Saturday, January 19, 2008

We need a cultural revolution

This post started out as a posting on abstinence in response to this post from

But it went a little bit further than that. I hope you can forgive it getting slightly off-track. I feel it’s important:

The solution to reducing teen pregnancy through abstinence is not as simple as it seems.

It’s not just that teens are bombarded with all kinds of sexualized images that encourage them to become sexual at an early age.

Even if we eliminated those images and messages entirely from the culture, there would still be teen pregnancy.

There are two key problems.

One is that we rely on teens to make adult decisions, when they are still in the process of growing and do not have the intellectual apparatus to properly evaluate and foresee the consequences of their actions. It does not matter how mature a teen may seem. They are not adults. They may make the right decision on many issues, but they are still largely driven by impulse.

Therefore, adults have to make decisions for them. That is a very unpopular stance to take. Conventional wisdom says that even if you say “no”, a teen will go behind your back and do it anyway.

That can be true. But not if we decide, as a a culture, to make it impossible to “go behind one’s back”.

Collectively, we’ve given up on protecting teens from themselves. For one thing, you’re being a party pooper if you do it. We were all young and in love once. How hypocritical is it to have had sex oneself at age 16 then expect one’s teen not to do it? Or so the thinking goes.

The accusation of hypocrisy is not what’s important (and it’s also wrong, but that’s another issue). The important thing is steering our teens on the right path.

Another thing is that it is very boring and time-consuming. For instance, if there are a bunch of adults around and they want to watch a show that is inappropriate for teens, it’s much easier to just let him watch than to reign in one’s impulses and not watch for the sake of the kid’s innocence.

Adult laziness and vicarious-living through teens (because they want to see their teens happy, whereas they were not) has led to this mess.

Really, what we collectively need to do is launch a cultural revolution and re-program the behaviour of teenagers.

I know. Way easier said than done.

Why do kids engage in sexual behaviour in the first place? Teenagers throughout the decades have all sought parental love through others. They’ve wanted to gain a sense of acceptance. They wanted romance.

But collectively speaking, they never had as much sex as they do today.

It’s because the lives of teenagers were essentially programmed so that it did not happen. First, there were cultural expectations that teens not have sex and behave modestly. There were cultural expectations that teens not date until well into adolescence, and that marriage would be a prerequisite for sexual activity.

Secondly, kids lives were much more programmed and supervised. Mom was home when the kids came home from school. They met in public places where other adults would hang out. They would engage in extra-curricular activities that kept them engaged.

There also needs to be a change in the culture itself. When I was a teen, it was hard being abstinent and modest, not so much because I couldn’t control my impulses, but because the ambient culture practically made sexually activity, immodesty and general moral corruption obligatory in order to participate in it.

Take music for instance. You can write perfectly good songs and be talented. But who will pay attention to you? If you’re too straight-and-narrow, you don’t fit the scene. And if you don’t fit the scene, or what people’s idea of what a music star should look like, your chances of making it in the music scene are very slim.

So it’s almost like there’s competiton within you—be part of the culture and be immodest—or be true to yourself, and fail. Be a nobody. Be disengaged from the culture.

These choices repeat themselves in many contexts. When I was in high school, I would have liked to have tried out for cheerleading. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have made it because I sucked anyway, but that’s not the point. The point is: I realized I would never be accepted as a cheerleader. Why? Because I did not want to participate in the cheerleader/football/beer-drinking/sexually charged scene.

Maybe if I had been really talented, they might have taken me. But the cheerleading culture is more than just about talent, it’s about cliques and fitting in.

And I see in my life that in order to be true to myself, I had to disengage from a lot of cultural practices—the partying, the arts, friends (because I didn’t want bad influences in my life) etc. all this so that I could live an upright life.

To an extent, this is what abstinence represents to a teen. It’s almost like a choice between being engaged in the culture, being included, and having a voice--

Or being marginalized, not being engaged, not having a voice, having to string together your own marginal cultural practices so that you can still have something of a life, so that you can remain true to your values.

To me, this is why kids have sex. It’s like the logic of the culture leads kids to that decision. Yes, there are lots of kids who forego that decision, but few who engage in the culture really make it through while remaining abstinent.

I remember when I was growing up, many of my friends made the decision to not have sex before marriage, and none of them were true to that resolution. And I know why. They were engaged in the culture. They accepted all the other norms of the culture—the norms of dating, the norms of modesty (or lack thereof), all the cultural norms. They didn’t make an effort to find guys who were just as committed as they were to abstinence. They did not decide to refuse to listen to certain kinds of music or watch certain kinds of movies. They did not decide to modify their behaviour in any major way.

And that’s why they all ended up having sex. It wasn’t from lack of resolve. It was because they accepted the culture, and that emotionally leads them to cast aside their desire to have sex in the heat of passion.

We have to develop a completely different culture for teens to engage in. There’s a certain amount of it in the Evangelical Christian culture and to a much lesser extent in the Catholic culture. It helps. But it’s not enough. There has to be what I term in my head a completely equipped “straight-and-narrow” culture—not necessarily religious, but definitively with a religious component. By “completely equipped”, I mean we have to develop cultural products and practices in every aspect of life, on a mass scale that reflect Christian belief and/or the natural law. That means, we have to develop our own alternatives in every aspect of the culture: from mass-media, to academia, from high-brow to low-brow, from the arts, to sports, to magazines, to television to EVERYTHING.

In this culture, it would mean turning on the television and being able to CHOOSE from many kinds of television shows that respect the “straight-and-narrow”. They may be religious or non-religious. They may be serious or comical. They may be informational or entertainment. You would have something else to watch besides the crap that’s on right now.

If you go to the magazine rack, there would be several types of “straight-and-narrow” magazines to choose from on a wide variety of subjects. You would not be subjected to ads with nude women in them, or articles with cultural expectations contary to fundamental Christian beliefs.

To a certain degree we have that. There is a fairly active Christian Contemporary Music scene in the US. There are good Catholic magazines. But it’s not enough. This cultural revolution has to encompass the whole of existence, so that a kid never has to live his side in the wider, immoral culture. That’s not to say that we should abandon engaging mainstream culture. But that culture does not suit our purposes.

The problem with a lot of Christian culture now is that if it’s produced by Evangelicals, it lacks a certain edginess, or it has a certain fake edginess. Or it’s intellectually lacking. If it’s produced by Catholics, it’s too high brow and serious. Anything out of mainstream Protestantism is just bland, period.

We need cultural products and practices that draw upon our modern culture and sensibilities, all the while respecting our values. For instance, Christians can produce movies, but a lot of them are crap because of the production values and the bad writing. What is needed are movies produced by Christians that have good production values and good writing. Because Christians are so disengaged from the wider culture, they often don’t get the tutoring necessary in mainstream writers’ workshops that would allow them to use contemporary techniques (or competently play on old ones) to create viable alternative products.

It’s the same for acting, singing, performing, just any kind of cultural activity period. We need to transform the whole culture, create new practices, new audiences, new rituals. Right now I think the problem is that people of faith are often isolated. This is especially true in the Catholic Faith. You see the same faces once a week for an hour, then you go home. People are all off being Catholics unto themselves. I’m sure it’s the same to a degree with other Christian denominations.

If we want to be a potent cultural force, we have to “come together”, be an audience, be a community outside of church—which is not much of a community anyway because we only see each other once a week. Creating a new culture will create that community. It will make our voices stronger.

And in making our voices stronger, and making an inviting space for kids to participate in culturally, that will make it much more inviting to be abstinent, and this, by itself, will help reduce abortions.

But politically it will have ramifications as well. That togetherness and sense of community will give us clout. It will also help produce cultural and political leaders that will be able to lead people towards a more socially conservative culture and therefore government.

I realize that this is a very tall order and we’re starting from very far back. But it needs to be done. I don’t know how to start, frankly. I’m not even sure I’m the right person for this job. All I know is that we have to create a new culture. That’s imperative. If we don’t, we’ll never create a culture of life.

For more social conservative news check out