It's not that I mind being used as a strawperson. Some of my best friends are strawpeople. But by the end of reading a long article Eunice Kennedy Shriver recently published in response to my column on contraceptives and teenagers, even I began to wonder if I had come out against loving families and in favor of adolescent sex.
Mrs. Shriver - herself the mother of five and a woman much admired for her work with retarded children - wrote: "When it comes to the problems of dealing with teenage sexuality, people seem to throw up their hands and look for some all-purpose mechanistic solution to suppress its results, rather than to confront its causes. . . . Instead of forcusing only on ways to eliminate teenage conception or prevent the infant from being born, we should be repairing the shattered network of communication among families and their children whose breakdown is responsible for so much adolescent sexual activity."
She end with this observations: "Over the years, I have discovered that teenages would rather be given standards than contraceptives."
First, let me say that Mrs. Shriver and I are not poles apart in our attitudes toward adolescent sex. I can't imagine a 14-year-old child (17 per cent of whom were sexually active in 1973) able to handle the complex set of feelings that accompany sex.
Nor can I imagine that sexual experience being part of an intimate, sharing relationship. Sex without intimacy and trust is sterile, confusing and as dehumanizing as the scoring bar and assorted battlefields of the so-called sexual revolution. In short, it's no place for children.
I'm also in favor (who is against it?) of strengthening the family and raising children with "standards."
But I am continually surprised by the assumption that you can either be in favor of contraceptives or of "standards"; that either you are concerned with "causes" or "results." The notion - apparently shared by Mrs. Shriver - is that the people in favor of access to birth - control methods are opposed to standards, while the people who are opposed to this access are somehow or other the ones upholding the "standards."
Birth control is to prevent pregnancy, not to promote sex. The conventional assumption has been that "the Pill" was responsible for the rise of sexual activity. But this is ironic when you consider the facts about teenage sex. In a Planned Parenthood study, 80 per cent of sexually active teenages reported that they had intercourse at some time without birth control. Fifty per cent of them hadn't used a contraceptive the last time they had intercourse. If birth control promoted sex, than surely we wouldn't have the worry of 600,000 teenage births.
Well, what about families? Mrs. Shriver believes that the breakdown of the family has caused the rise in teenage sexuality and she sees the cure as strengthening the family. Ironically, the least stable of these families are often those created out of the disastrous teenage shotgun marriages of the previous generation.
It is no doubt true that many teenagers seek love-through-sex outside the home, and true that many parents are so pressured or weeekended themselves that they offer no support to their children. If I were king, I would assign every child to a family environment that nurturred, understood and loved them. But wishin for that, even working for that, doesn't change reality for the children in the trouble zone of adolescence now.
The idealistic call for repairing "the shattered network of communication" can be realistically callous - a double punishment for those children already in an "environment in which no one cares enough."
But are families "the cause" of teenage sex? My antennae receive an additional message. Parents often comfort each other with the assumption that they are "in charge." If they feed their children the right emotional nutrition, they will grow up bearing the same standards. But these 11 million sexually active teenagers didn't all come from homes without love or without standards. Nor did the pregnant girls and their partners all emerge from what Mrs. Shriver describes as "a life lacking warmth and security." There is no 100 per cent guarantee that protects kids from pressure, from experimenting, from mistakes. Ultimately, as parents we "hope for the best."
Those who advocate the education about and availability of birth control are not advocating sex vs. chastity. We are not choosing to deal with "results" and rejecting "causes."
We are talking about only one thing: sex with or sex without risk or pregnancy. We're talking about the very real difference in a girl's life between a sexual experience that ends in pregnancy and one that doesn't. That differences is called contraception.