What To Tell The Next Generation
I have kids. I think a lot about the world I brought them into; how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Some days, I think I have no idea where to start. Other days, I remember where to start: start now, with what I have, where I am.
We all learn the sexual culture a piece at a time. If our early learning is all screwed up, it may take us a lifetime to figure it out. (I’m reminded of a perhaps obscure Melissa Etheridge lyric: “There’s a hole in these jeans/I only wanted to fade/I’ve been ripping out the seams/Somebody else made tonight”.)
We live in a culture that tells women that they are powerful and interesting when sexual, that begs them to be sexual, but that usually punishes and devalues them for it. We live in a culture that tells boys it’s a competition, a joke and a prerequisite without telling them what “it” is, what it should be for them and their partners. Mostly, we talk around it and hope they figure it out. That’s a stupid strategy, popular only because adults are too embarrassed to act like adults in front of their own children.
So I started thinking before they could walk about what to say about sex. My children will eventually become adults, in all probability sexual beings, and I can’t just close my eyes and hope they figure it all out. Last May, I had a chance to sort though some of those things in a thread about abstinence-only education at Feministing (here). I’m revisiting this now, and reprinting it here with only slight edits, because it still reflects my thinking. What I’m aiming for is a model for my kids to work from when they are making the decisions that young people make, whatever their gender expression, whoever their partner(s), whatever they are thinking about doing.
When it’s time for them to decide whether they are ready for sex, I will provide them a better answer than “no.” Because that doesn’t work, and because it’s not our view. Instead, since they will ultimately make that decision alone, without me standing over them, they need to know how to decide.
They need to know that they need to feel safe, know their limits will be respected, believe their partner sees them as an equal. They need to hear and respect their partner’s limits and see their partner as an equal. They need to know that consent is not the absence of “no,” that consent is the presence of “yes,” it is affirmative, enthusiastic participation. Sex with a partner who is merely willing to acquiesce is wrong; if their partner is not into it, I expect them not to push.
If they can’t talk about what both of their boundaries are, what they want to do, then they also will not be prepared to say when they are over their heads, moving too fast or want to stop. If they are with a partner who can’t verbalize limits, how could they know if their partner is okay? The only way to make sure that both people are getting what they want is to know that both people are willing to actively say what they want. That’s a high standard, but in my view it’s a lot more realistic than “wait until marriage,” and a lot more likely to lead to a lifelong healthy view of sex.
They need to know that they and their partner have the same view of what it means. Are they both in love? Is this a relationship or not? What are the rules of the relationship? If it’s just play, are they both prepared to say that it means neither partner has any expectations of the other?
They need to know what precautions to take and be able to discuss them. If they can’t walk into a drug store, buy condoms and lube and tell their partner they intend to use them, they are not ready. When they are ready to answer those questions for themselves and resolve them with their partners, they can go ahead and do what they like; if they are not ready then they need a reason to say that, even when there are no authority figures there to wag a finger.
That’s not to say that we want to encourage early sexual activity. We plan on telling them honest information about how teens nationwide stack up, to counter the rumor mill about who did what. We don’t want them thinking they are late to the game if they are not sexually active at 16 or 17; they have a lot of company, though much of the culture would lead one to conclude that 14-year-olds are having intercourse in the hallways or school, it’s not true. And we plan to de-emphasize intercourse: lots of women don’t really enjoy penetration until they are older (though that’s not universal), not everyone prefers intercourse to oral or manual stimulation, and it comes with a lot of risks that other sexual activities reduce.
There are alternatives to hysteria and denial. One such alternative is to teach our children from childhood, progressively, assuming that they will become adults who will make these decisions for themselves and preparing them to do so.