Autoesteemism in the Classroom
In a comment to my post on sex education, Rhody points to another of those differences of understanding between conservatives and liberals that seem nigh impossible to resolve:
I think the best way to discourage sex before marriage is building kids’ self-esteem and letting them know they don’t have to give it up to feel good about themselves. And the same lesson can be applied to gay teens, too.
But “self-esteem” seems to be considered just as dirty a word in many conservative circles as “masturbation.”
I’d say that “self-esteem” — that is, self-esteem trapped in quotation marks, as a buzzword — is rightly a dirty word among conservatives, because it indicates a mushy make-adults-feel-good dictum that the metaphorical fat kid in the class should never feel badly about himself. A more conservative approach toward a similar end would be for teachers, and other adults concerned about a particular student, to put forward the additional effort to help the child achieve such things as make him deserving of self-esteem. The difference is between banning competition so that nobody can lose and acknowledging that the possibility of loss is what gives value to success. Failure is never absolute, only context-specific, spurring the loser to find ways in which to succeed, perhaps by choosing other areas of competition.
But back to sex.
We’re at an enigmatic time in cultural history, indeed, if the (I daresay) antiquated notion that young girls are consenting to sex in order, simply, to prove that they are desirable to males can coexist with a conviction that any sexual orientation is tangibly equivalent to any other (as for the purposes of defining marriage). If there is no substantive differentiation to be made between male-female sexual relationships and, say, male-male sexual relationships, then there is no justification for Rhody’s sexist imagery when he muses that it might be better if “sexual excess went into towels instead of teenage girls.” The construction exhibits an undeniably phallocentric understanding of who is ceding and who is claiming power.
It can no longer be taken for granted that girls, much less boys, believe that they are giving something up when they consent to premarital — even prematriculational — sex. The non-contingent “self-esteem” in the liberal arsenal does not apply, because liberals are defining sex as something natural and ordinary for both genders to pursue and perform, without requiring any substantial proof of worthiness on the part of potential partners (e.g., marital commitment).
For conservatives, in contrast, human worth is intrinsic, but self-esteem is contingent upon our assent to a higher behavioral norm than that expressed, for example, by the safe-sex-education assumption that abstinence is unrealistic. In religious terms, we are all of equal worth in the eyes of God, but the value that we perceive ourselves to have to Him is contingent upon our willingness to place our relationship with Him (especially through self-improvement) above our biological urges.
It isn’t that children have something so valuable that we must puff up their self-esteem in order to enable them to hold on to it. Rather, by insisting that they not participate in the objectification inherent in teenage sexual desire, that they treat sex as something more than the mutual gratification of human objects, we teach them that they can achieve a state of being that justifies their holding themselves in high regard.