The crew over at Patheos have come up with their next Forward Thinking question. The series of questions are designed to counter the assumption a lack of religion equals a lack of values or morals. The question this time: What would you tell teenagers about sex? Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism says this:
“I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the problems of the purity culture’s elevation of virginity. The evangelicalism I grew up in made abstinence before marriage a critical matter of faith, and did it’s [sic] utmost to persuade of [sic] scare teens out of having sex. Misinformation was rife. But like many similar blogs, I spend more time talking about how the purity culture “does it wrong” than about what it looks like to be doing it right.”
I haven’t thought deeply about this question in a while, and never in a nonreligious context. I do have a son a few years away from being a teenager, though, and issues surround sex have started to pop up more often. The issue used to be simple for me, because sex was only permissible within marriage. On the surface of things, then, teenage sex shouldn’t have been an issue. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. But, setting aside the trauma it causes the teenage mind to have the body and mainstream society telling you one thing and religious culture telling you another, one can see the reasoning behind the marriage approach. The difficulty of determining the appropriateness of sexual relations in every particular case is mitigated by a simple prohibition against its practice except in very limited circumstances.
Georges Bataille discusses the “juridification” of sex in his Death and Sensuality, the process of bringing sexual relations within the bounds of the law. As I’ve noted before, society as a whole (meaning not any one individual necessarily) benefits from monogamous relationships. With the norm of marriage in place the individual can assent to the rule and focus his or her attention elsewhere. This is certainly not to say that the tension between desire and the law goes away; however, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like without the norm.
This is where I think the most liberal forms of this discussion go wrong. I agree with those that rail against the arbitrariness the origin for sexual prohibitions as well as the misinformation that goes on within religious circles. However, I doubt that the destruction of sexual taboos would make for a better situation. Nor is it valid to say that “kids are going to do it anyway,” the same argument trotted out for war or gun control, which serves to maintain the status quo. We do significant work with the ideas of sexual norms, whether we abide by them or violate them. For some “violators,” it is the very notion of a violation that gives the sexual encounter much of its appeal. For some “abiders,” it is only the notion of the prohibition that keeps them in their relationship. Tension over sex and desire gives the world of advertising its largest source of ideas for generating revenue.
That is to say that the answer to teenage sex is not to downplay it. The ubiquity of sexual desire in all our communications makes any attempt to dismiss it hypocritical. Dealing productively with the issue of teenage sex will take more creativity than has been set forth thus far. Christianity’s success in keeping me from having sex until marriage was borne primarily from fear, fear of what would happen if I did. In my teenage mind, STDs were God’s consequence for screwing around. Instead, I just got married as quick as I could. (This will not be part of my recommendation to my son.) From my admittedly anecdotal evidence, the teenage brain is remarkably less equipped to handle the intricacies of an intimate relationship in balance with school, work, and life in general. It’s not impossible; I think, however, it is rare. My teenage identity was pretty wrapped up in being a “smart” kid, but nearly all of that intelligence disappeared when the sex drive turned on. So, I don’t think that “information” about sex is enough. As strange as it may sound, some sort of inculcation is necessary.
Parents should certainly take the dominant role in teaching teenagers about sex, and it should involve some effort to discern where they are at in terms of deciding the approach to take. It might be that the approach is “Do not do it. Under any circumstances. Until you graduate.” While some would argue that will just backfire, it doesn’t have to if it is spoken in a context of a loving and caring relationship. Of course it won’t work if the parent-child relationship is constituted only by the giving and receiving of commands. My hope is that, along with other “moral” issues, I will be able to put as much responsibility on my son as I think he can handle to make the right decision, neither burdening him with the weight of it all or removing his obvious will from the situation. While I will not argue that he should only have sex in marriage, I will likely recommend that the best scenario for him to engage in sex is one in which he has a handle on other areas of his life and thus is prepared to deal with the pleasures and consequences of his actions. This, for me, would be later, rather than earlier, in a committed relationship, where the chances of one partner taking advantage of another have decreased, if ever so slightly.
I guess I’m finding that sex retains a certain sacredness for me. Part of me thinks that this is only the heritage of religious indoctrination. Yet I can’t imagine casual sexual partners being in the best long-term interest of all the parties involved, not to mention the unbalanced way in which judgment falls predominantly on women for “promiscuity.” Since long term planning is not a strong suit for many, and particularly not those in their teenage years, it seems best to err on the side of caution.
I’m curious to hear what others think.