Monday, October 17, 2005

No vaccine for lost souls

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

Catholic Herald 14 October 2005

I suppose the researchers who have devised a vaccine for cervical cancer deserve a pat on the back for all their hard work; but I expect you, like me, find it hard to work up massive enthusiasm for the prospect of all our daughters being offered the new jab, to be called Gardasil, before they have even left primary school.

In fact, I felt so underwhelmed at the news that I felt it was time for an examination of conscience. What could be wrong with a vaccine for a lethal illness?

Let’s think back to the 1980s, when the link between cervical cancer (among other diseases) and sexual activity became known. Family-values pressure groups such as the doughty Family and Youth Concern made much of this link. There you are, they said: told you so! We always said sleeping around was bad for you.

The Government took no notice and, instead of telling kids to stop sleeping around, talked about "safe sex" and dished out condoms. No British government, I hardly need remind you, has made the slightest effort to tackle the effects of promiscuity by restoring the old taboo against it.

Well, it looks like cervical cancer rates have fallen. But according to the NHS's own information this is not because of condoms, which only give "some protection", but because of its cancer screening programmes.

Of course, there's no point trying to discern any kind of governmental logic here. Have we not been waging a successful war on cigarettes, all the way from the earliest 1960s advertising restrictions to the proposed ban on public smoking? So why not try to cut back teenage pregnancy and STDs by the same methods - attacking the root causes, rather than trying to cure the effects?

Well, why not? The abstinence teachers in the recent - and remarkable - BBC2 series Romance Academy succeeded in radically changing the lifestyles of a dozen teenagers not by lecturing them about health risks.

Instead, they homed in on the emotional effects of casual sex: “In the end,” explained one, “nobody is getting loved.” The faces of the youngsters, as it dawned on them how this fitted with their private experiences, were a picture.

The truth is, a lot of us parents have been lazy. We have been using the health risks of free-and-easy sex to frighten our teenagers. This is a short-sighted and cowardly tactic; firstly because the pharmaceutical industry keeps on finding what purport to be solutions to the diseases, and secondly because it avoids being frank about the less easily discussed moral objections.

If a real campaign against casual sex were ever (dream on) to take place, it would have to be centred on the moral, not the health objections. (Banning that ad for beer that reads “Virgin Wool must come from very ugly sheep” would be a good start.)

We have to come clean about why sexual promiscuity offends us. We hate it because we hate seeing people treated as commodities; we hate to see love and sexuality, which God has bound up together, torn apart. Sex without trust, without love is always going to be rotten sex.

A young man who never allows himself to deepen his knowledge of another person, or to walk tall in the knowledge that someone depends on him for his love, will ultimately find only loneliness.

A young woman who gives away her intimacy cheaply in one whoops-what-was-I-thinking one-night-stand after another, is teaching herself to think that she is loveable for nothing else. The next step will be to feel she is not worth loving at all.

And the saddest thing of all is that the effects are slow. When a young person's sense of worth is handed out one little piece at a time, it takes a while before its owner is aware of how bruised, how shy and distrustful her heart has become - by which time it may be too late to love freely, without fear of rejection.

So thanks, you clever cancer researchers. You have forced us to start being frank with our children. For if we fail in this, then the boffins had better start work on a vaccine for lost souls. It could take a very, very long time.