Just when I start feeling good about the world, I uncover a subversive plot to corrupt American youth. Not surprisingly, this one stems from Southern Baptists. (Disclaimer: my mother is a Southern Baptist and her congregation is wonderfully nice, so I don't mean to imply that all Southern Baptists are evil. Just the ones who are involved in this particular subversive plot to corrupt American youth.)
Abstinence-until-marriage programs have been quite the rage for a few years now, and the results are in: teens who take the pledge don't necessarily stay virgins until marriage, but they do delay first intercourse about eighteen months after their non-pledging peers. Whether this is because of the pledge or if they would have anyway, nobody can say.
The pro-abstinence folks are crowing quite a bit over this, though to me it seems like it wouldn't be much of a victory for them. Perhaps their new slogan should be, "True love waits ^× for a little while." Partial success seems like it would be a failure in their eyes; kids are pledging not to have sex until marriage, then have sex anyway after a year or so. It seems like an all-or-nothing proposition to me; I'd think they'd see any premarital sex as bad. I imagine the abstinence people are happy that at least the kids delay first intercourse, but how serious should anyone consider the pledge if breaking it turns out to be no big deal?
There are two distinct issues here: sex before marriage, and teen sex. I always had problems with the idea of waiting until after the ring exchange before getting hot and heavy; what if you found out you and your new life partner were completely incompatible sexually? Forgive me for using an obvious analogy, but you test drive a car before you buy it; you can study all about it and understand why it should work the way it does, but you have to drive it before you can commit to it. There's an old chestnut about a woman who marries a mortician and discovers on their wedding night that before they can have sex, she must chill her body in a cold bath, then lay perfectly still with her eyes shut while he's on top of her. That sums up my argument pretty well. Sure people can make concessions, but sometimes there are base incompatibilities that can't be surmounted.
But the bigger issue in all this is that of teen sex. My high-school debate instincts cause me to be very precise when I state my opinion about teenagers having sex: I do not believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with physically and emotionally mature teenagers having informed, consensual, protected sex. I don't waffle on that one.
Teenagers have always had sex, and to those who slip on the rose-colored glasses to reminisce about the chaste [insert decade here: 1890s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, whatever], I say: wake up. It's natural to have sexual feelings, and people have been acting on them since the beginning of time. Teenagers had sex before marriage in the Victorian era, in the halcyon days of the 1950s, and they do it now; furthermore, they will continue to do so regardless of any intervention from the government, the church, or anyone else. I feel they should be taught responsibility and sexual ethics, rather than kept in the dark and told "just don't do it." I once saw a Latin phrase somewhere that translated as "Bidden or unbidden, God is present." By a similar token, sex is always going to be part of maturation, whether it's acknowledged or not.
I am so incredibly sick of adults trying to scare young people away from being sexually active; yes, there are realistic and serious consequences to irresponsible sexual activity, but God won't smite you the second your panties come off. I was a teenager once, and God never saw fit to strike me with lightning or curse me with leprosy as punishment for my carnal explorations. In addition to pregnancy and disease, the abstinence proponents tell kids (particularly girls) that they'll be "ruined" for their future spouses if their cherries are popped pre-matrimony. I read an article that described an abstinence education activity where a teacher passed a rose around the room and instructed each student to pluck a petal from it. When the rose made its way to the teacher again, it was a naked stem. The teacher compared it to a pristine (ahem) unplucked blossom and asked which would be more lovely a gift for a future spouse.
The analogy was completely wasted on me. I started wondering why it was so great to have all your petals plucked by one person after a wedding ceremony . . . you still end up as a naked stem, don't you? What does it matter if you wait for your "true love" when you end up the same? Or does the act of intercourse with a spouse not pluck the petals? Why? I certainly haven't loved everyone I've ever slept with, and I don't regret it a bit. I don't feel that I lost any petals; if anything, it helped me reach my current full bloom. (All right, the cheesiness of the analogy is going to make me upchuck. I'll stop now.)
This notion that sex inherently diminishes someone is absurd. These people are telling kids that sexuality will invariably ruin them, that they should be ashamed of sexual feeling, that for them to engage in sex (even safe sex) is a failure on their part. But then all these messages are null and void once kids come of age and go down the aisle. Because the abstinence proponents think it's okay to be sexual, but only in a very limited context.
The True Love Waits people are happy that their campaign only fails somewhat. Kids aren't waiting for true love, but they are (for whatever reason, the pledge or otherwise) delaying first intercourse by a little more than a year. Do they feel guilty for breaking the pledge? My bet would be yes, they do. That's just what we need, even more guilt and shame associated with sexuality. That will serve these kids well. I wonder how many kids sign the pledges and know they'll break them. Peer pressure is an odd thing, and I remember having to explain myself in high school when I declined to buy into it all. I can see confused kids wanting to fit in, signing the pledge, then going back on it later, or signing it offhandedly.
Of course, there are those who take it seriously. A school friend of mine had a ceremony, essentially a mock wedding where she married herself to celibacy until matrimony; she even had a gold ring to wear until the blessed day. Her parents were there, presiding proudly over her precious hymen, praising her chastity. I lost track of her, but I can almost guarantee that she waited (or is waiting) until marriage. Then again, she wouldn't have had premarital sex anyway; the pledge was moot. She was waiting because her personal beliefs dictated it, not because she signed a piece of paper under the weight of peer pressure.
But then, how do we determine was sex is? I use a pretty broad definition for lovemaking, but I don't know how it's defined for True Love Waits purposes. Kissing, petting, mutual masturbation . . . what's allowed, what isn't? What if you sleep with the person you're going to marry, but do it before the wedding? What about people who don't want to get married, do they just remain virgins forever? It's all one big muddle, especially if you try to introduce logic into the mess. (Though I imagine there's a chance I'll be inundated with helpful letters from chastity proponents offering to make things crystal clear.)
To review: kids are signing a pledge to stay chaste until marriage, but they aren't keeping it. The Southern Baptists are trumpeting their success to the heavens, though they failed at keeping virginity preserved until marriage. Kids who would stay chaste anyway don't need the pledge. Those who sign it because they feel like they should (even though they aren't ardent about staying pure) feel guilty and ashamed if they break the pledge.
So how would I want things? Thanks for asking. I believe in comprehensive sexual education; teach kids how to be safer, physically and emotionally. Let them know the truth, the good and bad points of being sexually active. Don't scare them or overload them with guilt and shame. Let them know that sex is not to be taken lightly, it's a remarkable activity that can cause great pleasure but carries seriousness with it. Consider it a gift from God, if you insist, but for the record I refuse to believe that God would give a gift with restrictions on its use. (Only within wedlock, only with a member of the opposite sex, never alone, only for procreation, whatever.) They have to know how to be safe. There's a lot of misinformation out there, and that can be disastrous. They think girls can't get pregnant if it's their first time, or they're standing up, or they douche afterwards; they assume if someone looks healthy s/he is, or that oral sex won't spread diseases.
I've long been a supporter of sexual gradualism, which is basically the idea that kids take their time and learn how to be caring, supportive sexual partners through gradual steps. You start with kissing and eventually work your way up to whatever you and your partner are comfortable with and enjoy.
This seems like common sense to me. Learning anything is a gradual process, so why should lovemaking be any different? It's certainly an important part of life, after all. Let kids know that it's okay for them to experiment, and it's also okay if they aren't ready or don't want to do so. I'm not advocating hedonistic abandon or requiring all kids to have sex by age fifteen; I just want to equip teenagers to make healthy, responsible sexual choices.
I want adults to be honest about the past, to stop claiming that things were ever any different; it's important to admit that some teenagers have always had sex before marriage. We need to support teenagers to help them develop sexual ethics. We can let them learn from our mistakes so they won't repeat them. It is our responsibility to provide education for them, to make sure they have every opportunity to learn about their sexuality in the safest way possible. We can't guard them forever, we have to prepare them for the world, by which I mean the real world, which is a world that includes sex.
Second Sex is an ongoing series of essays about the intermingling of sexuality, politics, gender, psychology, feminism, and philosophy.
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