Sex & Relationships

"Kids These Days!": Why Do We Still Freak Out About Young Girls Having Sex?

Even if we’re critical of the media portrayal of young people and sex, to some degree we internalize its assumptions.

As a researcher who talks to young-ish people (18 to 29-year-olds) about sex, one of the things I find most consistently -- and most consistently amusing -- is that almost everyone I interview thinks that other people are more promiscuous than they are.

If they went to state high school, they tell me private school kids start having sex earlier, with their Gossip Girl-style social lives and greater access to recreational drugs. If they went to a private school, it’s the state school kids who are really at it -- they attend classes together, after all, so they have more opportunity. If they grew up in a big city, it’s bored country kids; if they grew up in a small town, it’s city kids who grew up before their time.

Almost everyone I interview though, no matter how old they are, tells me one thing: people their age are totally misrepresented by the media, but those younger people? Things are very, very different for them. Totally sexualised.

It doesn’t matter if they’re 28 and talking about 18-year-olds, or 18 and talking about 14-year-olds, the story is the same. The funny thing, of course, is that 10 years ago, when those 28-year-olds were 18, older people (Tom Wolfe, for one) were writing and saying exactly the same things about them.

Part of it is the tendency to view ourselves -- or our own age group, at least -- as the center of the universe. When we’re kids, we have no trouble imagining the complex psychological lives of four-year-olds. When we’re in eighth grade, seventh graders seem embarrassingly immature. When we’re 18, we don’t want to go to bars populated by 30-year-olds, because, you know, they’re old. And by the time we’re 30, most people under the age of 20 seem like children.

Part of it, though, is that even if we’re critical of media portrayals of young people and sex, to some degree we internalize them. We know (in the case of most people I speak to) that it’s not true of us, or anyone we actually know. But if people are saying it all the time, we figure it must be true of someone.

And we don’t just internalize the idea that everyone else is on some Bacchanalian bender -- we also take on the value judgements attached to those behaviors. Even if we fancy ourselves as non-judgemental progressive types. So, if we hear a 14-year-old girl has had sex, for most of us the immediate visceral response is to assume it’s because she’s been “sexualized”; because she thinks that having sex will make her cooler, sexier, more grown up. We rarely consider that it might be because she actually wants to have it, that it might have been a deliberate decision that was actually right for her.

(I’m not saying here that having sex is the right decision for every 14-year-old -- in fact, I think it’s the wrong decision for most 14-year-olds, which is part of the reason why we have an age of consent, and why the vast majority of 14-year-olds aren’t having sex -- but as Jessica Valenti and Australian author Emily Maguire have written, boys aren’t the only ones whose bodies are flooded with hormones and desire. Or love, for that matter. This is about agency, and trusting people to make their own decisions.)

There’s also a strong whiff of sexism to these assumptions. We don’t assume that teenage boys who have sex are foolish, self-deluded or tricked into it, for example. (And often this double standard is as much to teenage boys’ detriment as it is to teenage girls’.)

Then you have people like the New York Observer’s Nate Freeman, who have internalized stereotypes around young people and sex to such an extent that the fact that no one at a house party got laid at the end of the night (that he knows of) is considered cause for shock. Newsflash: the majority of people at a party not getting laid at the end of the night isn’t symptomatic of narcissism, low libido, or an obsession with updating one’s Twitter profile. It’s just the way most heterosexual casual sex cultures operate.

At the end of his article, Freeman recounts an exchange with a couple of the cast members of US Skins, who I think get it pretty much right:

The Observer asked them why young people in New York don’t want to have sex.

They both laughed.

“That’s a funny idea!” Ms. D’Elia said.

“I haven’t actually, um, heard that?” Mr. Newman said.

“I’m 19, so I don’t think I can weigh in,” Ms. D’Elia said.

Mr. Newman gave her a mischievous smirk.

“Both of us are kind of right out of high school,” he said. “We’re in that period where you supposedly ‘lose it.’”

“Everything makes you assume that this is Your Time,” Ms. D’Elia said. “For example, the media …”

“Or, for example, television shows …” The Observer said.

“Yes,” Ms. D’Elia laughed. “For example.”

Freeman, bafflingly, draws from this exchange that the characters on Skins get laid more often than the actors who play them because they don’t own web-enabled mobile phones. I’d be more inclined to suggest that they get laid more often because they’re fictional, and from a narrative drama perspective, having sex is more interesting than not having it. As one of my interview subjects put it: “Television is not an accurate portrayal of real life, but that’s kind of what we all like it for.”

Rachel Hills is a writer, researcher and contributor to publications like the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, CLEO, Cosmopolitan and Vogue. She is writing a book about Gen Y, sex and identity.
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