For thousands of years, every reasonable person knew that the sun revolved around the earth. After all, people could see it happen with their own eyes. And when Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler used science to show otherwise, people laughed at them. It took a century for the idea that the earth revolved around the sun to even begin to catch on.
History is full of popular ideas that science has disproved -- but which still remain popular. The reasons are typically religion, politics, or economics -- but the fact remains that, well, facts are not the only determinant of what people believe.
When the subject is sexuality, facts have a pretty poor reputation in America. The media, cynical politicians, and various pressure groups get tremendous benefits from misinforming -- and frightening -- the American public. And when someone speaks up with the facts, they're often shouted down, dismissed as simply having a personal belief. Bill O'Reilly is famous for equating a progressive's facts with his own, albeit differing, opinion.
Let's look at some popular beliefs about sex that science conclusively disproves -- and which continue nevertheless.
Myth: The Internet is a hotbed of sexual predators, and children are at terrible risk.
Science: The overwhelming majority of the "unwanted sexual solicitation" on the Internet reported by young people is from their peers, and is generally benign. According to the state-of-the-art Harvard/Berkman Institute report, the main risk faced by minors on the Internet is bullying, not sexual predation.
Myth: Talking about sex honestly and using the proper names for body parts inflames kids' curiosity; teaching them about sexual decision-making and safer sex encourages them to have sex.
Science: Young people taught comprehensive sexuality information that does not focus on promoting fear or religious messages tend to postpone their first intercourse, are more likely to use condoms the first time they have intercourse, and tend to have fewer sexual partners.
Myth: Strip clubs destroy neighborhoods with crime and prostitution.
Science: No police department in the U.S. has documented an increase in police calls or violence in neighborhoods with strip clubs when measured against comparable neighborhoods without strip clubs.
Myth: Swingers' clubs are a hotbed of STDs and drug use.
Science: Swingers do not have a higher rate of STDs than their non-swinging peers; in fact, people with open relationships use more safer-sex behaviors than people having clandestine affairs. Police departments that raid swingers' clubs (typically for minor zoning infractions) virtually never document illegal drug use.
Myth: Sex offenders are snarling predators with no conscience, whose behavior is so compulsive it cannot be controlled or influenced.
Science: According to the Department of Justice, sex offenders have a strikingly lower recidivism rate than any other non-sexual felony.
Myth: Consuming pornography leads men to be more sexually violent.
Science: According to the FBI, in the 11 years since the Internet has flooded America with porn, the rates of sexual violence have decreased. And while crimes of sexual violence are typically under-reported, there is no reason to think that under-reporting has increased; in fact, public awareness campaigns have almost certainly decreased the under-reporting.
Child sexual exploitation
Myth: Children are in danger from strangers lurking around playgrounds, parks, and similar places.
Science: Most childhood sexual exploitation is done by someone the child knows, such as a blood relative, friend of the family, religious figure, or coach. According to the Department of Justice, the overwhelming majority of kids who go missing are taken temporarily by a family member, typically as part of a custody dispute.
Myth: The porn industry is populated with actors and actresses who are recklessly spreading STDs.
Science: Porn actors and actresses are tested for STDs regularly. Their rate of HIV infection is a tiny fraction of the rate in the general population.
The ongoing lies spread by the Sexual Disaster Industry have tangible, serious effects on individuals and on our country.
Irrational fear about the amount of stranger kidnappings, for example, has led to an enormous, nationwide apparatus (including Megan's Law, Adam Walsh Act, and Amber Alert) that is inefficiently sucking up taxpayer dollars intended to protect children.
Sex offender laws are increasingly being used to punish people who are not a danger to the community (for example, teens who have sex with teens, or who "sext" pictures of themselves). As sex offender registries expand and become more punitive (in Florida, absurd residency restrictions have created colonies of sex offenders living under freeway overpasses), more and more people are prevented from living normal lives -- putting communities, ironically, at greater risk.
We already know what happens to kids exposed to abstinence-only sex "education": They have sex before marriage anyway, but they're less prepared to make good decisions and to be honest with adults.
On a societal level, it turns out that if you want to discredit or simply ignore science, sexuality is a great place to do it. Recall that in 2005, many "decency" groups such as the Family Research Council effectively blocked the widespread American distribution of Gardasil, claiming that inoculating twelve-year-olds against HPV would encourage "promiscuity." Not only did they present no evidence, their lack of evidence was not seen as a weakness in their position.
And a year ago, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) announced that "abortion is well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does."
Everyone knows -- or can know -- that Congress already prevents Planned Parenthood from using any government funding to provide abortions. And it's easily verifiable that abortion comprises some 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's total medical procedures.
When challenged about this lie, Kyl's press secretary explained that the senator's remark "was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions." Put another way, Senator Kyl made up a story, used it to crank up the public's support of his position, and then admitted it was not "factual." "Factual" has become simply one position, competing with others.
The facts about sexuality should not be trivialized into a matter of opinion. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but everyone is NOT entitled to their own facts.
When science is reduced to just one among many ways of relating to reality, science suffers. So does our Republic.
Dr. Marty Klein is a sociologist and policy analyst in Palo Alto, CA. This article is adapted from his book America's War On Sex: The Continuing Attack on Law, Lust & Liberty, released this week in an updated second edition.