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Comfort in Numbers

Someone forwarded me with glee yesterday’s news that Bristol Palin, former vice-president-wanna-be Sarah Palin’s daughter, has broken off her engagement with her baby’s father.
I generally think that politician’s personal lives should be no one’s business — unless something in their personal life intersects in a meaningful way with their public life.
For instance, many women felt confusion about the revelation that Senator Bob Packwood, a firm supporter of women’s rights in public, had been harassing women who worked for him. I had no problem with exposing and punishing him for it. Not only was he being hypocritical, but what he’d done was illegal.
On the other hand, I thought the exposure of Bill Clinton was close to crossing the line into places we have no right to go. The relationship was consensual, and frankly, didn’t we already know that he was not the staunchest supporter of monogamy we’ve had in the White House? Since she worked in the White House, it could have been sexual harassment. The possibly illegal part of it, ironically, didn’t play any part in the impeachment process. The circus that ensued was all about embarrassing him, not about figuring out whether there was a victim.
In the matter of Sarah Palin, it’s pretty clear that she herself made her family fair game. Evangelicals have this way of holding themselves up as moral examples, which comes to backfire when their example doesn’t turn out to be quite the morality they’d advertised.
Apparently evangelicals were supportive of her despite the fact that she couldn’t keep her teenage daughter’s virginity intact. That’s not surprising, given the facts about the evangelical community as a whole. The numbers consistently show that evangelicals have a higher out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy rate, and a higher divorce rate than others, with stated atheists showing the lowest rates in both categories.
Hm, what does that mean? For one, it reminds me of what my mother tells me of her Pennsylvania Dutch roots. If you go and look at past marriage and birth records, you find that the first child in any family was often born about 7 months after the marriage. It was a cultural attitude: You don’t want to marry a gal till you test her out!
So premarital sex can be a completely accepted part of a culture, and clearly it must be, in a way, accepted among evangelicals given their teen birth rate. But past that, I think that the rate of out-of-wedlock births, and the subsequent rash of divorces, points to a very clear social problem: Not talking about problems makes sure that they will be perpetuated.
This is proven time and again when populations are studied as a whole. You may think you’re keeping your daughter from having sex with her boyfriend by not telling her anything, but that turns out not to be the case. Abstinence-only sex ed has turned out to be a clear and complete failure. The Bush years showed our first increase in teen pregnancies in many years. It turns out that kids who graduate from those programs are MORE likely to get pregnant and MORE likely to turn up with sexually transmitted diseases.
It also seems that the “do it because you’re supposed to” attitude toward marriage is a failure, too. In the past, when women had no choice but to stay in failed marriages, the divorce rate was understandably low. But now that even evangelical women can see past a life stuck with a man they chose because he was the one who fathered her baby, their divorce rate is soaring. Non-religious young women are more likely to wait for marriage, and more likely to “test him out” by living with him first.
Knowing friends with teenage kids, I realize that no parent can be the superparent that kids need to help them negotiate the teen years without succumbing to one of its many hazards. No matter how hard you try, to a certain extent you just have to trust that your kid will land with both feet on the ground. But I also know that no one is doing kids any favor by letting them negotiate the teenage minefield without information.
I feel sorry for Bristol Palin. She didn’t ask for her mom to become famous, and she may not have known that what she and her boyfriend were doing was going to get her pregnant. But at least the people she’s grown up with are used to her predicament. When she walks into her church and her pastor preaches about the importance of family values, she can take comfort in the fact that her family’s version of that term is a common one. There’s a certain comfort in numbers.

Posted in Parenting.

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