To give America an extra edge during the Cold War against godless Communism, President Harry Truman designated the first Thursday in May as the National Day of Prayer. Every year since, that's when government officials from city council to president ask citizens to join them in the most blatantly religious activity there is: pleading to a divinity to suspend the laws of the universe, and to bend destiny on behalf of the petitioner.
In response to the unconstitutionality (and sheer offensiveness) of such a public ritual, the National Day of Reason was created in 2003. The National Day of Prayer clearly violates the First Amendment of the Constitution because it asks federal, state, and local governments to use tax dollars and taxpayer resources to engage in admittedly religious ceremonies.
The National Day of Reason celebrates the application of rationality and logic in human affairs and their positive impact on humanity, including in science and good public policy. Unlike a day of prayer (which excludes the 20% of Americans who are non-believers, as well as religious people who think it's inappropriate), every American can celebrate reason, as we all use (or attempt to use) it on a daily basis in settings ranging from the supermarket to our careers.
The National Day of Reason is a good moment to examine the way religion is actively undermining sexuality in America today:
* Deliberately conflating contraception and abortion: It's bad enough that they're obsessed with criminalizing abortion for non-believers; they manipulate believers (and put them at risk for unwanted pregnancies) by mislabeling some kinds of birth control as "a kind of abortion." And they simply lie about how Emergency Contraception works.
* Undermining medically accurate school sex education: Under President George W. Bush, organized religion successfully funneled hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into abstinence-only sex education. Curricula were blatantly sexist, wildly inaccurate, and religiously oriented. By 2008, dozens of high-quality studies across the country had documented the failure of these programs to reduce teen sexual behavior or unintended pregnancy. But an entire generation of children learned that sex can kill you, males can't control themselves, condoms don't work, and young people who "give in" to sexual urges are bad.
* Claiming religious piety makes people morality experts: Whenever public policy focusses on sexuality (pornography, strip clubs, library books, internet filtering, art in museums, etc.), religious institutions insist they deserve a special seat at the decision-making table. They repeatedly make three false claims: if it's about sex, it's about morality; if it's about morality, they're the experts; and non-believers are less moral than believers. And so, for example, organized religion has successfully limited the number of pre-teens getting vaccinated against HPV by transforming it from a public health issue to a moral issue.
* Lying about the effects of pornography use: Organized religion has led a disinformation campaign aimed at persuading believers that looking at adult porn destroys marriages and families; makes men rape women; and leads men to look at child porn. Indeed, organized religion spreads the lie that the very desire to look at porn is evil. This encourages couples to fight about porn as adversaries, rather than examine their sexual dissatisfaction as partners. It also makes organized religion a primary recruitment tool for the porn addiction (and sex addiction) industry.
And like the boy who kills his parents and then asks the court for leniency because he's an orphan, the Church today has the nerve to use "freedom of religion" as a cover for discrimination, special government favors, or people breaking their civic covenants. And so they turn the public's health insurance opportunities into a moral issue about "supporting" birth control; they turn the professional oaths of physicians and pharmacists into matters of "conscience;" and they reject marriage equality for all Americans because treating everyone fairly goes against their religious "values."
People have a right to pray both in private and in the public vehicle of their (tax-supported) houses of worship. I fiercely defend my neighbors' right to their religious freedom. But I'm exasperated that believers can't see how wrong it is to have the government sponsor an admittedly religious activity.
According to the National Day of Prayer's vice chairman John Bornschein, "This is purely about prayer and praying for our leadership and asking for God's wisdom and blessing over our leaders." I'd prefer leaders who are too wise to believe in a god who can be prayed to. I'd prefer leaders who understand the results of praying to a god who supposedly creates sexuality, then fears and hates it, demanding that we diminish it.
I prefer leaders who strive to be wise, using reason and collaboration instead of asking for it and then waiting around, hoping it drops onto them from the sky.
As a nation of adults, it's time we replace the National Day of Prayer with the National Day of Reason.
We never know which Camille Paglia is going to show up: brilliant intellectual, freelance anti-Christ, or tunnel-visioned provocateur.
It was the latter Paglia who wrote a recent piece in Time Magazine cleverly titled "Put the sex back in sex ed." Of course, we sex educators have been urging this for decades. But that's not what her article is actually about. She says we should inject gender politics into sex education. As a bonus, she also exposes her ignorance about a number of common sex education issues.
Harking back to the world of Leave It To Beaver, Paglia demands that "The genders should be separated for sex counseling." More stunningly, she says that boys need lessons in sexual ethics, "while girls must learn to distinguish sexual compliance from popularity." Hello Camille, this is 1955 calling, they want their stereotypes back.
Besides, if that's the key mission for sex education, wouldn't it be more effectively accomplished by teaching the boys' and girls' lessons to both groups, in front of each other?
Paglia describes "the liberal response to conservatives' demand for abstinence-only sex education" as simply condemning "the imposition of fear and shame on young people." She then snarks that "perhaps a bit more fear and shame might be helpful in today's environment."
Paglia thus makes three mistakes in a single paragraph, which is not surprising when she willfully ignores the science. As a reminder, peer-reviewed, replicated studies from across the country prove:
* abstinence-only programs don't accomplish their stated goals (abstinence);
* abstinence-only programs create substantial disadvantages (e.g., reducing the use of condoms at first intercourse);
* fear and shame are correlated with lower contraceptive use, less communication with parents about sex, and more unwanted pregnancy.
Paglia does get a few things right: America's present sex education system is a crazy-quilt of programs, whose content is vulnerable to local political pressure. Sex ed teachers are not always adequately trained, especially those presenting abstinence-only programs. And Paglia, along with the entire rest of the world, correctly notes that young people are bombarded with sexual images and messages, and that young women are ill-prepared to negotiate the sexual attention they attract (adults don't handle this stuff too well, either).
But Paglia sympathizes with religious conservatives who are concerned that sex ed is "an instrument of secular cultural imperialism, undermining m oral values." In demanding that public schools "not promulgate any ideology," does that include proper names for body parts like the clitoris? Mention that masturbation is the most common form of sexual expression, and is physically and emotionally harmless? Data that the medical dangers of abortion are lower than the dangers of childbirth?
Describing religious objections to sex ed as fear of cultural imperialism is exactly how the Chinese justify censoring the internet: they equate truth with ideology. Here's perhaps the nuttiest of Paglia's assertions: "Too often, sex education defines pregnancy as a pathology, for which the cure is abortion."
Here's a more accurate version: "The best sex education notes that pregnancy is a common outcome of unprotected intercourse, explains how to prevent it, and acknowledges that abortion is one common response to unwanted pregnancy."
Paglia ends with her prescriptions for improving sex ed. As if she thought them up herself, she demands things we professional sex educators have been urging for years:
• Objective biology, taught by qualified teachers;
• Accurate, health-oriented information about STDs, including information about condoms;
• Non-judgmental answers about the health implications of various sexual practices.
Welcome to our professional world, Camille Paglia, we're glad to have your support. To get closer to the goals you say you share with us, please support teaching males and females in the same room (beginning the mutual communication they'll need for their actual sexual interactions), and please trust that humans can learn better decision-making without being shamed or guilt-tripped.
But get out of the way if you can't lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin'.
Imagine it's New Year's Eve, 2000. A bunch of us are sitting around with a good Cabernet, and someone wonders—"what do you suppose would happen if the U.S. were flooded with free, high-quality pornography?"
Opinions, of course, would vary:
"Some people would quit their jobs and watch porn 24 hours a day."
"People would be horny all the time."
"Everyone would go on a diet to compete with porn actors and actresses."
"There would be an epidemic of rape and child molestation."
"Divorce would skyrocket."
"Nothing would happen at all."
Just weeks later, America did the experiment.
That's when broadband internet started bringing porn into almost every home in America. With mobile devices, porn was soon in everyone's pocket, too.
Before the internet, pornography had been attacked as immoral. Some Senators even said it was part of a Communist plot to weaken the character of America's youth and husbands.
But morals change. Drugs and rock music—not to mention Vietnam and Watergate—changed the entire landscape of morality. And the birth control pill changed the definition of what "good" girls did.
What, then, to do with pornography?
Invent a public health menace.
And so the government, churches, and decency groups switched the narrative from porn is immoral (bad for users) to porn is dangerous (bad for everyone). Americans started hearing that viewing pornography caused consumers to rape and molest. This justified the demands (continuing to this day) that porn be restricted or even criminalized.
Porn became a legitimate civic concern, and still is. A good citizen has to be concerned about a product that leads to violence, coercion, and perversion.
The only trouble is, there has NEVER been conclusive evidence of this. There still isn't.
Lyndon Johnson's commission couldn't find this evidence. Richard Nixon's commission couldn't find it. And in 1986, the Meese Commission—specifically chartered by President Ronald Reagan to find porn dangerous—couldn't, either. The report stated the opinion that porn is dangerous, but they admitted there was no evidence to prove it.
Later lab studies—still cited today—gave undergraduates forced choices after showing them porn, and came to narrow conclusions about porn changing attitudes about rape. But no one has been able to replicate these studies, and there's no proof that supposed rape-supportive attitudes lead to an increase in actual rape.
Today there's talk of America's "rape culture," and how our society has to acknowledge and challenge it, using every tool from eliminating porn to eliminating rape jokes.
But here's the inconvenient fact: while there's still too damn much rape, the rate of rape has gone DOWN since internet porn flooded America's homes. Documented by the government, reported in the Journal of Sex Research, the rate of forcible rape in the U.S. has steadily declined since the explosion of internet porn. (Yes, rape is under-reported—now, as it has been every year.)
So how can people claim that porn viewing leads to rape? Only by ignoring the facts.
And so Morality in Media and other groups point to "violent porn." They're right of course—there's some very disturbing stuff out there. Makes you wonder how someone can maintain an erection while watching it. But how does this affect the viewer when he walks out of his house? Science says "not very."
And what exactly is "violence" in pornography?
Periodically, American society wants to assess violence on television. Estimates of its occurrence always vary wildly, depending on how violence is defined: news shows? War movies? Westerns? Horror films? Gone With the Wind? It's a tough call.
And so is identifying "violence in porn" (and porn that's "demeaning to women"). Consider these activities commonly depicted in porn:
Two women and one man;
Two men and one woman;
A woman being watched masturbating;
Which of these should be coded for violence? Some people would say all. Others would say some, while most viewers would say none. Hence the wildly different estimates of how much violent porn there is.
To put it another way, someone's opinion about what's violent in porn says as much about their concepts of sex as it does about the porn they're describing. And since so many women enjoy these activities, it's reasonable—not damning—that actresses are smiling during these depictions. That's not abuse they're smiling through, it's pleasure.
Finally, let's remember that adults play sex games. Pretending to force a lover to do what you both enjoy (while he or she pretends to resist) is a common one (it's called teasing). So is biting or holding someone down.
To know if porn is depicting a sex game or a character coercing another character, you'd have to watch enough of the film to get the context. Researchers don't. You'd have to ask the director and actors what scene they think they're playing. Researchers don't.
Nevertheless, here's a final inconvenient truth: millions of men and women (gay, straight, and bisexual) like to pretend they're involved with violence when they make love. Are we not allowed to portray this in porn? In the absence of real scientific evidence that watching "violent porn" makes consumers commit sexual violence more than watching "non-violent porn" or a college football game, how can we justify today's hysteria about "violent porn"?
To repeat: the rate of rape has gone down as the availability of porn has gone up. That effect has also been documented in Germany, Denmark, Croatia, China, and Japan. Whether or not Americans live in a "rape culture," whether that culture is being increasingly glorified, there is no epidemic of actual sexual violence.
Instead of blaming porn for a non-existent epidemic, people should be wondering what we can learn from the good news about the decrease in the rate of rape.