David Brooks makes a good point:
A little while ago, a national study authorized by Congress found that abstinence education programs don’t work. That gave liberals a chance to feel superior because it turns out that preaching traditional morality to students doesn’t change behavior.
But in this realm, nobody has the right to feel smug. American schools are awash in moral instruction — on sex, multiculturalism, environmental awareness and so on — and basically none of it works. Sex ed doesn’t change behavior. Birth control education doesn’t produce measurable results. The fact is, schools are ineffectual when it comes to values education. You can put an adult in front of a classroom or an assembly, and that adult can emit words, but don’t expect much impact.
That’s because all this is based on a false model of human nature. It’s based on the idea that human beings are primarily deciders. If you pour them full of moral maxims, they will be more likely to decide properly when temptation arises. If you pour them full of information about the consequences of risky behavior, they will decide to exercise prudence and forswear unwise decisions.
That’s the way we’d like to think we are, but that’s not the way we really are, and it’s certainly not the way teenagers are.
I think Brooks is right to point out the pitiful limitations of sex ed, at least when that education consists of abstract lessons in the classroom. Look, for example, at this R-rated experiment, by the behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neuroeconomist George Loewenstein. They began by asking twenty-five male undergraduates at UC-Berkeley a series of provocative sexual questions. The first set of questions concerned their sexual preferences. Could they imagine having sex with a 60 year old woman? What about getting sexually excited by contact with an animal? Did they like getting tied up during sex? The next set of questions dealt with sexual morality. Would the male students slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with them? Would they keep trying to have sex after their date said “no”? The final set of questions was about safe sex. Would the men insist on using a condom? Is it safe to have unprotected sex if you “pull out” before ejaculation?
Each male student answered these naughty hypotheticals in two different states of mind. In the first condition, the subjects were told to answer the questions without being aroused. They were supposed to contemplate sex in an un-sexual state of mind. In the second condition, the subjects were shown pornography while answering the questions. (They were alone in their dorm room for this part of the experiment.) When asked in advance, the men didn’t think that being aroused would significantly alter their answers. They assumed that their sexual preferences were relatively immune to such temporary emotional biases.
The men were completely wrong. Their desire to engage in peculiar sexual acts – like being tied up, or getting spanked while having sex – nearly doubled when they were aroused. Their morality was even more malleable: they were three times more likely to commit a sex crime⎯such as using a date-rape drug⎯when staring at pornographic images. And, of course, being aroused also made them much less likely to use condoms. Although the undergraduates could all recite the benefits of sexual protection, this rational knowledge was irrelevant when they actually had an erection. The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong. As Ariely and Loewenstein drolly concluded: “Efforts at self-control that involve raw willpower are likely to be ineffective in the face of the dramatic cognitive and motivational changes caused by arousal.”
Unfortunately, I have no idea how, exactly, you go about teaching men how to deal with their arousal. One hopes that awareness of the condition – knowing that erections make us irrational – might lead us to make better decisions, but that’s awfully optimistic. Natural selection had spent a lot of time making sure that sexual arousal is motivating.