It’s been a very interesting week. A number of circumstances have come together in a remarkable way to challenge my convictions, and, in the end, I am able to stand by them.
My earlier decision to remove the nudity and sexual content from my book met with a surprising amount of disagreement. Granted, that sort of content is something of a minefield, and could well bar me from getting past a lot of editors. So be it. But none of my fellow writers have told me I made the right decision to cut the content—not one—while many were disappointed and said I shouldn’t. Fellow writers who are parents have universally said they would have no problem with their teens reading my sex scene. One reader called the scene “adorable”; with that to go on, I can hardly leave it out. My decision to restore the content has met with approval.
I accept that not everyone will see it that way. But if books about children murdering each other can be considered suitable for teens—and preteens, for heaven’s sake—then the fact that my book has sexually active teens shouldn’t be any problem, unless someone is willing to argue that teens having sex is somehow worse than teens killing. I make no apologies at this point for the fact that I am presenting sexual content (and nudity), because I’m making it a positive thing. My book in no way sends the message that teens should all run out and have random sex, but nor does it say that sex is automatically bad or that it will ruin your life. Rather I’m saying that it’s okay to have sex, even as teens, if you do it responsibly.
My position on this is borne out by a recent study that came to my attention comparing attitudes toward teen sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands. The study has raised considerable controversy because it has examined the idea that Dutch parents, instead of forbidding their teens from having sex, are instead permitting the teens to do so in the family home. It is expected to be kept private and the parents are teaching the teens to be responsible. People in the US are reacting quite predictably, saying that this sort of moral decay is yet another example of the evil that plagues modern society, and are insisting that allowing your children to be sexually active guarantees there will be teen pregnancy and STDs
Except, that’s unequivocally not the case. The study has made clear that the incidence of both unplanned pregnancy and STDs in the Netherlands is significantly lower than in the US. Conclusion: promoting healthy attitudes towards sex encourages healthy behavior. Teens are having sex, and will do so whether or not we try to forbid it. So what we should do is make sure they are being safe and let them know that there is nothing wrong with them for doing so.
Now, this is easy for me to say in the abstract, but I recently had the opportunity to put it to the test. It have become aware that the fourteen-year-old daughter of a friend has been having sex with her boyfriend. My friend is, of course, running the gamut of emotions regarding this, and I’ve been very careful how I have reacted, but, in all honesty, I think it’s fine. In fact, I’m proud of her. Let me explain.
They’d been dating for some time, and, to all accounts the boy is a good kid who is well-behaved and the family likes him (or did, at any rate). There was no pressure involved: it was a mutual decision. They have been stringently using condoms, and they are at this point monogamous with each other. In other words, they’ve been very responsible, which is more than can be said for a hell of a lot of adults. I encouraged her dad to commend her for being honest and mature about it. After all, isn’t that how we want kids to be as they grow up?
But, I hear you say, that’s because I don’t have a daughter of my own. If I did, I’d change my tune. Well, I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that I would raise my kids to have healthy attitudes. But let me be clear I’ve known this family for years and watched their daughter grow up and I’m very fond of her. Yet at the same time, I think it’s safe to say that I have the benefit of objectivity. And from where I’m sitting, I don’t see where the harm is. I’m happy for them.
I know what you will say in response: the harm is to the girl psychologically. She’s too young to handle that sort of thing. What exactly does that mean? Too young? Handle it? Plenty of alleged adults can’t seem to handle sex. What if they break up? Then they break up. It happens all the time; heartbreak is part of life, with or without sex being involved, and people survive it. Again, what real trauma will there be, unless it comes from an overly judgmental society condemning her? And I agree, that is a problem. See, that’s the other point you might make: the harm is to her “reputation.” She will be known as a girl who has sex, and apparently that’s bad.
You know… a “slut.” I hate that word, for many reasons. We love to condemn sexually active girls. We tell them that boys don’t like that sort of girl. Are you kidding? Boys don’t like girls who are willing to have sex with them? Hello, Earth to clueless person! Well then, we say, they like them for sex, but they don’t “respect” them. No man will want to marry a girl if she’s damaged goods. What is this, the middle ages, where virgin brides are required? And what if she doesn’t want to get married? What should she do, become a nun? We tell girls, “Why would he buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free?” How offensive is that! We are essentially telling girls that they are livestock and their sexuality is a commodity that they should hold out for the highest possible price. There’s a word for when you exchange sex for material compensation like that: it starts with “p” and ends with “-rostitution.”
What bothers me most is how these sorts of discussions always focus on the girl. It is the most pernicious double standard. We are so concerned about girls maintaining their “honor,” but what about boys? Who worries about their honor? We teach girls to have respect for themselves (aka keep your legs crossed) but we teach boys to have respect for girls. It’s all about protecting the girls. This despite the fact that these days girls are at least as sexually aggressive as boys are. And studies have shown that the majority of boys want to be responsible, and are concerned about pregnancy and STD’s and, most notably, want to have sex with a girl they love.
Yet there is no male-equivalent term for “slut.” A girl who has sex is damaged, but a boy who has sex is a lucky stud. This came to my attention in the form of a recent Twitter brouhaha where someone posted video of a teen girl having oral sex at an outdoor concert. I was amazed at the number of people calling her a slut, or a whore, or worse (if you can imagine). But absolutely no derision was pointed at the boy involved. When someone raised this point in a discussion group, asking why we condemn her but not him, someone else responded, “Because boys are not girls.” Great, they passed Biology 101, but what the hell does that mean? It means it’s okay for boys to have sex, but not girls. Again, the double standard.
The result is girls with really negative attitudes towards their own sexuality, and towards men. But it’s damaging for boys too. I saw this illustrated as well, in the case of another family friend, who discovered his eight-year-old daughter had been involved in sex play with the twelve-year-old friend of her brother. To his credit, my friend did not freak out, and has been reassuring his daughter that she did nothing wrong and things are okay. Let’s face it, sexual curiosity among children is extremely well-documented, and rarely does it lead to any long term problems—provided we don’t overreact. What about the boy? He was, apparently, deeply apologetic and embarrassed. But I know what people are thinking: Who cares! He only was remorseful because he got caught, but mark my words, he’ll do it again! He’s a deviant, a sexual predator who can never be trusted for the rest of his life! Really?
More like, he’s a confused kid whose hormones are kicking in big time but who is ignored by a society that is obsessed with female sexuality and offers boys no clear support for navigating this emotionally perilous time. So, absent any clear path, they put on a macho swagger and behave in the only way they see: based on the tacit encouragement that society gives to men to “Get out there and do it (just not to my daughter).” We can’t escape the double standard.
What we really need to do is acknowledge that teens are sexual beings and encourage them to discover their sexuality in safe and healthy ways. That’s far more realistic than expecting them to just ignore their screaming hormones. I believe that fully and it’s reflected in my book, and, alas, it may be an impediment to publication. But I stand my ground. In my book the girl is far more sexually experienced than the boy, and is not apologetic about that, nor is she damaged by having had sex at a young age. It’s part of the society she knows. It is the boy who is the more concerned about any notions of monogamy, and, while he is not opposed to sex, he wants there to be love involved, which is a revolutionary idea for the girl. Yet I’m not implying that monogamy is the only valid option; as the two of them come closer together, they will try to find a reasonable middle ground. It’s all about making choices.
Will I be sending the “wrong” message in my book? I’m a storyteller, not a therapist, so that’s not my greatest concern. I am pretty sure that most teen readers like stories that involve sex (that’s why they sneaked a look at their moms’ copies of Fifty Shades of Grey). But I do not believe my book will make my readers run out and have sex, any more than The Hunger Games made readers run out and start killing each other for sport. Teens already know what sex is. They are extremely interested in it. And a lot of them are already having sex. Hopefully they are being smart about it. That’s more likely if we teach them to be smart, rather than trying to shelter them from themselves. But be assured, they will make these choices, regardless of what we do.