When it Comes to Sex, Teens Are People Too

Many thanks to Ross Douthat for citing me in his New York Times column today, which celebrates an uptick in the number of 18 to 24 year-old Americans who are virgins:

…young Americans have been growing more sexually conservative since the late 1980s. 

Why is this good news? Not, it should be emphasized, because it suggests the dawn of some sort of traditionalist utopia, where the only sex is married sex. No such society has ever existed, or ever could: not in 1950s America (where, as the feminist writer Dana Goldstein noted last week, the vast majority of men and women had sex before they married), and not even in Mormon Utah (where Brigham Young University recently suspended a star basketball player for sleeping with his girlfriend).

But there are different kinds of premarital sex. There’s sex that’s actually pre-marital, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.

I agree with Douthat that many young people would be wise to abstain from sex until they are in a monogamous relationship with some staying power. But I think from there, he goes seriously astray. I don't think it makes sense to teach teenagers that, ideally, they should be marrying the first (or second) person they ever sleep with.  What we should teach young people about marriage is that it's worth waiting for the right person: you know, a loving, committed, emotionally mature and stable partner with whom you share interests, goals, and all that other heart-warming stuff.

Douthat then blames Planned Parenthood's emphasis on "safe sex" for contributing to a cultural "jaded attitude" that encourages promiscuous sex among young people. This is flat wrong. By the time most teens find themselves in a Planned Parenthood or other reproductive health clinic, they are already sexually active and there to get contraception. There's no evidence at all that teens choose to have sex because they know they can access sexual health services at clinics, which are few and far between in most parts of the country. (By the way, how exactly would this work? Bobby: "Come on, I wanna have sex!" Jane: "Okay! But only because I'm really excited about figuring out how to take a taxi to Planned Parenthood behind my parents' back to get the pill, which costs money I probably don't have! Other than that, I'm not interested at all!")

Teens are people, too. They have sex because it feels good, or they're in love, or all the other reasons–good and bad–that adults have sex. Instead of shaming and stigmatizing their choices, we should help them make healthy ones. That means teaching that sex is risky business, sure–but also that it should be pleasurable!–and that it is absolutely crucial to protect oneself through contraception. 

Update: Andrew Sullivan get this topic exactly right.

3 thoughts on “When it Comes to Sex, Teens Are People Too

  1. Ken

    What I find even more unconvincing about Douthat’s argument is the suggestion that if Planned Parenthood (or something like it) didn’t exist, teens would be less inclined to engage in pre-marital sex. By that reasoning, defunding of lung cancer treatment would lead to less smoking.

  2. joel hanes

    Douthat and his ilk believe that people should feel shame and stigma for having sex in any manner or time not approved by Douthat and his ilk, and that if people don’t currently feel shame and stigma in such situations, it would be “better” if they did, and society should be arranged to create more reliably create shame and stigma.

    This pathological attitude is what Douthat and ilk mean when they use the term “morals”.

  3. jamie

    I think Douthat is making more of a cultural point-the existence of government funding for things like Planned Parenthood is a symptom of a support system that encourages teenage sexuality.

    Now, whether reversing that funding would really change teenage behavior, of that I am skeptical. But it’s a not-unreasonable point that our society should take a harder line against teenage sex in general.


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