Let’s stipulate that the remarks Rep. Todd Akin made last week – the ones in which he expounded upon the contraceptive properties of “legitimate” rape — were misogynistic and antiquated. (And nauseating and illogical. For if a woman’s body erects a protective shield against conception during forced intercourse, then if she does get pregnant… what? She must have wanted it?)
What I’d like to address here – and you’ll see how this relates to religion in a minute – is that Akin’s remarks were also plain ignorant. As in, not based in scientific fact. They showed an appalling lack of knowledge about the basic mechanics of the human reproductive system. The Republican congressman from Missouri may not want to get into the nitty gritty, but apparently he needs edification in the broadest possible way: Each month, a woman releases an egg (“ovum,” in science speak), which travels down one of two fallopian tubes and hangs out in the uterus for some days awaiting a sperm. If a sperm and egg meet, usually through intercourse, and connect, in a process called fertilization, a pregnancy can occur. The egg, which is a cell and thus cannot be said to have anything like feelings, does not distinguish between the sperm of a rapist and the sperm of Prince Charming.
I learned this information in the seventh grade, thanks largely to a yellow paperback given to each member of our class by our biology teacher. The book was filled with edifying drawings and explicit information. And though it was titillating – when you’re 13, all information of this sort is titillating – it also instilled in me a profound fear of getting pregnant as an adolescent as well as the clearest possible sense of how that might occur.
Today, thanks to a successful campaign largely by members of the conservative Christian community to remove frank talk about sex from schools and teach abstinence instead, kids don’t learn that kind of information. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 70 percent of middle schools teach abstinence education and only 30 percent teach about contraceptives. In high schools, more than 80 percent teach about abstinence and less than 60 about contraceptives. Akin, who has been given a 100 percent rating by the Christian Coalition and has a divinity degree from an evangelical seminary, has been a soldier in the campaign for abstinence ed: in 2007, he lent his name to a letter to the Congress supporting reauthorization of funds for abstinence education.
In abstinence classes kids learn about gender roles and the powerful amorality of the male libido. “We have not seen medically accurate scientifically-based information given to young people,” says Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, vice president for Strategic Partnerships at Advocates for Youth. “A lot of it is based instead on gender stereotypes: Young men are over-sexualized and women have to control them. Young women have to protect themselves — and protect the men from it too. It’s not about anatomy, or reproduction, or communication. So people don’t necessarily know how their bodies work.” Instead, girls learn that dressing provocatively unfairly distracts boys; one California curriculum compares a sexually active girl to “a dirty shoe,” according to Salon.
Worse, many abstinence-only programs have omitted information or contained misinformation about the mechanics of sex, including about the risk of pregnancy and the transmission of disease, according to a 2004 survey of the most popular programs spearheaded by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California). The report found one teacher’s manual that refuted years of data, saying condoms do not help prevent the spread of STDs. Another said that HIV can be transmitted by exposure to sweat and tears. Even on the level of basic science,abstinence texts have been just plain wrong. One text put the number of chromosome pairs in the human genome at 24. It is (are you listening Rep. Akin?) 23.
While some of these mistakes have been corrected in subsequent editions, many of the most popular abstinence-only curricula continue to include no lessons on reproduction at all (nor any illustration of the part of the female anatomy that gives pleasure). The homepage of the National Abstinence Education Association declares that school kids need protection from “explicit” sex education.
Instead of learning about how sex works, kids are getting the message that the mechanics don’t matter because, in any case, it’s yucky girl stuff: it’s their problem – all of it — right down to the potentially bad behavior of boys. Which is exactly the kind of thinking that might lead a person to grow up and, at the mature age of 65, to go on TV and talk about how rape, if it’s really rape, doesn’t get you pregnant. The concern here is not just that Akin is a numbskull. It’s that Akin’s disinterest in the facts is reflective of a broader contemporary disinterest in facts – and in science. Religious faith is crucially important to so many lives, but it should not be a hall pass that allows you to sit out the class on how babies are made.