On October 15, the New York Times reported that adolescents who are vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) aren’t more promiscuous than those who don’t get vaccinated. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that raises the risk of some cancers. It’s not surprising that a vaccine has no effect on adolescent sexual behavior. What is surprising is that fear of “sluttiness” is the number-one reason parents decide not to vaccinate their kids against HPV.
Put another way: A large proportion of parents in the United States are more afraid of their kids having sex than they are of their kids getting cancer.
In fact, “slut-shaming” and negative messaging about female and non-straight sexuality could themselves be compared to a viral infection. A study published in November 2011 found that nearly half of students in grades seven through 12 experienced sexual harassment, and that most of the harassment is directed at girls for being either “slutty” or “prudes” or against kids who are suspected of being gay.
Seeking to shame someone because of her or his real or perceived sexual activity and desire is prevalent among teens and constitutes a type of bullying that is extremely damaging. The 2011 study noted that students reported being particularly negatively affected by slut shaming. Research consistently shows that LGBTI youth have a much higher rate of suicide or suicide attempts than the general population, with a strong correlation between depression or self-harm and gay bashing.
Slut shaming and gay bashing originate with adults. I don’t mean just adults who tell children that all sex outside marriage is bad or consign LGBTI kids to celibacy, or banish them to hell. I mean adults who refuse to have a real conversation with teenagers about sex and all that comes with it—good or bad. The sex-negative culture we have created by not having real conversations about sex and relationships affects everyone.
When we tell adolescents that sex is not something they should desire or like, we are telling them to set aside their own experiences in favor of a lie. Spoiler alert! A study looking at trends in premarital sex from the 1950s until now shows that the majority of Americans have sex before marriage. One of two things happens next, and sometimes both simultaneously:
On one hand, adolescents stop listening to the adults who tell them scare stories, because they see for themselves that the adults are wrong. Not everyone who has sex before marriage gets pregnant, contracts AIDS, or dies. And sex can feel amazing. When the adolescent-adult relationship is breached, children can lose their lifelines to trusted adults, who could have guided them through the mess that is puberty.
And some kids start doubting their own instincts. When we tell them that something that feels good to them is “bad,” they start thinking they, themselves, are bad. In this sense, slut shaming creates a culture of self-hatred in which girls in particular are only too willing to see themselves as deserving abuse.
It‘s crucially important that we teach children to trust their own feelings about sex and relationships. Instead of telling teenagers not to have sex at all—a completely outlandish notion in a post-post-Madonna world—we need to acknowledge that sexual desire exists, and that consent, not shame, is key. Only a teenager who is taught to respect and acknowledge his or her own feelings will know when touching feels wrong, and therefore when they need to say no. This is one of the few things my parents got right. My mother told me more than once that the only rule about sex in our house was that I should never have sex I didn’t want to have.
Slut shaming and gay bashing come from the same place: adult discomfort with sex. This can translate into adolescent date rape, teenage pregnancies, and sexually-transmitted-infection rates that are through the roof for those under the age of 24. Shaming someone for having sex that he or she wants to have constitutes bullying and teaches teenagers to ignore their own feelings about sex, potentially pushing them to unprotected and unhappy encounters.
In short: The sex-negative culture that has parents denying their children access to cancer prevention is the same culture that may expose these children to a sexually- transmitted, cancer-inducing virus. It’s time to get real about sex.