Last edited: February 27, 2005

Abstinence and Fornication

Barbados Advocate, February 21, 2005

By Jeff Cumberbatch

The recent decision by a relatively large number of young persons to swear publicly abstinence from sex (un)til marriage is an interesting one. Of course, the instinctive reaction will be to praise this as a virtuous decision, especially since such abstinence, apart from being a panacea for HIV infection and, indeed any sexually transmitted disease, also serves the holier function of preventing commission of the sin of fornication by these young people. In fact, if I am to judge from the blurb accompanying the event, it is the latter consideration which seems to assume pre-eminence. This is not surprising, given that those behind the idea are Christians, and in the local sense of that word to boot. The concept is purported to be based on the allegedly successful Ugandan strategy to combat HIV/AIDS known by the abbreviation “ABC”—abstain, be faithful and condomise. It is not clear to this writer why the success of a three-part strategy should be attributed to only one of its elements, but I have my suspicions. My interpretation of the ABC stratagem is that while abstinence is the absolute fail-safe response; in the event that human fallibility does not permit this, then one should be faithful to one’s partner; and should this prove impractical, recourse should be had to a condom. It is easy to understand the local interpretation of abstinence as an end in itself but, given the context in which the slogan originated—a Uganda beseiged by rampant HIV infection rates as a result of casual sex—it would be a cause for surprise if abstinence were the sole or even principal component of the initiative. But it is a sexy (ha!) notion. The condom is not kosher with some religious denominations, given its original history as a birth control device. And fidelity is OK for some only in the environment of a marital union. Outside of that, remaining faithful to one’s partner is still fornication and egregiously sinful, no matter what the Family Law Act might say.

So it was ironic to hear those of earlier generations applaud the resolution of these youths. For from my critical observation, abstinence does not seem to have been A Big Thing in these parts in earlier times, what with a multiplicity of children born out of wedlock to adolescent mothers.

But is abstinence all it has been cracked up to be? I have already reported in this space on studies which have established those who view condom use as antithetical to, as opposed to an alternative to, abstinence, were more likely to indulge in unprotected sex than those who condomised when circumstances compelled a betrayal of their vows. This makes sense. So perhaps all three aspects of the strategy should be stressed as an entirety rather than as severable parts. In other words, abstinence or be faithful or condomise. In the battle against HIV/ AIDS practicality is likely to count far more than acultural, anomalous ideals. I wish the youngsters well.

The obverse of abstinence for unmarried couples is fornication, a sin which equates biblically with whoremongering, deceit, idolatry, envy, male homosexuality and adultery, inter alia. Not locally however. Nor is it even illegal here, an actuality which lends further credence to the argument that we sometimes use the Bible as a buffet item, to condemn that which we dislike according to its terms and, conveniently, to ignore or to rationalise what is contrary to its teachings but which has become culturally acceptable. One is thus unlikely to hear at anytime soon, calls for the criminalisation of fornication, though I suppose that if it had been made illegal by legislation in the 19th century, any present suggestion of its legalisation would have been met with prophecies of damnation for this fair land. Surely Christian contributions to legislative reform ought to be based on more than statutory accidents.

Fornication is, however, a crime in some states in the USA. It is, as one would expect, more honoured in its breach than in its observance, and is akin to those archaic criminal laws often the subject of ridicule. Examples would include wearing a hat on Tuesdays after six pm or selling ice cream while not wearing socks. These are, to my best knowledge, fictitious, but you get my drift. It was inevitable therefore that the constitutional validity of such a law as that criminalising fornication would be called into question. And especially so after the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas which had held that homosexual acts between consulting adult males in private are protected by the right to privacy and that to criminalise such conduct only between those of the same sex would offend substantive due process. Otherwise put, it would take away a persons rights without there being a justifiable reason, such as the likelihood of causing harm to others, for doing so.

According to that decision, the Constitution protects the right of adult individuals to conduct consensual personal relationships in the confines of their homes and their own private lives. Not even a longstanding view that a practice is immoral is a sufficient justification for prohibiting such conduct. Next week, I’ll tell you about a fornication case in Virginia, in the news most recently for suggesting a law banning the wearing of trousers which permit one’s underwear to be seen!

(Jeff Cumberbatch is a law consultant and educator.)

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