As a recently re-married African-American woman who was a single mom for about twenty years, I strongly believe our private sex lives do matter. I believe they have an indirect but significant impact on many of the economic, educational, health, racial and criminal justice problems in this country. Our inability, as individuals and as a nation, to confront sexual behavior in a straightforward, honest and credible way only pushes the problem toward the point of no return.
Let's consider a society that decides people's sex lives are no one else's business. If one believes they can randomly have sex with any number of partners without consequences, problems will abound. Some encounters may lead to sexually-transmitted diseases, causing sterility, infertility and death. Others may cause pregnancies that end in painful abortions, heart-wrenching adoptions or out-of-wedlock births and single parenting.
When these "private" acts becomes public - as they often do - trust is destroyed, emotional trauma is inevitable, marriages end and kids are often caught in the middle. Single women, many of them teens with children resulting from these "private" encounters, often become physically and emotionally abandoned. The male may feel no responsibility for sowing a few wild oats during a moment of sexual self-gratification, but someone needs to care for the woman and her children. For decades, that someone has been the government.
How much does it cost taxpayers to be surrogate husbands and fathers? The government provides housing, clothing and food through welfare and school lunch programs; medical assistance through Medicare and Medicaid; discipline through an overcrowded juvenile penal system; sexual guidance through school-based family education; physical and emotional renewal through drug and alcohol rehab programs; baby-sitting through daycare subsidies; foster care when a mother cannot be a mother; programs so children won't be left alone without supervision and remedial educational programs. The list goes on, and so do the costs. Multiply them over three decades and you get trillions of dollars.
Breaking the cycle of a sexually out-of-control society is extremely complex but not impossible. "Reducing the Risk: Connections That Make a Difference in the Lives of Youth," a report by the Add Health Project, says the two most significant factors in a child's life that discourage involvement in sex at early ages are connectedness with parents and a clear message from parents against becoming sexually active. According to the study, trust and time are the key elements. Kids will not trust adults, however, when they know the adults lie, cheat and do the things they are told not to do themselves.
Even though adults lied and cheated long before the 1960s, our culture since then has lost a very powerful restraining force. Since then, we had values that dictated standards of public and private behavior. Those values were drilled into us not only by our parents, but by other adults as well. The critical element that is missing so often today is the healthy, intact family.
President John F. Kennedy is often mentioned as someone whose private sex life had no negative impact on his ability to be an effective leader. Though many of us admired him, a lot of us now wonder if his leadership might have permitted the sexual free-for-all of the late 1960s. His lack of focus on the country's moral shift could have been because he did not have the moral fiber to understand the long-term consequences of such a cultural change. His own secret behavior may have kept him from providing the leadership the country needed.
Our sexual affairs have had a disturbing effect on our ability to provide
the guidance and skills our young people need to build strong homes for
their future. There is an African proverb, originating in Ghana, that says:
"The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people." If
we are to learn from history, we know that most empires crumble from the
inside out. While enemy attacks may have ultimately destroyed them, moral
decline from within weakened the armor in the first place.
(Patricia Funderburke Ware is an AIDS educator in Virginia.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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