anti-abortion laws do not reduce abortion: they just make it unsafe, so that as well as killing the child it also frequently kills the mother.

Those who advocate prohibitive, “abstinence-only”, “just say no” strategies like this are the enemies of science and of progressive, humane societies, and it’s time we stopped pretending they have any interest in the problems they claim to be all worked up about. We should respond to any claims they make by saying, “Since you are not interested in reducing abortion/teen pregnancy/drug addiction, I’m curious as to why you are advocating these policies? I know you’re not interested in reducing abortion/teen pregnancy/drug addiction because you’re advocating policies that are known by empirical evidence not to work. So why are you advocating them?”

We would never get an honest answer, of course: I sent a question of this kind to the Prime Minister regarding the construction of “super-prisons” and changes to the criminal code that are known to increase crime rates, asking him why he was so gung-ho to see Canada’s crime rate leap upward. I eventually got a reply from a lacky in the Minister of Justice’s office saying the political equivalent of “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

Which leads me to the most recent instance of burgeoning abstinence-only policy: the adamant refusal of anyone who claims to be concerned about humanity’s effect on the Earth’s climate to be willing to consider anything other than an abstinence-only solution to the problem, which they often claim, much as anti-contraception crusaders are wont to do, is the only “100% proven effective means” of reducing our climate impact.

While I’m all for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and am a strong advocate for leaving the high-emission lifestyle of suburbia for walkable downtowns, I recognize that this can be economically and culturally difficult for people who put their own immediate interests ahead of those of a sustainable planet, and that isn’t going to change. Environmental criminals like touring musicians aren’t going to ever give up their lifestyle simply because it’s better for the planet: they are going to keep burning vast amounts of fossil fuels for relatively little economic gain because it’s a free country, and they can do that if they like. Putting a price on carbon will help nudge them away from this kind of anti-environmental behaviour and tend to push people away from environmentally destructive, planet-destroying rural and suburban lifestyles toward more environmentally friendly, Earth-aware lifestyles in the urban core, but there will always be individuals who are so selfish and short-sighted that they will refuse this choice.

And they should be free to do so, just as young people should be free to have sex and take drugs… because demonstrably the costs of failed attempts to control such behaviour are extremely high and they don’t work. It won’t stop me from thinking less of such people, mind. It’s a free country in more ways than one.

There is no more reason to believe that abstinence-only will work for reducing climate change than it does for reducing unwanted pregnancy, abortion or drug use.

Yet there is an army of very vocal, very self-righteous people who simply will not talk about the alternatives. It’s difficult to get them to talk about alternative power sources–nuclear, solar, biomass and wind, in particular–much less geo-engineering ideas that reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from centuries to decades.

Think about it: there are people who claim to believe that it is all but certain that human activity is going to create civilization-ending climate consequences, but they become outraged and angry at anyone who so much as talks about any solution that falls outside of their “just say no” comfort zone. [*]

They just don’t want to hear about that, any more than an anti-abortion crusader or abstinence-only sex educator or prohibition-obsessed drug warrior want to hear about things that actually work to solve the problems they claim to be concerned with.

Because they don’t care about those problems. They simply want to have power over other human beings.

[*] This is an example of what I’m talking about: “All of which points to perhaps the greatest risk of research into geoengineering — it will erode the incentive to curb emissions. Think about it: no need to take on powerful fossil-fuel companies, no need to tax gasoline or electricity, no need to change our lifestyles.” Why exactly is that a bad thing? There are plenty of reasons to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, but save me your moralizing: if contraception can make sex vastly lower risk, then why exactly are you still preaching that sex is bad?

[Edited for snark and added footnote.]

About TJ

Scientist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, sailor, hiker, canoeist, father.
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