For the latest round of her and Dan’s Forward Thinking project, Libby Anne asked us to talk about sex. Specifically, what would we tell teenagers about sex, if the situation arose? Between Valentine’s Day and the Violence Against Women Act politicking and all the discussion of gender coming out of the military’s decision to let women serve in combat positions, it does seem love is in the air these days. And this is a really important topic to take on.
I do have a small problem, though. Two, actually:
1. There’s no such thing as sex.
2. Or, come to it, teenagers.
Let me explain what I mean. Of course sex occurs – I am here, as is Libby Anne, and whoever reads this post. And unless they really did lie to us all in high school bio and parthenogenesis is a live option, that means sex had to occur. But when people talk about sex education, at least in the corner of the world where I grew up, they usually have in mind a particular kind of sexual act, usually penis-in-vagina sex or (where homosexual couples are even considered) the nearest parallel available to a gay or lesbian couple. This encourages people to think in sharp dividing line, where everything up to “real” sex is okay but the moment you cross that threshold you’re irrevocably changed. And that’s neither true nor particularly helpful.
Just as dangerous, though, is this idea of “teenager” sex education. Again, in the literal sense, there are of course lots of ages that end in –teen, and of course those people have an experience that’s very different both from younger children and adults. No argument there. But when we talk of sex education for teenagers, we seem to buy into this notion that anyone before thirteen is virginal, with no need to think about sex – and that at thirteen they need to sit down and be given anatomical and medical facts just like you might learn the three branches of government or the Spanish names for the days of the week.
Again, not true. And not helpful.
Sex education really begins as soon as we figure out as small children that people come in his and hers varieties. That doesn’t mean three-year-olds need to be sat down for a talk about proper STD usage with their preschool classes. What it does mean is that sexual education is about more than how not to get pregnant or catch HIV, and it’s not about just being a virgin. It’s the work of a lifetime and involves a whole range of choices we need to make. You can’t unravel it from the way we teach kids about love, family, choice, responsibility, and respect. It’s about what we expect from men and from women when they come together in any combination, in any context, including (but hardly limited to) the ones that involve satin sheets.
But we need to talk about this, because girls at least (I can only speak for my own experience here) are hearing plenty. I grew up Methodist in the Carolinas, in the 1980s and 1990s. My family was not fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination, but I did grow up hearing certain things about sex. Sex was where babies come from. It was what men and women did after they got married. Women had to be protected (and protect themselves) because our virginity was a big part of what made us good. It was also part of being a good friend not to “tempt” men, so we should dress modestly. And while we might have a career, women needed a family and marriage to be truly fulfilled. That was our true coming of age, too, when we were married.
This is just what I absorbed from my non-fundamentalist background. It was juxtaposed against a healthy dose of freedom to think things through and make up our own minds, as well as the feminism that finally was making inroads into mainstream Southern culture during my childhood. But still, I knew there were people that thought this way and that many of them were probably in my church and neighborhood, maybe even my family. And given the chance, I’d like to improve on some of those messages.
Since I don’t actually have a teenager in my life to advise, and since this topic seems like you lose something when you generalize, here are some messages I hope my thirteen-year-old self would have learned throughout her childhood, but that I would remind her of just in case:
1. There’s so much more to you than whether you’re a virgin or not. You are smart, and funny, and a great musician, and you’re stronger than you think – and whatever you do with boys, that’s just a part of you. Not the whole thing.
2. You are so much more than how you dress. If you want to wear jeans and t-shirts 24/7 that’s your choice. If you’d rather it be cute skirts and tank-tops, I’d recommend you sneak them into your bookbag and change at school to avoid parental censure, but that’s still your choice. You’ll find how you dress – however you dress, sexy or tomboyish or whatever you like – will affect other people. And you shouldn’t be blind to that. But you have to live for yourself first and foremost. You take care of you, and let them take care of them.
3. Guys aren’t from Mars – they’re from earth, just like you. Yes, they have wider chests that make for good pillows when snuggling, and yes they may have more muscle mass or grow taller than women do in general, you’re more alike than you are different. You basically want the same things. And there’s differences between you and other girls (and them and other boys), too. Some guys are take-charge while others would rather have you make most of the decisions. You’ll hear some people telling you otherwise, but they’re just wrong. And this is a good thing – you should be yourself and let them be themselves and see if they make your heart sing in that special way, not because they’re guys but because they’re them.
(A sidenote to people besides my teenage self: yes, I know this is horribly heteronormative. I’m a heterosexual and was at that point; if I was talking to an LGBT kid or someone who was undecided or I just didn’t know, of course I’d word things differently.)
4. Sex, if you choose to have it, is no one’s choice but yours. It will seem like everyone out there is trying to tell you what to do here, but it really is your choice at the end of the day. In fact, it’s probably the first choice that’s totally yours. You need to think through what sex will mean to you, both in terms of how you view yourself and how you relate to people like your parents, your church, your friends, and many others. And of course for the guy: what will you expect from him after you have sex, if you choose to do that, and can you trust he’ll actually provide it? Someone wise once said “Know thyself,” and he was on to something. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders and a better imagination – use it.
5. With great power comes great responsibility. I know your friends talk about sex “just happening,” but you know better. This is your first adult decision, and being an adult means making responsible decisions. If you’re thinking about having sex, it’s your job to make sure you take precautions against pregnancy and STDs. You’ve had the sex ed course (comprehensive, thank goodness) and you know basically how condoms and the pill works. Now, if you’re going to do anything that could get you knocked up or, worse yet, seriously sick, it’s your responsibility to take the proper precautions and know what kind of risks you’re taking. You’re besties with a doctor’s kid, after all. And your mum’s not an ogre. If you’re thinking about sex, you owe it to yourself and your partner to get the facts be responsible here. “The moment just got away from me” is no excuse; you knew if you were thinking about it long before that moment hit.
6. Speaking of “know thyself”… I realize that “if you’re thinking about sex” probably makes you laugh. You’re a teenager and there are these things called hormones that pretty much guarantee you are. I meant that if actually having sex in the near future is a real possibility, you need to not be careless. But just because you’re thinking about sex doesn’t mean you have to do it if you’re not ready. Lots of people decide to use their own bodies and imaginations rather than finding a partner. And you may have heard that this is immoral per se. For some people it surely leads to abuse and hurts them down the road, but for other people t helps them handle their hormones. Part of being an adult is standing on your own feet, so whatever you decide about masturbation, don’t do it because you’ve been told it’s wrong by other people. See if their reasons actually add up, and trust your conscience for what amount, if any, is actually good.
7. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations: You like guys. Most of your friends do, too, but not all of them. I know you’re basically decent and want to do the right things by those friends sruggling with the fact they don’t quite seem to fit in to the normal model, but you’ve also heard people both inside and out of the church say that’s unnatural or somehow just wrong. This is hard stuff from the outside and even more so from the inside. The best advice I can give you is, give yourself a break and remember you’re thirteen. You’re in for a crazy decade or two when it comes to how you read what the Bible says about homosexuality. (Hint: “homosexuality” is a modern construct, and most of those verses you hear in church are about temple worship more than consensual, private sex.) Just keep reading, keep thinking, and keep listening to people with the courage to speak honestly about this stuff.
8. And finally: I know it’s hard, but don’t grow up too fast. It may not seem like it, but the grownup years will be here before you know it, and you’ll miss those Saved by the Bell reruns (to say nothing of naptime) more than you could possibly imagine. Life’s a long haul, and whatever you choose to do or who you choose to do it with, the most important thing is that you can love yourself when you’re old and grey.
I know I’m being a bit flippant here, because I’m imagining a conversation with a young teenager where we share a common headspace. If I could discuss things with my thirteen-year-old self we really would be laughing it up. Also I haven’t discussed the underpinnings of values here, partly for space reasons and partly because I think fundamental values are best learned through life rather than laid out in bullet format. But that can be a little misleading.
The “too long; don’t read” version: I’m not saying that values are completely subjective, so whatever my thirteen-year-old self decided to do would be good. Quite the opposite. But even at that age I knew that for me sex was tied up with love and that there was something wrong with using someone as a tool for getting off (but, paradoxically, not with masturbation). Others may disagree on this, and I hope they’d be working with people long before the teenage years on questions like how we should treat others and ourselves. But whatever you think on sexual first principles, or first principles generally, I do hope all progressives and all people generally can get behind several basic points. Things like dialing back the purity culture and its equation of female goodness with virginity. Or the value of knowledge and responsibility for our actions. Or simple intellectual humility, a recognition that our assessment of things at thirteen is very different than it would be at thirty-three. These are good starting points.
Btw, I took up that third rule in a more adult context for the recent Synchroblog, on male/female (non-romantic) friendships. The fact that men and women are alike is so crucial, both to friendship and romance. It means we’re partners reaching after the same goals and can work together, not have one of us be led by the other. That point definitely carries over to romance and sex. If you’re interested on my views about why gender equality matters, check it out.
One last P.S.: obviously this was written for a challenge. I’ll post a link to the round-up post tomorrow, and I really encourage you to check out the other entries on this topic.