Can't Hardly Wait
As any former smoker knows, you can't make the one thing you're trying to avoid the subject of fervent conversation if you really want to abstain. Have you ever heard two ex-smokers bonding over how glad they are to have quit? Within minutes, the discussion will turn to "my first cigarette" or "my favorite time to smoke" -- it's like nicotine porn -- and before you can say "government health warning," one of them lights up, and bam, they're a smoker again.
It's too bad no one told CEO Bush this before he embarked on a campaign to re-brand one of his favorite commodities: the virginity of his youthful citizens. Since arriving in office, Bush and his band of merry men have been brainstorming ways to get sex out of the classroom and back into marriage where it belongs.
No doubt they consider the media's recent focus on abstinence a victory: Two weeks ago, Newsweek's cover story examined "The New Virginity." If you believe that one, American teens -- led by supercute Miss America -- are falling head over heels for Bush's just-say-no message. (Or maybe it's American magazine editors who are falling head over heels for Bush.)
Unfortunately, spin and hype aren't much help to the eleventh grader in heat. It has never been easy to be a virgin in high school, and it's no easier now that it's supposedly cool to abstain. The only thing that's changed is what's being taught. In Grand Old Party tradition, the means is bribery. Bush has set aside $135 million for abstinence instruction next year -- almost twice what was spent in 1998 -- and here's the bitch: Most of these funds are reserved for programs that promote abstinence until marriage as the One True Way (as opposed to abstinence as a fairly sensible option in one's teens, which is an idea that many more sensible people can get behind).
The problem with this kind of instruction isn't that it makes you think about sex -- teens don't need much help in that department -- but that it gives you blinders. For as long as it sticks, abstinence is the only way to protect yourself from STDs and pregnancy. But let's just say it doesn't stick -- let's say you lapse somewhere along the way, as I did. Then abstinence-only education leaves you completely unprepared for the emotional and physical realities of sex.
When I was growing up, our local preacher in Westfield, New Jersey, would refer to marriage as "being under the dome." I would imagine this huge Greco-Roman structure, and little me standing underneath it in a frilly white wedding gown. I used the dome as an excuse to tune out sex-ed classes from fourth grade through college. The "Harry gave it to Sally" AIDS charts, the condom-on-a-banana demonstrations, the "Does this look infected?" slide show: I decided that none of it applied to me. I even left my flour baby in my high school locker over the weekend.
During sex-ed workshops, I'd look around at my classmates and think about how lucky I was to be ignoring our earnest teacher. It all seemed so icky and complicated. If I needed any proof that God knew what he was talking about, it was how messy and contagious things got when you disobeyed. Of course, the Bible doesn't go into specifics -- the baseball model wasn't in effect back then -- and in the absence of a rulebook, my virginal friends and I created our own code of sexual etiquette. Our Christian youth counselor told us that if we didn't mind our parents walking in on what we were doing, we could be sure we weren't "going too far." But because the idea of our parents catching us on the phone with some guy was mortifying, we decided this rule of thumb didn't quite work for us.
Instead, we did anything that could be discreetly halted if we heard our parents approaching. (Any parent who equates "abstinent" with "chaste" has been reading too much Newsweek.) Everything happened under the clothes, and one's face was never at eye level with another set of genitals. My boyfriend and I surreptitiously shoved our hands down each other's pants while we read in the hammock, cuddled under a blanket on the beach or watched a movie in the den. My brand of the high school hook-up never went beyond sticky fingers.
Meanwhile, my friends and I talked in hushed tones about our friend Allyson's propensity for going down, but only because Allyson was supposedly abstinent too. (We couldn't have cared less about the heathens who were getting head.) Blowjobs weren't part of the agreement, and cunnilingus wasn't part of our vocabulary. Among our born-again friends, we were the prissiest: During senior year, our Christian friend Catherine went all the way, and we never spoke to her again. I took abstinence to the extreme and swore off masturbation. (Bush would have been so proud.)
Back then, I didn't need anyone to hide the sex-ed pamphlets from me, because I wasn't interested in reading them. But now I know how a lack of information can fuck with your head and your genitals. Anyone who vows to say "no" until the unconditional "yes" of marriage is unprepared to say "yes . . . but" when they change their mind: Yes, but let's use a condom. Yes, but when were you last tested? And so on.
When I finally gave up the cherry, I didn't have the vocabulary to talk about sex. I was too embarrassed to buy condoms, and I never mentioned them to a guy for fear he'd ask me to put one on. (I had no idea how.) As for knowing how to ask for what feels good, I'm still getting there almost a decade after losing my virginity. I was as clueless about good sex as I was about safe sex. And I was terrified -- not of sex, but of doing something laughably wrong. I didn't even know if you were supposed to move when you got on top. You know those nightmares where you show up for an exam and realize you missed every lecture that semester? Imagine feeling that panic about your sex life.
Fortunately, most teens aren't as naive as I was; they can handle multiple-choice sex ed. In fact, their sex lives depend upon it. A recent Bush appointee, Claude Allen of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that including condom coaching in abstinence education is "like telling your child, 'Don't use the car,' but then leaving the keys in the Lamborghini and saying, 'But if you do, buckle up.'" But this assumes that parents and kids see things as black and white as Republicans. Most parents probably feel that their kids start humping way too early, but, when given the choice, would prefer they do it safely. And most kids can tell the difference between education and permission.
What kids don't need is to be scared off sex by gory images of oozing genitalia. This tactic has a shelf life only slightly longer than your average horror flick. The second a teen boy slips his fingers under the waistband of a real, live girl's underwear for the first time, that feeling will wipe out any memory of the gross-out slide show he saw at the abstinence workshop. The pus-filled imagery only sticks with the kids who aren't doing it, who don't have any actual images of sex to replace the ones on screen.
To be fair, many programs and schools do promote abstinence as merely one option (albeit the preferred one). But the message needs to be even more mixed. Abstinence isn't a sprint to marriage. It's an option that you can employ at any time, and for any period of time. You can leave it behind and return to it later. (Just don't call yourself a "secondary virgin.") You can be abstinent during high school. You can try it during your sophomore year of college if freshman fucking wasn't all you'd hoped it would be. You can take a year off sex to "find yourself" (as long as you don't call it that).
Abstinence isn't a before or after, and it's not all-or-nothing. The holier-than-thou, souvenir-necklace-wearing virgins should be forced to pay attention to the safer-sex lectures along with all the slutty kids. Someone needs to tell the virgins they might not make it to the finish line. And yes, do tell all of the kids -- even the sluts -- what teen abstinence will save them from: the post-prom disappointment, the pathetic fumblings of inexperienced boys with no staying power, the nasty case of chlamydia going around, the blowjobs from girls in braces. But you've also got to admit to them that it's actually kind of fun when you get around to it, braces and all.
So maybe that looks like giving out the keys to the car, but it's too late to be tight-lipped about teen sex -- the cat's out of the bag, the kid's on the cover of Newsweek. And, as I learned the hard way, ignoring the issue is never the answer. So let's do this in public. Let's throw a big fucking rally and encourage all the teens to stand up and proudly declare: "Abstinent . . . until I get a better offer."
Emma Taylor is an editor of Nerve.com.