Teen sex has been in the news lately. God knows why?teenagers have been having sex from time immemorial. I think it’s the sexting thing that has people so freaked out. A recent University of Rhode Island study shows that more than half of all college students have been “sexted.” Then just a few days ago there was a piece in the New York Times by Amy Schalet called “The Sleepover Question” about how Americans really need to lighten up about teenage sex. Schalet’s piece compares Americans’ attitudes toward teen sex to those of the Dutch and concludes that Dutch openness to teen sex actually makes for a more harmonious family life. I recommended Schalet’s piece on facebook and a relative responded that “self-confident well-informed teens don’t see a problem with abstinence.”
Yeah, right. So all the teens out there having sex are ignorant and suffering from crises of confidence? I suppose that’s possible, but apart from being question begging, it hardly seems plausible. The desire to have sex is as natural as the desire to eat. It may not express itself so early as the latter, but it expresses itself much earlier than most Americans appear to be comfortable admitting. Shakespeare’s Juliet, after all, was only thirteen and none of his contemporaries, to my knowledge anyway, suggested the narrative of Romeo and Juliet was implausible because Juliet was too young. They have sex, you know, Romeo and Juliet, just in case you forgot?or in case your high school teacher neglected to tell you for fear of being charged with peddling child pornography. The Elizabethans understood that teenagers were sexual beings. What happened between then and now? Is early adolescent asexuality a “discovery” of the Enlightenment?
The desire to have sex is as natural to human beings as it is to other animals. The claim that “self-confident, well-informed teens don’t see a problem with abstinence” is analogous to the claim that “self-confident, well-informed teens don’t see a problem with fasting.” Yeah, right? The only teens I’ve ever heard of who are into fasting are anything but self-confident and the ones who think it is actually good for you are pretty ill-informed.
“It is incumbent,” continues my misguided relative, “upon parents and in some cases guardians to talk frankly with their adolescents about all the ramifications of having casual sex.” But why suppose that teen sex is necessarily casual? Does that seem an apt characterization of Romeo and Juliet’s night of passion? Teenagers fall in love, just like adults do. In fact, they’re probably better at it because they tend to be less suspicious and cynical than adults.
And what’s wrong with casual sex anyway. It’s not so glorious, of course, as sex with a person one is in love with, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong. Casual sex is to sex with someone you love like hot dogs are to Babette’s feast. But hey, hot dogs are pretty tasty and only a food fascist would say otherwise.
We’ve got to have the most prudish culture on the face of the earth. What, for example, is wrong with teen sexting? People have been presenting one another with nudie pictures of themselves ever since they figured out how to draw on cave walls. You think all those prehistoric people actually went around naked? They had clothes, they just didn’t draw them, and it wasn’t because they were ashamed of the primitive state of their couture. Who wants to draw a figure with clothes on?boring!
Seventy-three percent of sexually suggestive text messages, according to the URI study, were sent to “a relationship partner.” Ten percent, unfortunately, were sent without the consent of the person who originally sent the message. That, to me though, says that the problem is not sexting it’s bullying. Those are two entirely different things and that they’ve been conflated in the media suggests that we, as a culture, have very unhealthy views about sex. In fact, I’d say our views about sex are dangerously unhealthy. If we try to teach young people that sending sexually suggestive messages or photos of yourself to someone with whom you have an intimate relationship is warped and disturbed, we are going to create all kinds of neuroses and complexes in those few who are not sufficiently self possessed to see that we are full of sh*t and we will lose the respect of the rest.
If we are really that prudish, then perhaps we deserve to lose the respect of young people. There is reason, however, to try to preserve it. Young people, no matter how natural it is that they are sexually active, are still immature in multifarious ways and need the guidance of adults. They need to see in adults examples of reasoned judgment, of compassion, of self dsicipline. We need them to respect us if we are to help them navigate the stormy waters of maturity. But if we keep acting like blithering idiots about things such as teen sex, they won’t and we’ll end up with generations growing up as wild as wolves.
Maybe that’s the real difference between us and the Dutch?civilization.
M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org