Forward Thinking: Teenagers and Sex

Two of my new colleagues at Patheos, Libby Anne and Dan Fincke, have recently launched Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project, a collaborative discussion in the spirit of the old blog carnivals. This week’s conversational prompt is, “What would you tell teenagers about sex?”

Now, I’m not encouraging teenagers to have sex, because (1) no one should be pushed to have sex before they, themselves, have decided that they’re physically and emotionally ready; and (2) it doesn’t really matter what anyone says one way or the other, because teenagers are going to have sex anyway. They’re certainly not waiting for our permission.

On the other hand, the idea that we shouldn’t talk to teenagers about sex at all, or that we should do so only in a context of abstinence, is a disastrous, self-defeating plan. It stems from the religious prohibitionist thinking that teaching teenagers about sex is tantamount to encouraging them to have sex, and that the best way to prevent people from doing something we disapprove of is to give them no information whatsoever about it, so that they don’t become interested.

Obviously, this demonstrates a hilariously poor grasp of human psychology. Keeping something taboo and mysterious only makes it more enticing – a basic fact of human psychology that the religious right has never been able to grasp, going back to the very first story in their own holy books. The statistics bear this out, as more socially conservative states that deemphasize sex ed have higher teen pregnancy rates, higher rates of STD infection, and higher rates of divorce, in addition to other social ills.

If we want people to act like adults, the best way to achieve that is to treat them like adults. That means we have to teach them everything they need to know to make informed choices and have sex safely: the importance of enthusiastic consent, how to use contraception, and all the rest of it. I’m sure other bloggers will address these areas, so I won’t dwell on them. I want to focus on the deeper importance of de-mystification, of breaking down the taboos and false ideas around sex, and here’s what I think is the biggest one:

Sex has no magic power to transform you. There’s no foreordained law that says you’ll fall permanently or irrevocably in love with the first person you have sex with. Nor does having sex in any way change or diminish your ability to love other people in the future. It absolutely does not mean that you’re ruined, spoiled or used up, as abstinence preachers say. That idea is the same kind of ridiculous fearmongering as the old-time quacks and preachers who said that masturbation would make you blind and insane.

Ironically, this idea that sex is a fundamental life transition, that everything After Sex is different from everything Before Sex, is believed both by sex-phobic fundamentalists (who dread it) and by sex-obsessed pop culture (which elevates it above all else). The fact is, they’re both wrong. Sex doesn’t make you a different person; there’s no fundamental difference between virgins and non-virgins. Sex is just an experience, and the first time you have it is no different than the first time you have any other pleasurable experience, like running a race, meeting a celebrity, or reading a great book. It’s one more thing to add to your catalog of life experiences – that’s all. It may make you feel more confident, more assured, or more grown-up, but it also may not, so you shouldn’t seek it out for that purpose or be disappointed if that doesn’t happen.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Gunnar Tveiten

    I would also not want to push anyone to have sex, but I would encourage the opposite sequence of events from that recommended by many religious folks.

    I would say that it’s sensible and smart to have tried out all aspects of living with a person for a substantial amount of time *before* deciding to take on a permanent commitment with that person such as getting married or having a kid together.

    So where they say: If you want to have sex, get married first ! I say precisely the opposite thing: if you want to get married, have sex first ! (not just that: experience *everything* together for a substantial amount of time, certainly months, possibly years, before marrying)

  • Izkata

    > “Sex has no magic power to transform you.”

    You mean it’s not like That 70s Show?

  • Figs

    I’ve often wondered why, virtually alone among things, we have a special word to describe people who have not yet had sex. Sex is a thing that people do. If I haven’t eaten chocolate before, or haven’t shot a gun, or haven’t used a trampoline, there’s not a special word for what I am, or a special word for the thing that I lose after I’ve done those things.

  • Carmela

    I agree with Figs, above.

  • Azkyroth

    I think I’d first have to finish yelling at other adults about the fact that TEENAGERS ARE NOT LITTLE KIDS >.>

  • Kat

    IIRC the term “virgin” originally simply referred to an unmarried woman, not specifically one who hadn’t had sex.

    I am totally on board with the demystification aspect. Sex is just another part of what makes life fun, like chocolate and kittens and trampolines.

    One of the worst things society teaches is that there is One True Love ™ for everyone and once you find them, you’re guaranteed a happy ever after. Conversely, without that person, you are doomed to loneliness and misery and will die alone. Challenge that view: try out different ways of being with people, figure out what works for you.

    Life is short, have fun while you can.

  • Nonnie

    This is such a good point. And it’s the tip of the iceberg for what I’d tell my teenage self about sex. I do think the message battle between the abstinence-only crowd and the sex-is-natural-and-enjoyable crowd often obscures that those first times can be confusing, painful, awkward, and not particularly enjoyable at all (must less transformative). It sounds trite to me now, but it’s really easy to forget the depths of our past ignorance and how difficult it was to get reliable information.