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this post is about sex (...sort of)

Perhaps you have seen the latest Caitlin Flanagan article (yes, the same Caitlin Flanagan who thought "I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me" was a good start to an article offering her thoughts on....YA novels).  This one's also about teenagers and the books they read -- and, like the last time around, the author doesn't condescend to actually learn anything about teenagers or the books they read.

The thesis is a bit muddled, but I believe she's saying that the dangerous, sex-crazed culture we've allowed to arise amongst poor, helpless adolescents -- thanks to our obliviousness and neglect -- has left them so desperate and terrified of their wantonly sexual world that they're forced to retreat to things like Twilight and High School Musical, safe, asexual spaces that constitute a cry for help.

(An example of how doing a little research might have helped her out a little here: as I understand it, at least, the age level of obsessive Twilight fans and the age level of participants in private school "sex parties," a phenomenon about which she seems particularly concerned, do not exactly overlap.)

(An example of Caitlin Flanagan's disbelief that teenagers might have minds of their own and be capable of making their own decisions rather than just being steered by the mighty will of their tainted culture: She disdains one novel about the teen sex party that so fascinates her, written by two writers in their 20s, because, "Still young themselves, they centered their attention almost entirely on the perspectives of the students, as though by plumbing the narcissistic reaches of the pubescent mind, one might discover anything beyond the faintest echo of the larger forces that shape adolescent behavior."

Right, asking teenagers why they do what they do, rather than just deciding it for them? That would be CRAZY.)

As per usual, the responses to this article were more interesting than the article itself.  I particularly enjoyed the one on Jezebel, which used Flanagan as a jumping off point for the argument that teens could use a new and different kind of sex-ed, one that talks more frankly and less clinically (or less abstinence-ly, depending on where you live) about what they'll sooner or later be facing.

This spawned a discussion in the comments about all the various horrible sex-ed experiences people have had over the years - which has inspired me to share mine. 

No, don't worry, my story is not about the STD slideshow. *shudder*

Like many sex-ed classes, mine was taught by the gym teacher. In this case, a young softball coach in her late 20s, who was generally preferable to the other two female gym teachers, in that she spent less time ridiculing the students who couldn't hit a ball if their lives depended on it.

(Er, so I heard.)

Anyway, at some point during our sex-ed unit, she stood up in front of the classroom, holding one apple in each hand.  Up until this point, we'd talked solely about the mechanics of pregnancy and the statistics of disease prevention. As far as I remember, this would be the one and only time we actually discussed sex.

She held up both apples. The she dropped one of them on the ground. She picked it up, dropped it again.  She dropped it again and again and again. And then she held them both up for us to see.

"I've got two apples here," she said. "One of them's nice, shiny, clean, and untouched.  The other's dented and dirty, carrying who knows what germs. You have no idea where it's been."

"Now," she said, "which one would you rather have? The one that's clean, or the one that's tainted?"

And that, in a nutshell, was our sex-ed.

The lesson learned: Sex is dirty. Have it, and you'll be dirty, too.

(Next time, in Robin's Public School Follies, the time my math teacher gave us a 40 minute lecture on why abortion was evil and god would turn our lives into a living hell if we tested him on that.)

I could tell you what I think about that, but honestly, Maureen Johnson, in my all-time favorite of all her blog posts, has already said it for me:

I don’t think there’s any way of determining when EXACTLY is the right time for someone to have sex. I think this happens at different times for different people. I think you have to have a powerful voice coming from INSIDE telling you that you are ready to have sex. And I think one of the signs that you are ready is that you are thinking about the consequences beforehand—physical, social, mental, the works. You have to have the confidence not to give in and have sex just because someone is pressuring you to. (Because it’s perfectly normal and acceptable NOT to want to.) And you have to be armed with sufficient knowledge about how to deal with sex.

You should REALLY read the whole post. (You have to scroll down to the 2nd entry, September 12.)

I'm a cranky lady. I dislike a lot of things.

A LOT of things.

But you know what I really dislike? When people try to deprive teenagers of their agency, by assuming that they have no will, no sense, and no power to make good decisions for themselves.  Yes, teens make stupid decisions sometimes. (As, for the record, do I.  Often.) The corrective to that is not informing them that they're stupid and will continue to be until they turn 21, so they might as well just sit down, shut up, and trust the grown-ups to figure things out.

It's also not pretending that their decisions weren't their own, but were instead imposed upon them through the magical, invisible forces of their "culture." (I think I've already made it clear how I feel about those magical invisible forces.)

The way to stop bad decisions? Give people the tools to make better ones. Respect them enough to teach, rather than lecture. Respect them enough to ask questions, rather than deeming them pubescent narcissists who couldn't possibly have answers.

Respect them enough to not make crass, offensive analogies with dented fruit.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 14th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
Well said. When I think back to my sex ed class, all I can remember is the horrible STD slideshow that still haunts me to this day, and putting condoms on a wooden dildo (ironically taught by a lesbian gym teacher who was wonderfully frank and honest).

I was probably fifteen when I had my first time, stayed with the same guy for three years, and have only been with one other person since then, who I live with and will eventually marry once he stops acting like a teenager (apologies for the angst).

I HAVE NEVER had an STD. I never got pregnant, and never ran around having crazy sex orgies. My teen years were filled with pure, teenage, disgustingly optimistic love.

On the other hand I had friends who "lost it" earlier or later than me and have been with more people than they can count on their hands and toes. It's all in the individual person and the choices they make. Most of the time, youngsters who are very sexually active very early have self-esteem issues.

Maybe having more programs working with young women and their self-esteem and letting them know that they can, in fact, make their own destiny would be more efficient, because the scary "abstinence" talk doesn't work, and let's face it, even having all of the information about sex they need at their fingertips (Media, school, gossip, wikipedia), some people still make choices that lead to STDs and pregnancy. They KNOW they can get free condoms at the health clinic, they KNOW the risk of STDs and pregnancy and all of the %s. It's about choices, and I think it's important that teens realize that their choices now will affect their future, whether "good" or "bad".

Okay, done babbling, thanks for posting! I think this is still a very important topic.
May. 14th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for pointing me to those articles. I hadn't read them before... and I'm really surprised. Yes, it appears that a new sex ed curriculum is required. And yes, often parents, for a variety of reasons, fail at the sex ed task, hoping it is being taken care of in school. And we know it's not, in most cases, adequate.

But to look at the books kids are reading and point fingers is unbelievably short sighted and doesn't help the situation at all. I don't think I should be surprised by the tunnel vision some people have... but I always am.

May. 14th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
Your story about the apples reminds me of my 9th grade health teacher and her story of the lollipop. Who wants a dirty, used lollipop? She also gave us the wonderful gem "Men are like microwaves and women are like crockpots" when it comes to sexual arousal. All and all her class was pretty ridiculous...

I remember her creepiest demonstration, where it was of a man and wife on their wedding night and showing "who's all in your wedding bed" if you've had previous partners. If you've had 2 partners and each of those partners had 4 other partners and so on and so on... It showed how crowded your wedding bed would be with all those extra partners. I think it was supposed to make you feel the regret or something of not being "pure" and "clean" for your future spouse...

Sorry for the rant, but I was not a fan of that class, especially since I was fool enough to believe it all at the time.

Would love to hear the story about the 40 minute lecture by your math teacher, though!
May. 14th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
I had amazing sex ed. In middle school, we learned about human reproduction and STDs (I don't remember graphic pictures, but I do remember studying for a quiz where we were given the names of a lot of STDs (AIDS, Chlamydia, herpes, syphilis, HPV, etc.) and had to write down if it was treatable/curable and what the symptoms and possible dangers were. We learned about the different kind of birth control and safe sex method available on the market were and their HONEST rates of failure (not the shit the abstinence only programs teach you).

And then, we had three classes in a row where we could ask any question we wanted (or write it down on a piece of paper and put it in a shoebox if we were embarrassed) and our bio teacher (male, 50s-ish, with children at our school) would answer honestly. And he did, in a clear, non-condescending, non-judgemental, frank and open manner. He explained to us what was "normal" in terms of anatomy (everyone thinks they have weird anatomy in 7th grade) and why using tampons didn't mean we'd lost our virginity, and what some of the slang terms for sex acts we'd heard meant and he never responded to giggles or catcalls, just like we were people who honestly wanted to understand something we didn't understand. He was fantastic.

A friend of mine is a Unitarian Universalist and apparently they also have amazing sex ed classes for their teen parishioners. Another friend of mine is considering enrolling her children in it even though she's Catholic. It's not just about sex, but about self esteem and your body and all kinds of good stuff.
May. 14th, 2010 11:12 pm (UTC)
Yes, this. This, this, this, this, this.

I know there's a lot of pressure on teens to have sex just as there's plenty on them not to. Yet we as a society almost never talk about teens as individuals and listening to that voice inside. Thank you for this. I'll go check out Maureen's post, too.
Apr. 2nd, 2011 07:02 am (UTC)
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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
I'm the author of several novels for teens, including HACKING HARVARD, the CHASING YESTERDAY trilogy, and the SEVEN DEADLY SINS series.

My newest book, SKINNED, comes out in September 2008.

Also, I like cupcakes.