[Welcome readers: This is a post about the phenomenon of psychological reactance. If you're looking for information on "Romeo and Juliet" by Shakespeare, you can find Sparknotes at this link. If you're interested in my views on Christians and premarital sex, you can find them at this link.]
In William Shakespeare's play, "Romeo and Juliet," the titular star cross'd lovers fatefully decide to pursue their love, despite the chaos and war unfolding around them. Their decision ends up being a fatal one. I suppose the ironic question that some people might want to ask the protagonists is: Out of all the wo/men in the world, couldn't you have picked another one?
When I was a freshman in college, I remember reading in my Intro Psych textbook about "The Romeo and Juliet Effect." Essentially, it's an example of Psychological Reactance, whereby rules and restrictions actually make you more prone to resist them. In the case of "The Romeo and Juliet Effect," the theory goes that your parents' disapproval can actually spur your affections towards that person. I'm guessing many of us have experienced this ourselves; certainly the image of the attractive and sexy rebellious male teen is one that has been ingrained into our popular culture.
The thing is, Psychological Reactance can create some real-world problems. And by nature of the phenomenon, these problems often go unacknowledged. Take the following two examples:
-Saudi Arabia - According to this recent story by the BBC, "up to 70% of files exchanged between Saudi teenagers' mobile phones contain pornography." According to the report's author:
The flash memory of mobile phones taken from teenagers showed 69.7% of 1,470 files saved in them were pornographic and 8.6% were related to violence.Saudi Arabia's oppressive sexual environment has been written about several times in recent days. In fact, this recent Atlantic Monthly article claims that heterosexual sexual relationships are so heavily regulated that it's easier to be a homosexual (because people won't suspect). Whoever the authors of this environment are, and I'm sure they are legion (including culture, religion, government, etc.), isn't this the opposite result of what they intended?
-Abstinence-only education - If abstinence-only education was shown to work, I might even be a fan of it. But studies have shown that it's not only riddled with inaccuracies, it's completely useless in accomplishing what it sets out to do.
More to the point, I'm an Evangelical Christian and we're taught at a very young age about sexual purity. Christians aren't supposed to have sex until they are married. In recent years, many have made it official by taking a pledge of abstinence. However, studies have shown that Christians, even those that take the pledge, are just as likely to have sex as non-Christians. Here are some shocking statistics:
- "Not only are kids who take virginity pledges just as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases as kids who don't, but they are even more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior." This includes having sex without a condom (they are 1/3rd less likely to use condoms when they have sex for the first time), and engaging in anal and oral sex, which many teens don't consider "real sex."
- Here's the kicker: Of the kids that take the pledge, 88 percent of them end up breaking it.
- Of the couples that end up breaking the pledge, they are less likely to get tested for pregnancy or STDs. Says Columbia University's Peter Bearman, "They're much less likely to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease. They've taken a public pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. The sex that they have is much more likely to be hidden. It's likely to be hidden from their parents. It's likely to be hidden from their peers. And if they live in a small community, it's quite likely to be hidden from their doctor."
In both these examples, restrictions are placed upon people that many might deem "unnatural." Specifically, they are restrictions on sexuality, on the types of sex that people are allowed to have and enjoy.
What does all this hiding get us? Psychological reactance. A need to lash out against the rules and to disobey them to an extent we never would if the rules weren't even there in the first place. Despite American males' obsession with porn, I think it's pretty safe to say that 70% of us don't have porn on our cell phones, right? Right? It's probably more like 69% or something...
Let me be clear though; psychological reactance is not the only reason that Christian teens and young adults have sex. Obviously raging hormones play into it, as do any other reasons why teens would normally have sex, whether they are Christian or not. But these rules and restrictions undoubtedly feed into some innate human desire to explore the unknown, a desire for what is hidden, what is dark, what is carnal and sinful. As we all know, sometimes that desire must be sated and when it happens for someone in a Christian community, the results can be disastrous.
So I guess the question is: wouldn't we be better off just not having these artificial restrictions at all? Wouldn't we be better off acknowledging the world the way things are, and trying to engage in a dialogue about these things?
I'm a Christian and I think sex should be saved for marriage. However, if I had a teenage son or daughter, I think I'd rather they have a condom instead of some glorified notion of a supernatural ability to resist the devil. But that's just me. Despite high rates of teen pregnancy and STD transmission, I guess people still think that the way people are raising their kids now seems to be going just fine.
[Update 1: Put in new link to recent NYTimes editorial]
[Update 2: The comments have really been rolling in. Most of them have been constructive. I wanted to make three clarifications:
1) There seems to be some confusion: Several people have accused me of fabricating statistics. This is incorrect. My statistics about Christian sexual behavior came from this 60 minutes article, which I had already linked to in my original blog post. However, I didn't make it explicitly clear where the statistics came from. So now you know. The article is 2 years old, but I have a feeling its findings are still relevant today (Did you see my last link about chastity parties?).
2) Another clarification: I apologize if my title is misleading. I never meant to say that the Romeo and Juliet Effect causes Christians to have sex before marriage. Clearly, there are many causes for Christians having sex when they're not supposed to. Rather, I was reflecting on the recent news stories about Saudi Arabia and how clearly, efforts to curb sexual activity (or certain types of sexual activity) have failed miserably and in fact generated what would be considered even more inappropriate methods to resisting these prohibitions. I have also always been fascinated with the concept of psychological reactance and "The Romeo and Juliet Effect." Also, I love Shakespeare. These thoughts led me to combine everything into this hodgepodge of a post. This is not meant to be an academic article, as some have implied that's what I was trying to write. Nonetheless, I strongly feel that psychological reactance to rules and regulations is something that we all experience each day, and that this phenomenon, at least in part, feeds into Christian behaviors relating to sexuality.
3) Finally, several have accused me of writing an anti-Christian article, or of being anti-Christian myself. This could not be further from the truth. I have been a Christian for most of my life. I grew up in an Asian, ultra-conservative church. But over time, I have changed into what people might call a "liberal Christian." That doesn't mean that I think it's okay to have sex before marriage, or that we can pick and choose which of Jesus commands we should follow, or that they should be called "The 10 Suggestions." Rather, I believe that the Christian church, politically, has veered away from Christ's teachings. I believe that Jesus spent more time talking about helping the poor than he did lecturing about the evils of homosexuality or abortion. I believe that Jesus didn't spend most of his time condemning thieves and prostitutes. In fact, he spent most of his time condemning those who condemn thieves and prostitutes. How many Christians today would fit into that latter cateogry, I wonder...
I also believe that we should be practical, and that if what we're doing isn't working, we should change it. I wholeheartedly agree with user "Amy", who posted the following comment here on this blog:
"Because we can certainly all agree that a lower rate of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and broken young people is good."
Thanks for reading.