Continuing with the last week’s topic (originally posted on March 11, 2005 – click on the spider-clock icon to see the comments, including by Mark O’Connell – who I subsequently met and blogged about, on the original post)
Last night I listened to NPR’s “On Point” about adolescent sex (http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2005/03/20050310_a_main.asp). As you may have guessed, I am interested in this topic as it can reveal something about the current fixated-on-sex femiphobic culture, as well as evolution of the institution of marriage (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/02/hooked-on-hooking-up-or-whats-wrong.html – please do read this post, it is the Part I of this one).
The show had three guests. One was a conservative dildo, Denny Patten, founder and president of “Silver Ring Thing,” an abstinence-only program. Of course, such an ostrich with head-in-the-sand attitude had nothing to add to the conversation.
The other two guests, Mark O’Connell and Lynn Ponton were much more interesting. They mostly agreed with each other, overtly, but their approach is from very different angles, and I have a feeling that they kept up appearances in public but actually have some big points of disagreement thet they decided not to air. O’Donnell is a psychologist who works with a number of adolescent and young patients. You can read his recent article (in agreement, I guess, with his thinking in his book ”The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity and Life in the Family”) here: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/03/09/the_epidemic_of_meaningless_teen_sex/.
Ponton, on the other hand, looks at the big societal picture. Ponton is also a psychologist working with adolescents and here is an excerpt from her latest book (The Sex Lives of Teenagers) here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0452282608/ref=wburorg-20/103-3363410-0470205?%5Fencoding=UTF8&p=S00M#reader-link
OK, so here’s my beef with what they said. I think they conflate two things that are in fact separate: prevalence of oral sex in middle and high schools on one hand, and the “hooking up” culture in colleges on the other hand. The way they used the terms interchangeably and the way they jumped from one to another and back (often using examples from one to drive a point about the other) demonstrates that they indeed conflate the two. It is easy to see why they conflate the two: both involve people younger than the authors, and both involve a nonchalant attitude towards sex. For instance, O’Connell writes: “As a psychologist who works with adolescents I hear quite a bit about how oral sex is common, not only among college kids ”hooking up,” but among middle teens. It even occurs among 12-year-olds and younger. And I also hear what young people say about these experiences: ”It’s just a thing to do. It doesn’t mean anything.””
I have argued before (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/02/hooked-on-hooking-up-or-whats-wrong.html) that the two are not the same thing. First, there is the difference in age: college students are adults and, arguably more mature. Second, there is the difference in the type of sexual activity: oral sex with younger kids, intercourse with the older. Third, and crucial difference is the difference in gender relations. While “hooking up”, “friends with benefits”, and “tied at the hip” – the three patterns of sexual activity of college students – are all instances of gender equality, the relationships between the teenagers are anything but. The statistics trotted out on the show were that 97% of the oral sex acts were performed by girls on boys. I was pleasantly surprised that even those remaining 3% existed. But what do you think would be their reactions if the split between giving and receieving was 50-50? Judging from their general attitudes, I believe that O’Connell would still think it was a bad thing, while Ponton would say “Great!”. I would say “Great!”. Such a breakdown would mean that the kids are educated and aware of STDs, thus abstain from intercourse, yet treat sex as a normal human need and treat each other as equal partners.
Because they conflate the two ages/activities into one and because one of these is obviously amiss, the two panelists are forced to condemn both as negative. But I think they are not. The 97-3 ratio of boy’s satisfaction is clearly bad. But “friends with benefits” is, in my book, a positive move. The overal nonchalance about sex among youngsters, the way they freely talk about it and actually do it, suggests to me that this may be the first generation of Americans without hangups about sex – the first non-uptight generation, or at least a significant proportion of the generation.
O’Connell was waxing poetic about the “good old days” when sex was something special and emotional (and nerve-wrecking, secretive and dirty). He would probably prefer, just like the abstinence-only co-idiot on the program, that it would be best if the kids did not have sex at all, and he even suggests some adult-supervised dating nonsense. I think he is jealous of today’s kids and their sexual freedom. He wants them to have sexual hangups the way he did when he was young (and still does). He forgets that the equation “marriage = love = sex” is a recent innovation, about 80 years old (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/moral-politics-in-context-of-history.html). The gradual shift in gender equality, resulting in changes in the insitution of marriage, is going to separate these three parameters once again – the state of things for most of human history. Sure, people will still marry for love and have sex, but that is not going to be (actually already is not) the only possible pattern. Marriage as economic contract, platonic love, open marriages, serial monogamy etc. are all on the rise and will continue to rise as the 80-year old “traditional” marriage is becoming defunct due to gender equality, sexual-orientation equality, increased longevity, lower natality, perfected contraception methods, and improving treatments for STDs (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/definition-semantics-and-future-of.html). There is no need, apart from outdated social norms and taboos that go way back to Calvinist Puritan ethic (where every pleasure is a sin) for tight adherence to the above formula. Kids, as usual, are unencumbered by receieved dogmas, they see better than we do how the world is changing, and quickly adapt to the future. Just because they take sex nonchalantly now, does not mean at all that they will be incapable of having deep emotional attachments to their partners and have deeply spiritual sex with them once they grow up.
One reason I believe that Lynn Ponton would respond differently if the stats for teenage oral sex were 50-50 is something she talked about in this context. She cited a statistic that the average age of the first intercourse has not changed in decades – it is 16 years. But the explosion of oral sex we see now is not a new thing – it has happened before in the US history. Do you know when? No, if you thought of “free love” and said “The Sixties” you are wrong. It was in the Fifties, and presumably before that in the 1920s and before that in the 1880s. Why? Those were periods when the society forced assymetrical gender roles: male dominance. Such periods usually occur as periods of backlash of femiphobic males after each victory of womens’s rights (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/03/femiphobia-again.html).
When women won the battle over not being their husband’s property any more, the conservatives screamed at the top of their lungs about the impending Armaggedon and moral decay of the society, playing into male insecurities and leading to a period of, guess what, increased oral sex performed by girls on boys in high school! The kids are just copying their parents, until they go off to college, see the world, learn something, start thinking for themselves, and start defying their parent’s traditions. The same backlash was seen after women got the right to own property, to vote, to work outside the house, to divorce, to have an abortion etc.
More and more it is becoming obvious that stereotypical gender roles in relationships are not necessary for such relationships to work. Success of gay marriages will just be the final nail in the coffin – a final proof that gender roles are just that much BS. The gay marriages performed in San Francisco, some areas of New York state, the legislation such as the one in Massachusetts, are now precipitating such a backlash, helping the conservative doomsday-sayers get Bush back in the White House, and resulting in rise of one-sided oral sex among the parroting kids.
So, the problem with teenagers is NOT that they are having oral sex, but that there is such a huge skew in who are givers and who are recepients. This appears to straighten itself out by college and I am glad to see that new generations are not treating sex as dirty sinful activity, but as a natural physiological function, like eating and sleeping, the way it should have been all along throughout human history if it was not for sexually-anxious inventors of religions and their equally sexually-anxious followers.