What issue is ever quite as controversial as sex? How to have it, why to have it, who’s having it, who shouldn’t be, what should happen afterwards. Sex is always divisive to begin with; it’s one of the basic things necessary for the survival of the human race, and it’s also considered one of the foremost pleasures in this life. Every culture, society, and religion has specific rules pertaining to it. It can make or break careers, reputations, and relationships; it can be a bargaining tool, a reward, or a trap; people do stupid things for it; abstaining from it is a big deal.
Let’s put it this way: human beings are obsessed with sex. Really, really obsessed with sex.
For as long as people have been obsessed with sex, however, which is as long as there’ve been people to begin with, it’s been all about men. Sure, there have been plenty of individual couples that have taken a more egalitarian approach to their lovemaking, and plenty of individual women who’ve sought and found their own pleasure, but culturally? Women have had sex so that they may have children, or else that the man involved may receive pleasure. This approach has defined the role of women in sex forever, and despite some improvement and the best efforts of many, continues to.
So let’s talk about teenagers. And sex. Because teenagers have sex, whether people like it or not. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 70% of American teens have had intercourse by the time they turn 19. I personally know a decent amount of people who were no longer virgins when they graduated middle school. Oral sex (female on male almost exclusively) and sexting are common from the early teens onward. But America has the highest teen pregnancy and STI rates in the developed world, and the teenaged sexual culture is often emotionally unhealthy, even when it’s physically so. Especially for girls.
Let’s start with emotional health. Teens get contradictory messages, and it’s frustrating. Authority figures say to abstain from sex, or at least to only have it in an exclusive, mutual, emotionally satisfying relationship. Their emphasis on the latter can be frustrating to anyone who isn’t in a relationship; a friend of mine once came home with a large hickey on her neck, and her mother was only upset that she didn’t get it from a boyfriend. On the other hand, fellow teens and the media tell us that it’s just not cool to hang on to your virginity after a certain age. Being sexually experienced is the mature, adult thing to do, and teens, in their constant quest for independence and feeling grown-up, listen.
It’s especially bad for girls. The emphasis on virginity as a “prize” or a “treasure,” something that is “lost” but can never be regained. Boys are encouraged to lose their virginity, and perhaps it’s worse for them if they fail.
But for girls, it’s a more complicated matter. To hold on to it for too long is to be a prude, and to lose it outside of a relationship is to give it away indiscriminately, or to be a slut. Seeing as not every girl who wants to be is in a relationship, not by a long shot, it’s a tricky situation. Many’s the time when I’ve greeted the news of a male friend’s first time with unreserved congratulations, but a female friend’s with inquiry and discussion. Offering congratulations to a girl on the loss of her virginity, frankly, feels weird to me, even though I’m clearly very liberal on matters of teen sexuality. It’s just that ingrained an idea.
The amount of double standards pertaining to teen sexuality is pretty astronomical. There is, of course, the infamous categorization of girls who get around as sluts, and boys who get around as players. While the latter are increasingly called “man-whores” and the like, and garner more negativity than they once did, it’s still something that can make them secretly more attractive, and something for which they probably won’t get unduly judged (This is all from females. Guys probably just think it’s awesome). Girls get totally labeled and judged by males and females alike.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that virtually all sexual activity involving teens is male-centric. As I mentioned earlier, female on male oral sex is common, even expected. Boys shoving girls’ heads towards their crotches while making out with them seems to be a common thing. But, even in relationships, it’s fairly rare for a boy to reciprocate. Outside of relationships, virtually never. Going down on a girl is an emotional act, a favor; blowjobs are just something girls are expected to do. Even the classic baseball analogy, which implies that everything short of intercourse is just a pit stop on the way to “home plate,” is totally boy-focused. It’s all about what boys get to do or get girls to do; for girls, it’s about how much you allow. No girl is ever like “Yeah! Got to third base!”
Worse than the double standard, however, is the physical danger. More than half of the 19 million STIs contracted in America every year are contracted by 15-24 year olds. According to the CDC, one in four teenage girls has at least one STI. Beyond that, the teen pregnancy rate in this country is far, far higher than in any other developed nation. 750,000 teenage girls become pregnant each year. For black and Latina teens, an average of 132 per 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant each year. For perspective, the unemployment rate is currently 86 per 1,000 people.
So let’s go backwards, and check out the causes. A major reason for the male-centricity of teenage sexual behavior is porn. And while I’m not opposed to porn in general, anyone who has ever seen mainstream porn knows that it’s totally misogynistic and often demeaning towards women, not to mention totally unrealistic. Women in porn are male fantasies who don’t have needs of their own and have virtually nothing in common with real women. I can’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It’s the same always: men have money and “wine and partridges” vs. women scrounging for their “beef and prunes.”
Men have all the power. Mainstream porn is a room from which women are excluded, unimportant. When women do create their own porn, have their own room, so to speak, or show what they appreciate in mainstream porn, it’s considered alternative, niche.
Another reason that this male-centric, unhealthy attitude towards teen sexuality is allowed to exist, and the main reason for the STI’s and teen pregnancy, is the fact that sex education in this country is generally pretty bad. The better end is all about contraception and waiting until you’re ready, which is good stuff, but still leaves out the actual sex part. The worse end is abstinence only, which is a huge problem. It’s ineffective (people have sex anyway) and it leaves them unprepared, leading to those complications.
Why is it so important to fix these problems? For one thing, it’s important that women, that girls, enjoy sex, that they feel like equal partners as opposed to the secondary participant. For a very, very long time, women were valued largely for their bodies and ability to improve life for men, not for themselves as people. A sexual encounter that is all about the male participant is a relic of that time. If a man respects a woman, he will care about her enjoyment. Few things can undermine a girl’s sense of worth like being treated like a walking set of orifices.
Beyond this, it’s obviously a bad thing for girls to get STIs, and far too many of them do. Besides being dangerous or uncomfortable in themselves, they can endanger a girl’s chances of later becoming pregnant, or up the risk of complications. Teen pregnancy is also a huge problem, especially because, in many parts of this country, access to abortion is either non-existent or difficult to get.
Many girls are prevented from having abortions by their families, and many girl eschew adoption or abortion themselves. While a girl’s own decision is certainly valid, keeping a baby can prevent a teen girl from reaching her full potential. Girls shouldn’t be getting pregnant in the first place.
So we’ve established that all these problems. What can be done? Studies keep coming out that show the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education, and it’s important to keep that message going. We need to work to make comprehensive sex education the norm, and after that, work to promote sex education that actually encompasses sex itself.
Learning respect and generosity in bed starts early. Furthermore, a girl who has access to contraception and abortion owns her own body, and we need to make things available to all. Organizations like Planned Parenthood and websites like Scarleteen are steps in the right direction, but it’s still not enough.
One of the main legacies of the Second Wave is the notion that “the personal is political.” I have, at times, doubted the veracity of this statement, but it’s so true when applied to sex. A man who uses a woman sexually is disrespecting women in general. When I was thinking about what I can personally do to better the sexual situation of teen girls in America, the first things that came to mind were pretty obvious: give money, sign petitions, etc.
But a lot of what I, and you, reader, can do is subtler. While I may not be able to make a huge dent in changing legislature or keeping abortion clinics open in Middle America, I can help end negative cultural ideas involving teenage girls and sex. I can stop using words like “slut.” I can help spread the idea that egalitarian sexual behavior is not actually sterile and overly polite. I can strive for equality in my behavior, and encourage my friends to do the same. It’s people my age who’re eventually going to be in charge of this stuff; the more who think about it in a positive way, the better.