9/05/2008                                                                                       View Comments

A Doe in the High Beams

By Valerie Tarico

The Associated Press this week referred to Bristol Palin as doe-eyed -- a somewhat odd metaphor given her mother’s heralded talent for gutting doe-eyed creatures. Or perhaps it’s a weirdly accurate metaphor. Sarah Palin’s beliefs and aspirations have caught her teenage daughter in the public headlights and gun sights —where she is destined to become a trophy to Palin’s failed abstinence-only education policies.

I can sympathize. Let me tell you. Sarah Palin self-describes as a “nondenominational” Christian. That’s home turf for me.

As a fundamentalist teen, the only information I got about reproduction was a book about hamsters: "Susie’s Babies." There were eggs and sperm involved, but to this day I couldn’t tell you how hampster sex works. I can tell you that Susie didn’t make any decisions whatsoever—about whether she wanted that little hamster “pellie” (as we called it) in her little hamster place, or whether she wanted babies sucking on her little hamster nippies afterwards. The before-conception part and the after-delivery part just weren’t that important.

Sound familiar?

Unlike Palin’s daughter, I wasn’t the offspring of a beauty queen, and I was a nerd, so the abstinence/ignorance approach worked for a while. I finally got around to having sex during my junior year away from Wheaton College (of Billy Graham fame) – because my virginity had become something of an embarrassment. Even then, my ignorance was as intact as my hymen. I was utterly surprised to see the mess we created. (What did that poor boy tell his parents about their upholstery?) Two years later, when I finally settled into a rather normal sexual relationship, I was secretly convinced that I myself was not normal. Why? Because when I had sex, wet stuff came out afterwards. Nobody in books ever has that happen.

What did Bristol know the first time? I wonder.

The trinity of fundamentalism in church, denial at home, and Falwellian education policies leave kids like Bristol to rely on willpower and prayer for contraception. If either worked reliably, the human race would be long since extinct. Instead, the call of the wild is so powerful that people have sex in places and at times where they could be killed for it--and are, because the virginity code also has its roots in biology!

Biologists explain our obsession with virginity as the need of males to invest their efforts in rearing their own genetic offspring. But in day to day life, the elevation of virginity is far from rational. Female virginity has magical curative powers in some places, magical erotic powers in others. Among Christian fundamentalists, it is sacred. Kids deal with the battle between their biological and religious imperatives by pretending that it ain’t happening.

A major problem with pills and condoms, besides inconvenience and cost is that contraception messes up the pretense. If you go on the pill or buy condoms, then what might have been a forgivable sin of passion becomes premeditated sex. Ooh.

Now imagine living in a town small enough that a girl's pregnancy is an "open secret. What is the likelihood that a governor's daughter can walk into a clinic unnoticed? How about just walking into a drug store and buying a pack of condoms without bumping into someone from church or school? The alternative to pregnancy: premeditated sin plus public exposure.

Palin has said that she is proud of her daughter’s choice to continue her pregnancy. But really, what choice did Bristol have at that point? Ruin her mother’s career by having an abortion? Violate one of her family’s defining values? Do the thing that her God hates the most?

Besides, where would she even go? Imagine living in a town small enough that a girl's pregnancy is an "open secret.” What is the likelihood that a governor's daughter can walk into a clinic unnoticed? How about just walking into a drug store and buying a pack of condoms without bumping into someone from church or school? The alternative to pregnancy: premeditated sin plus public exposure. Bristol, like many teens under similar circumstances, chose to gamble.

I'm thankful that, for the time being, my own daughters have a broader array of options.

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