I think people know by now that I, like many of my colleagues, never fully remove my social work hat. At best, I wear it jauntily askew. My profession colors how I see most things.
Most people also know by now that I, like my colleagues with taste, am a stark raving Gleek. (I assure you, this is relevant.)
Social work is full of surprises. You discover hidden talents–how else would I learn that I am awesome at assembling cribs? And you learn that you might be passionate about things you didn’t know mattered to you so much.
This is how I fell into sex education. I discovered my love for working with teen girls, a social work surprise I’ve discussed elsewhere. This work also led me to being horrified by the topic of sexuality coming up.
Not because I’m bothered by talking about it. More often, people request I stop. It’s because their attitudes and knowledge were kind of appalling. It’s scary, it’s bad, it’s something that you end up doing, but dammit if they could figure out why. (“Boys want you to” was deemed not a good reason.)
The girls always know the “right” answer. They’re supposed to wait. Wait until marriage, preferrably, but if not, at least until they’re adults. Twenty, thirty if they can.
And yet, very few of them achieve this goal. This is why I’m so obsessed with providing them with safe sex information. Pregnancy prevention, avoiding STIs, knowing where your local Planned Parenthood is, and getting regular check ups at the gynecologist.
I don’t feel awkward doing this. Biological terms don’t make me uncomfortable. So really, this is the easy part.
The difficult part is why. Why have sex? Why wait?
I’ve had debates here and there with people who believe that our ultimate message to young people, particularly girls (for some reason) should be to wait. To wait for as long as possible. That’s why, when pressed, a lot of parents admit they tell their kids to wait for marriage. They know that’s not realistic for most people. (The only people I know who have actually done that were very religious, and got married when they were about 20. Guess why?) But maybe that idea will at least get them to hold off on their first time.
I get it. Sex, and sexual relationships, are not something that people can possibly be ready for until they reach a certain age and maturity level.
But is being older always better? I was asked once “Is there any benefit to not waiting?” My first thought was, sure. You get to have sex. I realize that wasn’t exactly the “right” answer, but it kind of is. It should be enjoyable. That is a perfectly acceptable reason to have sex. It’s a reason that this teacher discusses at length with his students, in what sounds like a very well-planned, effective, and innovative sex ed curriculum.
There’s more to it, of course. I trust teenagers enough, and remember enough about myself way back in the late 90s/early 00s, to recognize that they do, at times, understand their feelings. It’s possible for them to be in love. Is it better to wait until age 21, when you realize you haven’t met anyone particularly special, and just get it over with when you find someone decent? Or would it have been better to have that first time with your first love, even if you were 16?
This nice first time isn’t an option for everyone, I realize that. But I don’t think it should be painted as something automatically negative.
I’ve always been vehemently against abstinence education. When I first heard about it, when I was in high school, I thought it sounded ridiculous. Who needs to be taught to be abstinent? Will there also be lessons on not jumping rope and failing to read books? Seems unnecessary.
As I got older, I found only more reasons to dislike it. For one, it’s entirely ineffective. It leaves kids unprepared while not achieving its goals. Not only that, but I noticed something about hearing the abstinence lessons, or being around people who really subscribed to those ideas. I felt defensive. I felt judged. I couldn’t always put into words the why of it, though.
That’s where Glee comes in. I was watching a recent episode, laughing and crying loudly on the elliptical at the gym, as I so often do. (I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until I’m asked to leave.) The episode was called ‘The First Time,” and guess what it was about.
Speaking of which, I don’t think I’m that old, but a couple of high school boyfriends in bed talking about masturbation? Wouldn’t have happened when I was in high school. We have made some strides, prime time television.
Tina, a character who has been in a relationship for well over a year, gives some advice to a girl who is considering sleeping with her boyfriend for the first time. This comes in the midst of a chorus of girls urging her to wait by sharing negative experiences, from getting pregnant, to not really wanting to do it, to not really enjoying it.
“Losing my virginity was a great experience for me. Because I was with someone I loved… And when that moment came, we just knew. It was right. It wasn’t rushed, it was amazing. He’s my first love. And I’ll always look back on that moment as absolutely perfect. No regrets.”
There’s no “it’s OK because we’re going to end up married” or “it had to happen sooner or later.” Just a young girl who had a lovely experience with a boy she regards as her first love, a boy with whom she’s always had a positive, respectful relationship. They communicated with one another, they felt ready, even though they probably won’t be together forever. Provided they’re safe (which was covered elsewhere in the episode, thank you) is this really such a bad thing? As someone who had a similar experience to Tina, and who has had years to consider it, I think it’s just fine.
Not surprisingly, not everyone shared my warm and fuzzy feelings about Glee. This CNN article lamented that it’s television’s fault that kids want to have sex, because television makes those stupid kids think that “everyone’s doing it!”
Once again, I think this article, and these ideas, are what sends the wrong message. Sex is bad, it’s scary, it’s very very serious and we need to stop making people feel otherwise! Until they’re adults. Because once you’re eighteen, or married, you are instantly ready for such heady concepts.
I’m not a fan of the concept of virginity or purity. “Purity” I just find to be offensive. Being pure means not having sex, so having sex means you’re…impure? Dirty? Sullied for life? That’s really not a helpful message. It’s chock full of judgment, and comes from a value system not everyone subscribes to.
Virginity is supposedly more straightforward, but it’s not. What counts as “sex” is so unclear. So, someone can have oral or anal sex with a hundred different partners, and their virginity is intact. Vaginal sex once, and forget it, you just gave it up. What about gay kids? What about a plethora of other sexual activities? And when we’re talking about such technicalities, does it really matter anymore?
Aside from technical issues, talking about “losing one’s virginity” just doesn’t send the right message to young people, in my opinion. (It’s my blog, it’s all my opinion.) I don’t think it needs to be seen as a loss, something you give up, something you can never get back. We’re always much more interested in girls, not boys, remaining virgins, if we’re honest with ourselves. This whole concept sets them up as gatekeepers. When girls and mothers talk about the importance of hanging on to virginity, I can’t help but get a mental image of vikings attempting to storm a fort.
I’m pretty sure that this isn’t how we should be educating kids about sex. Especially since they also get the message that once they’re married, it’s fine to go to town. Do everything you can think of. That thing that would have killed you and made you dirty? Now it’s an expression of love and babymaking.
That same article talks about kids feeling embarrassed to be virgins, but we don’t talk about being sensitive to kids who have decided to have sex, and who don’t regret that decision. I didn’t tell my best friend for almost a year, because I knew she’d judge me as she was always talking about waiting for marriage. (Spoiler alert: there was some judgment, but she didn’t wait til marriage.) This was something I experienced repeatedly in college. I have had girls in group start talking about how they haven’t had sex because they’re waiting for it to be special, they’re not going to get caught up in a moment and let it ruin their lives, they’re not that stupid, they have respect for themselves, etc.
And I can’t imagine that it makes the girls who did feel that they were ready for sex feel too good, or comfortable sharing. I know how it made me feel at that age. It can really shut the conversation down for kids who have questions, are grappling with whether or not to have sex, or who have decided to have sex already. When one student is being praised for their declaration of caring enough about themselves to wait, who is going to raise their hand to say, “This is why I didn’t?”
We need to think realistically about what kids need to know about sex. What we wish we knew, what we wish we had heard. Not just about biology and how to be safe, though that is, of course, crucial. We need to help young people determine what is actually important to them. I have friends who waited until they were in their 20s, finally choosing to have sex because they felt that waiting was no longer meaningful, and was holding them back in relationships. I have friends who thought they would wait until marriage, and didn’t, but were still grateful for a foundation in that value. I have friends who regretted the first time they had sex, and many others who did not.
There is not one right answer for everyone, is what I’ve learned. I don’t think kids who choose to remain abstinent should be judged, but I think fear of judgment by peers or family is a pretty bad reason to decide to have sex, or to decide to wait. Empowering young people to know what they want and figure out their own morals on this subject is not only necessary, it’s possible.
And if we can sprinkle in some musical numbers, even better.