They told me I was everything. ’Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof. - William Shakespeare, King Lear (IV, vi)
Adults in Western countries often say that teenagers think they’re immortal and invulnerable, and to some degree that’s true. Really, how could it be otherwise? They have the energy and optimism of youth, their bodies are generally as healthy as they’re ever going to be and very few of them have seen a peer die. And unless they grew up in extreme poverty, they generally haven’t been ground down by the world and developed the permanent mental stoop that most adults have, the attitude Thoreau referred to as “quiet desperation”. Young men are generally far more eager to go to war than are experienced campaigners, and young women far more likely to take the sort of risks that make their mothers cringe. Add to that raging hormones and inexperience, and it’s not remotely surprising that teens have the highest STD rate of any demographic group (35% of all cases in the US), or that a small percentage of teenage girls end up pregnant when they absolutely did not want to be.
But does it have to be that way? Certainly their inexperience is a major factor; people of any age who aren’t used to something (sex included) are more apt to make mistakes than those with plenty of experience. And the fact that cognitive skills continue to develop until the mid-20s probably has something to do with it as well. But if you look at the first paragraph above again, you’ll see that several of those factors can be summed up in a single word: ignorance. The most important reason adolescents get in trouble over sex is that they don’t really understand that bad things can happen to them, nor how to reduce the chances of negative outcomes. And the primary reason they don’t understand is that adults not only refuse to explain it to them, but in many cases actively block access to sex information…or even worse, actually lie to adolescents about it. And the most egregious of these lies, such as “sex is better if neither of you knows what you’re doing on your wedding night”, are so patently false that they cause teens to doubt everything else adults are telling them – including the things that are true.
The teenage birth rate in the US is 34.3 births per 1000 girls aged 15 to 19, down from a 20th century high of 61.8 in 1991. Proponents of “abstinence-only sex education” claim the credit for this, since that fad started in 1992 and became popular in 1996. But when one considers that the present figure is still far greater than that of any other industrialized nation, in fact fully eight times the rate in the Netherlands, any rational person is forced to conclude that maybe keeping kids ignorant of sex isn’t exactly the best way of preparing them for life, and that perhaps we should worry more about protecting their health and futures than their imaginary “innocence”. This becomes even more clear when one reads interviews with teen mothers in which they express shocking ignorance of the mechanics of menstruation and conception, and often state that they believed they were somehow immune to pregnancy. The same goes for STDs; American teenagers seem completely unaware that they’re in the highest-risk group for infection and proceed as though their “love” will create a magical shield protecting them from all disease (and possibly pregnancy as well).
The reason for the drop, if you ask me, isn’t the increasing tendency of adults to try to “protect” teens by keeping them in ignorance, but rather the increasing inability of adults to keep them in ignorance, thanks to the internet (which has grown as teen pregnancy rates have dropped). But it’s still not remotely enough; even if proper sex-education programs were implemented from coast to coast tomorrow our STD and teen pregnancy rates still probably wouldn’t drop to those of Europe due to our deep cultural weirdness about sex; we are, after all, the only Western country in which sex work is so thoroughly equated with pathology and criminality. In other words, mere sex education isn’t enough; learning about biological mechanisms and potential problems is only half the picture. Few of the people reading this were as thoroughly supervised and spied on as modern teens are, and governments in a number of countries (especially the US) want to increase that so as to keep them from discovering any information about sex other than what “authorities” choose to provide. Not that this can ever be effective, any more than bans on prostitution or drugs are. But just as drug criminalization leads inevitably to dangerously impure substances, and just as criminalization of prostitution allows sleazy characters to thrive on both the service and customer sides of the business, so does suppression of information reduce the quality of that which gets past the ban. A recent op-ed by Michelle Griffin in the Brisbane Times proposes that we do the exact opposite and actually encourage teens to read porn (the operative word here being “read”); since they’re thinking about it anyway and can see crappy internet porn at the click of a mouse, access to non-clinical descriptions of sexuality will help to educate them just as Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden helped to educate Griffin (and me), discovering Dad’s stash of Playboy educated many young boys and watching farm animals educated kids for the past 10,000 years.
I have absolutely no hope that this sensible attitude will catch on in the United States any time soon; if the manufactured “controversy” over birth control and abortion is any indication, this country is moving backward rather than forward. But we’d best do something soon; though HIV may soon be preventable, gonorrhea is rapidly becoming immune to all antibiotics, and a third of all infections are in teenagers. People used to say (and some still apparently believe) that rape was worse than death; in a world of incurable venereal diseases, American parents will soon have to decide if preserving their kids’ so-called “innocence” is more important than preserving their lives.
One Year Ago Today
“Godwin’s Law” discusses the ways people use and misuse the familiar internet principle, and argues that sometimes Nazi analogies are entirely appropriate.