article

05.07.09

The GOP Doesn't Understand Sex

Bristol Palin's new abstinence campaign shines a light on the Republican Party's unhealthy attitude about sex and desire.

The first time I ever heard about oral sex was during the Lewinsky scandal. Mostly, I remember being confused by President Clinton’s response—“It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” When it comes to sex, politicians face all sorts of double standards: who is allowed to have sex with whom, what constitutes sex, and whether it’s appropriate, to name a few. Candie’s Foundation’s announcement that they were partnering with Bristol Palin to promote an abstinence-only campaign has caused me to reflect on my own experiences as a political daughter, and the role sex plays in defining the Republican Party.

Let me get something straight: Bristol Palin, as an 18-year-old adult, is free to make her own choices and decide how she wants her life to unfold. But for whatever reasons, the American public and media remain overly engrossed in our politicians’ sex lives and, as in this case, those of their families. There’s an especially unhealthy attitude among conservatives. Daughters of Republican politicians aren’t expected to have sex, let alone enjoy it—as if there were some strange chastity belt automatically attached to us female offspring. God forbid anyone talk realistically about life experiences and natural, sexual instincts. Nope, the answer is always abstinence.

The worst sexual double standard in politics right now is that too many subconsciously believe Republican women are void of sexual desire altogether.

This is something I know about firsthand. During my father’s 2000 presidential campaign, a reporter asked how he would feel if I became pregnant and wanted an abortion. He answered that it would be my choice, sending shockwaves throughout the party (because for the GOP there is only one answer, and obviously Senator McCain’s daughter shouldn’t be engaging in sex ever). I’d like to thank that reporter for single-handedly putting me through years of trying to reconcile the fact that when it comes to politics, no matter what you do or who you are, everything is fair game.

But seriously, here was a father, delicately navigating a question about his teenage daughter and being true to the kind of father he had always been, and the Republican Party was outraged. It didn’t matter that my parents raised me to know that, regardless of the mistakes I might make, they would allow me the dignity and courage to make my own choices. That’s the kind of trust my parents have always placed in their children—yet the GOP still needed to get involved and have a say in what I did with my body.

Here’s what I’ve never understood about the party: its resistance to discussing better access to birth control. As a Republican, I am pro-life. But using birth control and having an abortion are not the same at all. Actually, the best way to prevent abortions is to educate people about birth control and make it widely and easily accessible. True, abstinence is the only way to fully prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Still, the problem with abstinence-only education is that it does not make teenagers and young adults more knowledgeable about all the issues they face if or when they have sex—physically and emotionally.

The key, honestly, is communication between parents and children. At the end of the day, the worst thing parents can do is raise children who are not prepared for the situations they may encounter, especially when they’re not planned. (For anyone who remembers their teen years, you know what I mean.) Unfortunately, Republicans typically don’t like to discuss or deal with things they think are wrong or immoral. And that’s a huge mistake. If we can’t discuss birth control in addition to abstinence, and in a nonjudgmental way, kids will continue to make bad choices for lack of having access to informed, safe options. Not everyone shares the same beliefs, and more importantly, people don’t always react the same way to their circumstances. Which is why it is so important to encourage honest, open communication about the realities of sex within the party at large, and more specifically, between parents and their children.

I have a 17-year-old sister who is not much older than I was when that reporter asked my father the hypothetical abortion question. I am the role model I want her to have: If or when she chooses to have sex is entirely up to her, but I want to be sure she knows being curious about sex is natural, and what is important is to be educated about safety. Perhaps the worst sexual double standard in politics right now is that too many subconsciously believe Republican women are void of sexual desire altogether, never mind its consequences. A friend of mine, whose father is also a conservative politician, used to joke it would be easier for her be a lesbian because then there would be no risk of getting pregnant and having a resulting scandal.

I have always found this joke incredibly sad—for both of us. Because the GOP continues to struggle with open communication about serious issues most people deal with rationally, and on a regular basis. Unless we learn how to integrate that kind of discussion, our party will continue its descent into irrelevance. We live in a big world, one where you can contract a lifelong STD, have an unplanned pregnancy, or get date-raped, just to name a few of the dangers associated with sex. We should prepare our kids for it, realistically. Then they might be more apt to make the right choices when they live in it themselves. Bottom line: Honesty isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. It’s a human one. The sooner we realize that, the better off we’ll be.

Meghan McCain is originally from Phoenix. She graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She previously wrote for Newsweek magazine and created the website mccainblogette.com.