This week I am writing more in my ongoing series about truth telling, in which I am emphasizing directness and vulnerability.
From my vantage point, sometimes I am exposed to too much information. The spot on my retina where the image of Kim’s Kardashian’s butt is burned, for example, suggests I really didn’t need to see it. Or want to. It seems like I cannot avoid Facebook posts where people are slapped, breasts are exposed, or crotches are grabbed. Most weekly papers that I see have pecs or boobs displayed in leather or lingerie with promises of earthly delights next to ads for the opera or ballet or folk dancing. On vacation and want a massage? Watch were you look if you aren’t seeking “full release.”
For those who might question my choice in reading, my Facebook friends, or what weeklies I look at, I would also point out that the film Spotlight summarizes what we have heard in the news for decades. The sexual abuse of children and adults by clergy has been rampant. Just this week more has come to the surface about a Catholic boys choir in Berlin where over 400 pre-teens were physically or sexually assaulted by their teachers. Then there are the men and women in private and public schools in Wisconsin who have confused their assault of teens as “dating” and “love.” Frankly, this all feels like too much information for me to absorb.
Don’t confuse my comments as prudish. I don’t believe that I am. Here’s what I believe.
Sex is not bad, dirty, sinful, or disgusting. Sex is an interesting set of pleasurable behaviors that have evolved over time to aid in reproduction and to create or repair human closeness.
What is prudish is the education we get about human sexuality in our homes, schools, and clinics.
- We are not talking about birds or bees. (Quick quiz: 1. Do you actually know how birds or bees have sex? 2. How is that relevant to human sexual behavior?)
- We are not really talking about our private parts. If they are so private, how is it that the US porn industry has more revenues than all organized sports combined.
- It is not a secret that people have sex and a lot (or not) of it. The secret is that it is often covered up, confusing the acknowledgement of it as scandalous instead of the fact of it in cases of abuse or fractured commitments.
- Our right to bodily integrity is not limited to the “part that your swimming suit covers.”
- Our genitals are not junk.
All of these expressions from birds to junk are commonly used in discussions about school sexuality education and sexuality education in clinical settings. It seems as though saying the terms vulva, clitoris, vagina, labia, penis, nipples, or anus would turn people into stone or into sex addicts. It drives me around the bend that in 2016 we do not have a generally acceptable term for penetrative sex that is not intercourse. Yet every odd-numbered year tens of thousands of high school students must respond to questions on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that limit their answer options to acknowledging if they have had intercourse or not. Are heterosexual teens enjoying oral or anal sex having intercourse?
As a society, we in the US generally expect children, teens, young adults, and adults to navigate a world wrought with sexual messages, images, and behaviors without even the semblance of a clue on how to do so. If it weren’t so painful to watch, I would laugh at the verbal and mental gyrations I have witnessed parents do in public settings trying to explain what their children were just exposed to. I recently had a group of men with whom I travel by train — guys ranging from 37 to 60, South Asian, Black, and white — howling as they watched me distribute condoms at a train station. They sputtered when I asked them how this was so different from the Jehovah’s Witness next to whom I was standing. But I meant that seriously. We have few qualms about seeing someone pass out brochures and books about mythology in hopes to save a soul, but get all prim when someone passes out latex to save a life.
No one is being victimized by seeing a condom. No one is being victimized by seeing a model of a penis or a vulva. But when has anyone actually seen these in their doctor’s office or their school? I recall what a bold move it was 20 years ago to encourage family physicians and pediatricians to ask older teens, “Do I have any need to be concerned about you getting (someone) pregnant?” Seriously, how quaint is that? We know that over one-half of high school teens are sexually active. One-in-eight in Wisconsin does not identify as heterosexual. Milwaukee is always in the top five cities for rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, but we ask about pregnancy? And, if the teen says, “No,” the intervention is over. For years I have met sexually active teen males who have never actually opened a condom package. Students groan when I invite a local agency into their college classroom to teach condom use, but women and men alike invariably comment in the journals on how important the instruction was. Many add that this was the first time that they had opened a condom package, put one on a penis model, or talked about condom use. Some add that they will now talk to their sex partners about condom use. These are seniors in college.
The consequences of the misinformation and lack of information we hold about sexual health are serious and costly. Fiscal and social conservatives bemoan the need to pay for these consequences in terms of child care and clinical care while insisting that the home and church are where this information should be shared. I would remind them that while that is good in theory it is not useful in fact. Most people in the US do not have sufficient contact with a religious home to get information. The information most get is summed up with, “It is better to abstain because sex is bad, dirty, sinful, and should be saved for the one you marry.” Having sex outside of marriage is common. Being caught is scandalous.
I have heard excellent, intelligent, hard-working parents wondering about how their children will act after they “have the talk.” I have heard others wondering how to ask their teen daughters to dress less provocatively. These really good, smart people literally cannot think about sex. Young people learn discretion all the time. They know it is okay to jump on the couch in the basement, but not the one in Grandma’s living room. Meanwhile, teens increasingly get physically distanced by their parents and speak of a sort of skin hunger to find warmth and affection.
This situation has got to change.
Our wide-spread social refusal to aid people in making pro-social human decisions about sex and sexuality would be quaint if its consequences were not so dire. The range of our moral stances behind this rigid refusal — from superiority to indifference — is reprehensible.