Fear of a MySpace Planet

Bane of the pro-choice community William Saletan decided to use his Roe v. Wade anniversary essay to scold pro-choicers for our perceived unwillingness to be very sad about abortion. It's a song he's been singing for a long time — that pro-choicers would automatically win over anti-choicers if we agreed to work towards a goal of zero abortions by encouraging contraception use and extending social services, as if pro-choicers didn't already do that. We mostly would like a world with zero abortions, zero heart surgeries, zero root canals, and zero bad break-ups, but being grown-ups, we mostly accept that perfection is a pipe dream.

Saletan's pipe dream also ignores the fact that the organized anti-choice movement opposes contraception and STD protection as well as abortion. To echo what Scott Lemieux is always saying in his responses to Saletan, we have to deal with the reactionaries that we have, not the idealized ones in our heads.

But in this essay, Saletan goes beyond the empty moralizing about abortion and makes a statement that shot eyebrows up all over the decadent liberal blogosphere.

To pro-choicers: Talk about abortion the way you've been talking about teen sex, embracing an ideal number of zero.

Knee-jerk reactionary say what? Arguing that the ideal amount of teen sex is zero could quite possibly be the most empty, hypocritical moral posturing imaginable in our culture. It might even be worse than getting on a high horse about pot-smoking, which is something that the vast majority of Americans have done at one point or another without any ill effects to show for it. But teen sex posturing may be even worse, because while pot-smoking doesn't cause much harm, it's not exactly a super-positive thing to do, either. But most of us had sex as teenagers, and most of us will admit to being glad of it in private. I can count on one hand the number of people I've known over my life who waited until their twenties to start having sex, and the number who did so on purpose is even smaller. I will happily say that my biggest regret about adolescent sexual experimentation is that I didn't start earlier. (Seriously, I was such an anxious teenager that I bought all the scare stories about losing your virginity. Turned out that it wasn't that big a deal, and I regret that I lost out on a time in my life that could have been more fun. If my high school sweetheart is reading this, I offer my sincere apologies for mishandling that issue.) But most of us feel this pressure to condemn teenage sex in official, public circumstances. With such a huge gulf between public belief and private belief on this issue, it appears we have a Big Social Lie on our hands.

Why do people so eagerly jump at the chance to be giant hypocrites on this issue? Or, at best, they are self-congratulatory egoists who think, "Well sure, I was ready to have sex at 17, but I don't think kids these days can handle it." I suspect it's because of parents, and the way your children's emerging sexuality makes you uncomfortable and reminds you that you're going to die. And for some others, I suspect there's a dose of jealousy that we don't have the stay-up-all-night-doing-it passion that adolescents easily command. Let me take a moment to sympathize with this dilemma. I also hate facing my morality, the effects of gravity, and the urge to nap instead of do more interesting things. And I'm only 30. I'm sure it gets worse from here. But extrapolating that into shaming and controlling teenagers in blossom is neither inevitable nor healthy.

In fact, it seems that the goals of reducing the abortion rate and stopping teenagers from having sex might be in opposition to one another. In a post by Virginia Rutter on these issues, she links a cross-cultural research study done on American and Dutch parents to see why Dutch teenagers, who have sex at the same ages as American teenagers, do better on the common indicators of sexual wellness. They change partners less frequently, they get pregnant less often, they use birth control more consistently, and they don't contract STIs as often. The interviewers decided to measure parental attitudes about teenage sex by asking parents if they allow the romantic partners of 16- and 17-year-old children to sleep over. American parents almost universally recoiled at the idea, and Dutch parents almost universally accepted it.

From there, the interviews went into more depth, discovering that Americans and the Dutch conceptualize teenage sexuality and love much differently from each other. Dutch parents tend to accept that teenagers fall in love and generally have the expectation that teenage sex is a legitimate expression of love. Americans, meanwhile, to put it bluntly, reject the idea that teenagers can love each other.

The reasons are resoundingly sexist. Conservative and liberal both, Americans tend to think boys are incapable of loving girls (and are just "using" them for sex) and that girls are too feather-brained to realize that their intense feelings aren't real somehow. (Not sure how a feeling can't be real if it's really felt.) And teenagers, being human, will live up to the expectations put on them. Dutch teenagers are expected to have sex in a responsible, loving manner expected of adult relationships, and they do. American teenagers are expected to have sex under semi-criminal and dirty circumstances, and they all too often do.

At the Sex Tech conference, we were treated to a panel of young winners of the sex ed video contest. All of them were demanding a sex education that was more holistic, where there was talk about relationships and love alongside the more dry information about the physical mechanics of sex. If the Dutch successes are any indication, then these kids were on the right path. It takes five minutes to show someone how to put on a condom, but it takes a lot more to teach kids how to get into the respectful situations necessary to make sure the condom is in fact used.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact press@rhrealitycheck.org.

Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte

  • http://www.caitlainscorner.com invalid-0

    I am so glad you pointed to that study – it is very telling indeed. Sadly, I’m not sure how we are going to overcome the cultural hurdles in American society that are responsible for these attitudes. For some reason, as the younger generation (you know, the ones who were sexually free when they were our ages, but have regressed for some reason) gets older, they get more conservative. And, as the ones who drive these ridiculous mores, there’s no foreseeable way out. It self perpetuates.

  • http://thegooseandgander.blogspot.com invalid-0

    I read your article today and then I had the opportunity to see this little snippet of exactly what you are talking about.

    Teenagers deserve so much more respect and support than they get, so far as sexuality is concerned. Anyway, I love Pandagon and am glad to share the same city with you!


  • invalid-0

    If you had, you’d know more than a handful of people who waited until their 20’s, and not voluntarily.

  • harry834

    We all want our kids to grow up healthy. We want to do what we can to guide them away from risky behaviors. Sometimes, we have to guide them more carefully then we would if they were adults.

    That said, we should not teach our kids to fear sex. I think abstinence-only would still be wrong even if it did promote less risky behaviour, because scaring kids from a human experience like sex is wrong. It is abusive.

    The rift between our public and private belief was waiting to be ripped into the open. We adults need to re-examine our motives when we try "do as I say, not as I do".

    The natural fear we have for our kids is OK, until it gets to the point that we are secretly hoping our kids will be too afraid to risk the joy of living.

    This is another example of trading liberty for safety.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I’m frustrated and saddened that so many adults have a complete disrespect of teen sexuality. It’s exactly like you said, instead of having protected sex in a safe, clean environmeant, teens have sex in dirty and semi-criminal circumstances. Why? There are no safe places. Parents often treat teen sex and relationships like diseases. Rarely does anyone treat it like a normal and pleasurable part of life.

  • invalid-0

    I am in grad school and I know only 3 people who have waited until 20’s, and only one who has waited voluntarily.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Zvs4T4RU30&feature=related invalid-0

    You know, Amanda, we don’t agree on very many things, but I have got to comment upon what an excellent little vignette you have written.

    I have been saying for quite some time now that teenagers are excellent decision makers, always so very deliberate and cool-headed, outstanding judges of the character of others, and not given to conform their behavior to that of their peers.

    You, Amanda, are wise beyond even your many years.

  • invalid-0

    I agree that there needs to be less anxiety about teen sexuality overall. And yes, there is parental anxiety that comes from unacknowledged psychological baggage.

    However, I just can’t agree that it’s as simple as you say.

    You can’t lump all teenagers as having the same level of maturity, and many teenagers are extremely immature and really not ready for sex. (Same for some adults, but the proportion is much smaller.)

    My guess is that there’s a bell curve of “sexual readiness” which peaks around 16 or 17 years old. But no one should assume that a random 16-year-old is ready to have sex or that they might not be at risk of emotional harm (let alone mature enough to handle an unwanted pregnancy or an STD). Yes, teenagers can feel real love. I did when I was a teen, so I know. But many (especially younger teens) also have extremely shallow relationships that are really more play-acting than love. In that kind of relationship, I think sex can be a very harmful development.

    At the very least, before a teenager has sex, they should be able to maturely answer the following:

    1) What would they do in the case of an unwanted pregnancy?
    2) What would they do if they had symptoms of an STD?
    3) Do they have a trusted adult to turn to in case of any problems? (dating violence, etc.?)
    4) What specific actions are they willing or unwilling to do? (i.e. “how far” are they willing to go?)
    5) Are they able to talk to their partner about sexual matters?
    6) What birth control/protection options will they use, assuming that they are engaging in vaginal, anal or oral intercourse?

    And it is definitely a bad thing if kids are having sex they otherwise wouldn’t except that they’re drunk or high.

    FTR, I teach OWL (a sex-ed course through Unitarian Universalism) to Jr. High kids. It is not abstinence-only, but it’s funny how asking the kinds of questions as above made the kids think that “we were drilling abstinence into their heads”. Not really true – I had no delusions that I would be able to stop any of themm from doing whatever they wanted. But they were deciding *themselves* that abstinence was a better choice and more-or-less projecting it onto us teachers, IMHO. And if most of them delay intercourse as a result, I would consider that a success.

  • http://www.datesafeproject.org invalid-0

    Thank you for addressing such an important issue in today’s society. We definitely need more experts like yourself opening the eyes of our communities. When you need quotes and/or data on future articles addressing issues relating to teenagers, parents, dating, intimacy, sexuality, and/or sexual assault, e-mail us. We will give you whatever you need. With all the educational programs we provide to students, parents, and schools throughout the country, we hear everyone’s perspective. Best of all, we are happy to provide concrete solutions to the problems.

    Mike Domitrz, our Executive Director, is fantastic with news outlets and media sources of all kinds. As the creator the critically-acclaimed DVD/book set “Help! My Teen is Dating,” and “Voices of Courage”, Mike travels the country speaking in over 80 cities each year. I promise he will give you attention grabbing quotes and detailed information. To learn more about The Date Safe Project or Mike Domitrz, visit http://www.datesafeproject.org.

    Once again, thank you for the work you do!

  • invalid-0

    Some teenagers who have sex are not at risk of pregnancy and don’t need contraception.

  • harry834

    We must keep our discussion of teenagers of all sexual orientations. Also, sexual behavior and orientation are two different things. Having gay sex doesn't require gay participants. Same thing for straight sex. Likewise, if your gay or straight, if you have straight sex, use contraception. If you have gay sex, not so much :)

  • invalid-0

    Call it what it really is: anal sex. Both homosexual, and heterosexual couples have sex this way. No risk of pregnancy there, but a condom should STILL be worn to protect against STDs.

  • harry834

    condoms should be worn for STD protection as well as contraceptive use. So no matter what act you do, wear a condom.

    And your right ruthless, anal sex can be performed by any couple, heterosexual or gay.

    I actually didn't mean anal sex when I said gay sex, but if I left that impression, I correct it.

  • http://www.isis-inc.org invalid-0

    Thanks for attending the Sex::Tech conference (www.sxtechconference.org) and presenting about this most excellent blog.
    Also, your mention of the Fresh Focus Sex Ed Digital Video Contest winners was right on target. (www.dogooder.tv/freshfocusvideocontest) The young people, in each and every video, said they needed to know EVERYTHING about sex and relationships, not just what adults think they should know.

    That means, adults, dealing with the tough stuff, and the complexities of what young people are coping within their relationships.

    Best, Deb Levine
    Executive Director, ISIS, Inc.

  • invalid-0

    I can see that the great assumption in your argument is that what’s natural is right or healthy. Teenagers have natural urges and shouldn’t suppress sexual desires. The presence then of those desires indicates the maturity to responsibly act in sexual relationships. What are we talking about here? The best way to approach our sexuality? I highly doubt it. Instead, we are seeking to cobble together some “best of what’s around” approach. We would say that teenagers that can recognize the dangers of STDs or responsibly answer what they would do in the case of an unplanned pregnancy are mature enough to engage in sexual relationships. We have nothing better to offer them than reducing the risk of STDs by means of protection and the risk of pregnancy by contraception. One day, when they meet the person they want as a life partner, we’ll encourage them to just avoid talking about their previous partners or just forget the past. We look around at whatever’s leftover of our emotional state that we have to give someone, and we have to accept it as is. If you believe there is no better way, then for you I suppose you can at least take this route and get from it what you can. That seems to be what it’s about, getting what you can. Why consider what the giving side would be?

    It might be worthwhile to point out, for those that are pro-choicers and ardently point to all the efforts made to end abortions and get to “zero,” that abortion is big business and you may be feeding the machine. What are you doing about the economic forces that see abortions in terms of dollars? What are you doing to protect women from the compulsion of good business?

    • http://signthelist.wordpress.com invalid-0

      Yes, because when I think of money-making professions, I think abortion right away. Sure, most of the time, an abortion is not covered by health insurance (besides which, a great number of women do not have health insurance anyway), which means that the clinics who provide abortions offer the procedure at the lower possible price. Which, you know, means that clinics typically operate at a deficit, but hey. Don’t let that get in the way of your conspiracy theory.

      Now churches, buddy, those are the moneymakers. Gather up a bunch of people – 20, 50, a couple hundred, maybe a thousand. Tell them that everything bad that’s ever happened is because they don’t love God enough. Then pass around the offering plate.

      If my potential life partner decides I’m not good enough if I’ve had sex before I’ve met him, then I guess he’s not the right person for me. And likely has some control issues.