Abstinence blues: Teen sex isn't always traumatic

Published June 19, 1998 8:02AM (EDT)

My last Salon column found me speculating on the late-'90s model of the
Angry Young Man, specifically the very, very youthful ones who have been
littering schoolyards with bullets and dead bodies in the past few months.
After the latest kindercide, I found myself getting nauseated as I watched
officials blame the tragedy on violent TV programs and Nintendo toys. I
wanted deeper explanations, and I had to wonder if the intense sexual
repression and loathing I see in the adolescents around me has anything to
do with some of their anger. I began my investigation with a new survey
published in Oregon, one that said that while the state's teen suicide
attempt rate was up, the good news was that teenage sexual activity was

I don't think that's good news myself. I'm probably one of a handful of
Americans willing to say in public that I think sexual exploration and
intimacy between young people has the possibility of being beneficial, not
just traumatic. Why is it so frightening to admit what so many of us know
from experience? The idea that sex, by definition, is psychologically
harmful to teenagers is repugnant to me.

In my rant two weeks ago, however, I got a couple of major facts completely
wrong, and I'd like to correct and apologize for those now. I said that
Oregon endorses a sexual education program for young people called S.T.A.R.S. (Students Today Aren't Ready for Sex). That's true, it is a state program,
but it is not mandatory in every Oregon school, and in fact, the
Springfield schools don't use it.

After my story was published, I got an e-mail from Kathy Dimond, a founding
board member of the S.T.A.R.S. foundation in Oregon. She explained to me that
S.T.A.R.S. "does not preach against masturbation. We refuse the demands of
some conservative parents who want us to tell their kids to wait until
marriage to have sex. We won't. We tell SIXTH graders it's better to wait.
Not how long, or until what age, but we hope until they can make a better
decision about their bodies ... What S.T.A.R.S. really teaches is refusal

I also found some material on the Web that I erroneously believed to be
S.T.A.R.S. curriculum on the subject of masturbation, but I was wrong. As Dimond
corrected me, "The word (masturbation) never appears in S.T.A.R.S. curriculum.
If kids ask about it, the student mentors say, 'Stick around after class
and talk to whoever the health department sends along as the adult

Why isn't S.T.A.R.S. being used in Springfield if so many Oregonians think it's
great? I have called several junior high school principals in Springfield
to ask what kind of sex education program they use, but despite my most
respectful requests, I have yet to get an answer. Dimond speculated that,
"the reason that S.T.A.R.S. is not in all classrooms is that some communities
feel we are too liberal."

My encounters with these how-to-say-no programs made me think even more
closely about my own public school memories. I first learned about the
evils of marijuana in seventh grade, where we viewed a whiz-bang of a movie
about a clean-cut boy who goes from smoking one joint to a heroin stupor in
a matter of hours. It would have scared me good if it hadn't been for my
friend Michelle, who walked with me over the railroad tracks to the
satellite campus where we took home economics class. She lit up a joint en
route and balanced on the railroad ties like a pro. An hour later, her
buttermilk biscuits were as good, if not better, than anyone else's. The
news that my school was dishing out drug propaganda only confirmed my
cynicism about the status quo.

That year, I had no interest in real boys, although I was aware that others
did. I was passionately in love with my girlfriends and would write them
14-page letters about how screwed up the world and our families were. I was
so immersed in the schoolgirl equivalent of hard-core pornography --
romance novels -- that I thought an orgasm was a sign from God that Prince
Charming had just whisked you off your feet. If I could change anything
about the sex education I got in school, I'd have had someone
mentor me about the absurd conflation of sex and love in young women's

I would say most young women I meet these days on high school and college
campuses are struggling to liberate themselves from the pitfalls of sexual
passivity and Prince Charming fantasies. They know how to say "no"
repetitively, but they're utterly at a loss as to what to say "yes" to, or
what form their own sexual initiative might take. Consequently, their
refusals often wilt into guilty compromises and resentful ambivalence.

Nothing much has changed in how Rules Girls are made, I'm afraid. I was
entertaining a group of first-grade girls last week, and they asked me to
play a fortune telling game. I had to write predictions on little slips of
paper for them to pick at random. I asked them what kind of predictions
they liked-- "Scary ones? Funny ones? Ones about love?"

"LOVE!" they cried. One little girl got so excited she began dictating to
me. "Say something like: 'A boy will kiss you!'" she urged. The others all
jumped with delight. "Really?" I replied, nonplused. "What if I put,
'''You will kiss a boy'?"

"NO! EWW! NO!" They found my suggestion appalling.

Boys, I believe, are getting a different message than they did when I was
prepubescent. Part of the old-style double standard was that young men
weren't given a great deal of grief about masturbation or their sexual
appetite. They were expected to have sexual desires and to cope with them
the best they could. No one was pushing the "hair will grown on your palms"
line in the '60s -- except to the kids suffering in parochial schools.

Today's conservative abstinence movement, while it still places the greater
emphasis on girls keeping their legs crossed, is devoted to convincing boys
that their sexual desires can lead to an addiction, a scary loss of
normality. That bogeyman, the Sex Crazed Male, keeps cropping up -- like
the recent, horrified speculation that a U.S. president might be a "sex

One of the agonies of adolescence is the fear that we might be weird or
abnormal, and that no one will ever be attracted to us. Our bodies go
through a hideous revolt against all aesthetics. When the grown-up world
says that thinking about sex "too much" or masturbating every day is a
danger sign, it feeds right into that anxiety.

The tone of the abstinence movement today, which is felt in public
education more than anywhere else, seems to be that if we can bottle up
these nasty boys by spooking them into believing they are deviant, we can
restore the sexual mores of the 1950s -- or at least the 1950s as the
fundamentalists fantasize they were.

I'll never forget the time I was on some inane talk show and the host
suddenly demanded to know what age I was when I first "had sex." "Sixteen,"
I answered, and he blurted back, "Wouldn't you say that was child abuse?"

No I wouldn't, Mr. Donahue. Actually, it was one of the best days of my
whole life. I wouldn't trade the maturity, joy and insight I gained from my
teenage experiences of sexuality, love and affection for anything in the
world. And with a little candor and courage, I think a lot of other
post-teenagers would agree with me.

By Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

MORE FROM Susie Bright

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abstinence Birth Control Pornography Sex Education Teenagers