How Denying Teenage Sexuality Feeds Rape Culture

ChasteDate

The more we pretend that teenagers aren’t horny, the more dangerous it is.

There’s a weird and creepy phenomenon one sees around young celebrities; the countdown to the moment they turn eighteen and it becomes “okay” to find them attractive. There were a lot of jokes about Taylor Lautner turning eighteen, many on the subject of how it was no longer inappropriate to ogle him in the Twilight movies. Poor Justin Bieber got an entire Rolling Stone cover about his no longer being underage (in certain U.S. states).

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A week ago this would have been weird, but now it’s totally appropriate!

Over and over again in our culture, we treat the 18th birthday as a magical transition, the point when a kid suddenly and all at once becomes a sexual being. It’s the subject of countless offhand references, the basic underlying logic of all the jokes and putdowns we hear on the subject.

And it’s a lie. One that hurts people.

The fact of the matter is, most teenagers are extremely sexual beings. Hormones flood the system, resulting in the constant distracted horniness, the obsessive crushes, and the sexual fixations that most readers will remember all too well.

So if we all (or almost all) recall being horny little devils, why do we pretend that teenagers are somehow as presexual as seven-year-olds?

Turns out there’s a good reason for that: there’s a big difference between being hormonally ready for sex, and being emotionally ready for the practical and personal consequences of sex. A lot of people have stories of how they almost had sex when they were teenagers, but they just couldn’t go through with it. A lot of other folks have stories of how they did go through with it, and it was hurtful, it was regrettable, it’s a bad memory forever. Both sets of stories have the same reason: the person doing it thought they were ready, and they weren’t.

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The reason we have age-of-consent laws isn’t because the 18th birthday (or whichever birthday applies in your jurisdiction) is a magical moment when responsible sexual decision-making becomes possible. We have it for the same reason that we have a distinction between petty larceny and grand larceny: because the nature of the law is to draw clear lines through complicated issues. The problem arises when we begin mistaking legal distinctions for moral ones.

Every time we treat the age of consent as a toggle switch that makes sex possible, we create an environment where bad decisions, and outright exploitation, become easier.

D.A.R.E., the anti-drug education program a lot of Americans had to sit through in school, has never been shown to be effective, and some data shows that it increases the use of drugs among kids who take it. This makes sense with a little reflection; D.A.R.E. consists of a lot of scare stories and misinformation intended to make ALL illegal drugs equally terrifying. When kids realize that all the stuff about marijuana being deadly was a load of hooey, why should they take the warnings about meth and heroin seriously?

Similarly, when we treat teenagers like they’re supposed to be pure as the driven snow until the magic birthday, they know that’s not true. So if we’re lying about that, it must be okay to ignore the rest of the advice about being safe, careful, and responsible, right?

What the age of consent is trying, vaguely and desperately, to codify is the concept of intellectual and emotional maturity. There’s no actual way to measure the point at which any given individual becomes old enough to take legal responsibility, to vote in elections, or to have sex with a full understanding of the consequences. Instead, we call it 18ish and that has to be close enough.

The problem is that maturing is a process, and if we don’t treat it as one, we make mistakes.

Teenagers tend to feel like they’re ready for sex, whether they are or not. Some of them are mature enough not to make bad decisions, but some aren’t.

Teenagers tend to feel like they’re ready for sex, whether they are or not. They’ve got a lot of hormones telling them that, to say nothing of peer pressure, social conditioning, and all the rest of it. Some of them are mature enough not to make bad decisions, but some aren’t. One of the reasons we have laws against teenagers sleeping with adults is to try to prevent bad decisions.

The key is that when we pretend that kids under the age of consent aren’t sexual beings, that leaves us with millions of horny teens who know that’s a lie.

Thus, let’s assume you’re a teenager who’s seen through the idea that there’s a magic number that tells you when you can have sex. Once you’re past that idea, what have you got to go on? In the absence of good education, all you can go with is your gut feeling about whether sex is a good idea, and that’s going to lead to bad decisions.

Worse, let’s assume you’re an adult who wants to exploit a naive kid. You can point out the fallacy of the magic-number theory, if the kid hasn’t already seen it themselves. If they don’t have something more solid to back it up, they become easier to manipulate.

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Yes, sometimes teenagers will make advances on someone older. Maybe for fun, maybe for practice, maybe in what they believe is total earnest. Maybe even in the painful throes of young love, that hormone-fueled emotion that our culture likes to romanticize. It doesn’t matter; the responsibility of the adult in that situation is to say no. To say no without being hurtful if possible; kids that age are easily hurt. But definitely to say no, because no matter what the kid thinks, no matter how sincerely horny they are, it’s not okay.

By analogy, think about how teenagers, mostly boys, will often obsess over violence. They’ll talk themselves into believing that they’re brilliant fighters, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris all rolled into one pimply package, and occasionally they will offer to fight a grown adult. Running on hormones and little else, they will issue challenges and provocations like 18th-century duelists, and a lot of them will sincerely believe that they want a fight.

But no responsible adult will accept these challenges, because it’s not okay to beat up some dumb kid.

Likewise, it’s not okay for an adult to take a teenager up on their offer of sex, because no matter how much that teen might think they’re ready, they’re being just as foolish as that 14-year-old boy threatening to beat up a cop.

As long as we continue lying about kids being horny, as long as we act as though sexual and emotional maturity are something that happens literally overnight, we’re going to keep seeing the same bad outcomes. Better education is a start, but it needs to be reinforced by the culture, and right now, we’re nowhere near where we need to be.

Photo—Www.CourtneyCarmody.com/Flickr

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. Suzene / Latvia says:

    Comments from nasty older males claiming the bodies of 13yo girls are the same as the ones 20yo+ (really, no difference, just because it started developing that means “developed!” in their heads; the same would go for teen boys? nevermind their personalities still being formed and their immaturity) and that their attraction for children/teens is healthy, and that triyng to say it could not be healthy is CASTRATING to the most important thing in their lives, their own selfish twisted sexuality, starting in 3, 2, 1…

  2. Gaius Baltar says:

    Most 45-year-olds aren’t mature enough to have intercourse (which term I use because that particular act is so dangerous). What’s needed is a different concept of sex, that doesn’t leap from ‘I want to kiss and touch this person’ directly to ‘let’s play pregnancy roulette.’

    Which won’t work, of course. In any population, the majority of people will follow animal instinct and their ‘reasoning’ will just be after-the-fact rationalizations just like all other ideologies are. One way or another, teenagers will get laid. The question is how to make it safer for them.

  3. Rob LeGar says:

    Well written, sir. I really appreciate, the logical case you made regarding telling teens the truth or the grim possibility, they may view it the same way as myself and my peers viewed D.A.R.E.. Apparently, a large portion of America felt the same way about that program.

  4. One thing I remember being confused about as a teenager was all the adult-talk about “raging hormones” and how those hormones were supposedly controlling my behavior in some way. It confused me because while I was certainly sexually curious, all the more so because of how verboten sex was, I couldn’t *feel* these supposedly raging hormones in any recognizable sense. I understand the experience of puberty is different for boys, when increased levels of testosterone are rather tangible (from what I’ve been told), but as a girl I couldn’t sense the connection between my invisible hormones and my sexuality. So all the sex-ed rhetoric about hormones just made no sense to me and was not valuable information.

    And yet you see that phrase, raging hormones, in almost every piece of literature about adolescent sexuality. I think it’s time to retire it.

    The other thing that irks me now in retrospect is learning, as a girl, that the only way I’m supposed to react to a sexual proposition is “No.” Obviously adults don’t want teens saying Yes to sex, but the constant lessons in different ways to say No almost felt like brainwashing. The concept of a healthy Yes, one that wasn’t wrought with the feeling of “I’m going to get in trouble for this/I shouldn’t be doing this,” didn’t have a chance to enter my mind until far past adolescence.

    I definitely made some regrettable sexual choices as a teen, and I attribute those mostly to the fact that sex was presented as so off-limits that I couldn’t resist my curiosity and desire to prove the adults wrong. It’s only in hindsight that I see just how prohibitive my parents and, to a lesser extent, my school were about sex, and how much shaming I endured for being so intensely interested in it. My favorite example is that my father once gave me his World Almanac to read (as I was a voracious reader and fact-hound) only to take it away without a word when he found out, somehow, that I was reading the very detailed and not-at-all sugarcoated chapter about sex. I was in the 13-16 y.o. range when that happened and got the message loud and clear: You’re not allowed to know about this.

    • I had similar experiences, but what frustrates me the most about by own sexually repressed and screwed-up adolescence was that in my case, it was never acknowledged that I had “raging hormones” at all. The message that I received from my parents, church, school and the community at large–was that boys were the ones that had “raging hormones” that compelled them to try and screw anything that was female and breathing. As girls, it was our solemn, sacred duty to hold back that hormonal tide, to withstand it, to never, ever give in to it no matter how much our boyfriends begged, pleaded or threatened to dump us for someone who would “put out.” To give up our holy and precious virginity to anyone other than our husbands, on a wedding night sometime in our distant, hazy futures, was to be rendered the equivalent of a chewed piece of gum, or a cupcake with the frosting licked off — something unwanted, soiled, dirty.

      The idea that girls might have “raging hormones,” might feel sexual desire and want have sex (and by “sex” I mean “vaginal intercourse,” no other sexual behaviors were acknowledged, much less discussed) was never, ever brought up. I was 20 years old before I finally found out that the physical sensations I got when I sat next to a guy I liked or watched my latest rock star obsessions on MTV — shivers, goosebumps, erect nipples, a warmth between my legs–were not feelings of love (though the Harlequin novels my friends and I hid under our pillows described them as such) or even signs of a “crush.” They were because I was horny, not because I was “in love.” I had erotic dreams, complete with orgasms, from the time I was 14, but I thought the physical sensations were a warning, a way of waking me up and punishing me for letting boys do unspeakable things to me in my dreams. I actually thought something was wrong with me, but I was scared to ask anyone if this was “normal.” I had no one I could ask. It wasn’t until I had an orgasm–oh, such a mysterious thing–at the hands of my first real boyfriend in college, that I realized I had already been having them for years without knowing what they were!

      It took a lot of reading, self-education, a couple of very kind, patient and caring lovers (one of which I married :-) ) and not a little therapy to get me over my hangups about sex (among other things…). I am happily married and have an amazing sex life with my husband now, but I still have regrets and anger over all the bullshit I was fed growing up. I agree, while we don’t want kids to go out and do it like rabbits and add to the already ridiculous number of teen moms (and dads) out there, but telling girls to “just say no” while at the same time telling guys that their not men unless their trying to get laid 24/7 is no better. Like someone else said, there is a lot of ground between holding hands and kissing and full-on “pregnancy roulette,” as someone called it. But none of that ground ever gets covered in your typical sex-ed class, and I suspect most parents (and their kids) would be mortified at discussing with their kids things like oral sex or masturbation as an alternative to intercourse. We also refuse to acknowledge (as someone else noted) that kids might just want to have sex because it is a form of pleasure, makes us feel good and reminds us we’re alive. (In his book “The Soul Of Sex” Thomas Moore argues that many of our sexual hangups stem from the fact that we live in a pleasure-denying culture, and I think he has a point.) I wonder how many good experiences, relationships and even friendships I missed out on because of fear and shame, that somehow if I let a boy kiss me it would inevitably somehow end up with me getting pregnant, shaming my family and ruining my life. Trust me, that’s no way to live.

    • sparkalipoo says:

      I felt the exact same way about the raging hormones. Sex always kind of freaked me out until I was in my 20s and with someone I felt really comfortable with. I wasn’t rearing to go at all which made me fell like their was something wrong with me especially since I grew up in community that was kind of trying to be painfully sex positive. I was kind of told that I was supposed to have sex and I was supposed to want sex which really freaked me out. With the curiosity, it is known that kids who grew up in sex positive households lose their virginity later because sex isn’t an act of rebellion and the curiosity thing is kind of not a factor.

  5. I have to observe that I became sexually active at 13, with teenaged girls who had to have been as horny as I was. I wasn’t buying anyone fancy dinners or trinkets.
    I had fun, she had fun, we had fun…
    It wasn’t meant to be a life long commitment, I didn’t par the course the first time I played and neither did my various partners.
    But when one can maintain physical and mental prowess to stay in the game for hours at a time.
    I also benefited from coming to the game at a time, 1970, when women were ridding themselves of the idea that their virtue was fortressed behind an intact hymen…
    I don’t know about rape culture- but I will opine on popular culture and the virginity myth is a short lived one made popular by new media in the 20th century. Sure it was a big deal amongst the 1% who felt that their daughter’s virtue could be auctioned off- but well into the middle of the past century many if not most brides were pregnant at the alter..
    Remember- with no TV, youth soccer and Tiger Schulman- kids had to amuse themselves.

  6. The law is a blunt tool for a complex and delicate set of circumstances and while distinguishing legal from moral has value, many in our society simply lump them together, don’t you find?

    Thanks for the article, Noah. It rightly points out the limitations of going from zero to 60 where adolescent sexuality is concerned. There is no definable moment of sexual readiness or maturity. Some people reach it at 14, some at 17. Others are 19 or 25.

    We can shift is our understanding of sexuality through the entire life cycle and the incredible power and value of having comprehensive sex education. Young kids deserve to have age-appropriate information provided to them by trusted sources. They ought to learn about bodies. As children get older they should learn about what bodies can do sexually. They should hear that masturbation is healthy and normal (and so incredibly safe!). By the time our kids hit puberty, we ought to begin talking to them about decision-making as it relates to sex. Helping them see that it is not only their physical desires that ought to drive their decisions, but also their logic and their intuition. We need to tell them over and over that great sex happens when the participating individuals talk about what feels good to them. We need to tell them that they deserve to have sex that feels good to them.

    If we are busy telling them they are incapable of exercising control or thoughtful decision-making, it seems likely that they will never reach higher. And if we don’t equip them with some skills to exercise control or be thoughtful decision-makers, then they don’t really stand a chance. And I don’t mean just before they reach the age of consent.

  7. Who on Earth has ever denied that teenagers are horny as hell? And if it’s problematic to draw a crisp line for the age of consent at 18 (or lower in some states), then what’s an alternative? I don’t see any proposals coming from this article. In fact, I really don’t get the point the author is trying to make.

  8. I think it’s important to acknowledge that rape and rape culture are not driven by a (thwarted) desire for sex but by desire for control over something or someone. I agree that denying sexuality is dangerous (at any age, but particularly for teens) and I love that the author is advocating for honest and non-shaming behaviour around teen-sexuality, but I don’t think there is a direct correlation between one and the other – and I think to perpetrate that link means we’ll never fully understand why rape continues and how to stop it. We need to be educating our citizens that it is never OK to assert one’s personal power over someone else – physically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually.

  9. wellokaythen says:

    You make a very good point about how people treat teenage sexuality in such weird ways. Teens are interested in having sex for all sorts of reasons: hormonal drives, social pressure, experimentation, etc.

    But there was one factor you left out, which is one that parents REALLY don’t want to think about but that has to be addressed square in the face: many teenagers have sex because it feels good.

    Not all of them do, certainly, but it’s clearly part of the “why.” Until we’re able to talk about the physical pleasure aspect of sex, we’ll never really have a full, honest conversation. Otherwise we’re just dancing around the big elephant in the room.

    “Because it feels good” is not enough of a reason, and it’s no excuse for being irresponsible, but it has to be addressed. None of the sex talks I got as a teenager ever got around to mentioning that sex feels good. That’s a serious but very common oversight.

  10. The things you say make sense. But I don’t see what they have to do with rape culture, or even how you tried to tie the two together. Rape culture comes out of privileging men so that rapists are not blamed, but victims are, for instance. A lack of negative sanctions keeps it going. And rape, itself, comes from men wanting to feel powerful and dominant (some people’s notions of “manly”). You tend to have high rates of rape in cultures with high levels of male dominance–and low rates in cultures with low levels of male dominance. So I found the title puzzling.

  11. Thank you so much for finally putting your finger on the reason why it’s always such an ugly memory to remeber that at 18 I was “dating” a 30 year old. And at 19, I ended up as the “other woman” to a 37 year old. I was a lost and desperate teenager, raging with hormones and recovering from a traumatizing experience with a pedophile at age 9. It scarred me for long, and you are right. It is not ok to just say “Hey, it’s legal. So its totally cool!” I look back at the kid I was and it makes me wish I could have told myself that I needed to chill out and trust life. I am only 26 now, and still wondering how these men in their 30s couldn’t come up with an equally acceptable recommendation.

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  1. […] Denying Teenage Sexuality Feeds Rape Culture http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/brand-how-denying-teenage-sexuality-feeds-rape-culture/ So if we all (or almost all) recall being horny little devils, why do we pretend that teenagers are […]

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