News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Virgin or Slut: Pick One

Why teenagers are so screwed up about sex and their bodies.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

As the middle-aged gym teacher in a track suit stands in front of the class and reads a health book out loud in a monotone voice -- "Intercourse can lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, such as ..." -- a couple of girls swap the latest issue of US Weekly and a Gossip Girls novel, all the juicy parts underlined in pink pen. Welcome to contemporary American adolescence, where sexuality is either up for sale or moralized into nonexistence.

On the one hand we have a hypersexualized and pornified pop culture -- thongs marketed to tweens, Victoria's Secret ads with models who don't look a day over 13, and reality shows like A Shot at Love on MTV, where both men and women will do anything -- including jump in vats of chocolate and discuss their sexual histories on national television -- all for instantaneous love with a petite model. The message to young women is loud and clear: Your body is your power. Flaunt it. Use it. Get attention. The message to young men is also unmistakable: Your gaze is your power. Your role is to judge and comment on women's bodies. As a man, you are inevitably obsessed -- sometimes stupidly so -- with the female form.

On the other hand, we have a federally funded (over $1 billion thus far) abstinence-only sex education program in this country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half (46 percent) of all 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once. According to the government's most comprehensive survey of American sexual practices to date, more than half of all teenagers have engaged in oral sex -- including nearly a quarter of those who have never had intercourse. Regardless of this reality, health teachers from Nacogdoches, Texas, to Newark, N.J., are taught to emotionlessly repeat -- as if pull dolls of the Bush administration -- "The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence. The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence. The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence."

Here, the message to young women is also resolute: Your body is dangerous. Control it. Ignore it. Don't ask any questions. Teen girls are cast as asexual princesses happily trapped in towers, guarded by their Bible verse-spouting fathers. The message to young men is more subtle. In this fairy tale written, produced and directed by abstinence-only advocates, teenage guys are both potential villains -- the oversexed, hormone-crazed young men who must be refused continuously by good girls -- or potential knights in shining armor -- saving enough money from their summer jobs to buy sparkling rings that will save their sweeties from the hell of slutdom.

In between pornified culture and purity balls, in between the slut and the virgin, the stupid, lascivious dude and the knight in shining armor, in between the messages directed at young women -- your body is your power vs. your body is dangerous -- and young men -- your gaze is your power vs. your gaze is dangerous -- are real young people trying to develop authentic identities and sexual practices. And they are struggling mightily.

Too many of them are diseased, disordered, and depressed -- participating in inauthentic performances of sexual bravado, cut off from their bodies' true appetites and desires, and hurt because they can't seem to identify or communicate their own boundaries.

How could we be surprised? We've constructed a polarized culture that gives teenagers edifice, not education. We've sent them out into the wildly complex country of contemporary adolescence without the essential weapons -- sexual literacy, communication strategies, self-reflection exercises, and at the very least, accurate information about anatomy and contraception.

We've let the increasingly conglomerated raunchy mass media pollute the visual world with plastic, codified images of "sex" and the increasingly out-of-touch, religious and righteous federal government play Pollyanna -- deaf, dumb and blind. As the schools relinquish responsibility for educating American teens about sex, the advertisers and networks step in, providing an airbrushed, inauthentic, unrealistic view of sex and the bodies that are "doing it." They're happy to play sexy nanny while our government officials and educators are out to lunch; it guarantees ratings and the next generation eager to fork over cash on products marketed to their effectively socialized inadequacy.

And what kind of education do we provide to help negotiate this onslaught of messages? A curriculum based on three little empty words: "Just say no." Even federally funded studies of abstinence-only sex education confirm that it is ineffective. Half of those who have abstinence-only sex ed end up having sex by the time they're 15 years old. Multiple peer-reviewed studies also confirm that purity pledges actually lead teenagers into having more oral, anal and unprotected sex. Another longitudinal study of 13,000 teenagers found that 53 percent of those who commit to purity until marriage have sex out of wedlock within the year.

The consequences are devastating, diverse and rampant. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, every two and a half minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted. About 44 percent of rape victims are under age 18, and 80 percent are under age 30. According to the Guttmacher Institute, of the 18.9 million new cases of STDs each year, 9.1 million (48 percent) occur among 15- to 24-year-olds. Seven million girls and women in this country have eating disorders; clinicians estimate that as many as 80 percent of those with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder are victims of sexual assault.

And harder to pin down with numbers, most college (and some high school) students experience campuses characterized by random, unsatisfying hookups, stunted emotional growth and the private hell of loneliness, guilt and shame. So many young adults don't know how to deal with the messiness of sex without being sloppy drunk.

We could make such a difference by doing so little. First and foremost, we must replace abstinence-only sexual education with comprehensive curriculum that teaches teenagers accurate, useful and wide-ranging information. They are welcome to save intercourse for marriage, of course, and should certainly be taught that -- indeed -- it is one of only two ways to absolutely prevent pregnancy, though not STDs. (The method of sexual exploration that guarantees both no STDS and no pregnancy is, of course, masturbation!) But they must also be given the tools -- informational, emotional, communicative -- they need should they choose otherwise. We need to teach both young women and men about sexual desire -- that it varies widely and is not shameful but can be overwhelming.

We must also provide our kids with the media and consumer literacy needed to face the pornified culture that we live in and advocate -- through letter writing, boycotts, and public pressure -- that schools, playgrounds, and other public spaces remain advertising-free. As artists, filmmakers, writers, actors, producers etc., we must strive to provide a more enlightened and inspiring view of human sexuality, to create work that involves love and sex without codifying both into unreality. Think Jane Campion.

And finally, we must stop treating teenagers as if they are either dangerous or idiots. When I was recently on The O'Reilly Factor with conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, she shouted, in response to my apparently blasphemous idea that girls deserve to be educated about their bodies: "Twelve-year-olds can't even pick out what color shirt they want to wear in the morning!" It made me wonder if Laura had ever met a 12-year-old, ever had a real conversation with one about her dreams, her thoughts, her desires.

I've had the pleasure of interacting with many teenagers -- 12 years old and older -- and I'm continually amazed at their insight, maturity and earnest need for more information. They aren't adults yet -- sure -- but they are aching in that direction. They need those of us who are done with the journey to provide some fundamental tools on how to make it through. We need to ask them about what they're experiencing and how we can be helpful as they make their way. Instead of luring them in, selling them out, condemning or indoctrinating them, we need to meet them face to face with compassion and information.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body . You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.