We tend to be very uncomfortable addressing topics that involve both kids and sexuality. This includes interactions among children, as well as prevention of inappropriate interactions between adults and children.
This discomfort is particularly unfortunate, given the combination of exceptional sexual energy and need for guidance at the adolescent stage. Kids are feeling various social pressures combined with physiological urges, and at the same time lack the wisdom of a more experienced adult. And from a sustainability perspective, more open sex education might help to curb overpopulation.
While entire books could be written on this topic, we’ll launch right into a basic but often-ignored concept that I believe stands in the way of more honest discussion.
From a purely biological perspective, once a human hits puberty and their sexual and reproductive features fully develop, they are going to be sexually attractive to other humans with a sex drive. This often happens well before they reach “legal” age.
To exacerbate this, some research suggests that the rate of early-onset puberty is increasing, at least in girls. It’s hard pinpoint the exact culprit–some point to factors such as childhood obesity, while others point out growth hormones used to ramp up milk production in cows, egg and meat production in chickens, and so on.
Now, it makes most parents anxious enough that their teenage daughter or son may be attractive to others their age. What makes us even more anxious is the fact that they can appear sexually attractive to older adults as well.
I’ll bear the burden of being uncomfortably honest here, in hopes that it helps you and other readers to be brutally honest with yourselves about this. In the years since I turned 18, I’m fairly certain that some of the fully-developed females who have triggered a “she’s attractive” thought in the back of my mind were not quite 18 yet.
Aaaaack. Creepy middle aged man alert! Scenes from American Beauty may come to mind.
If you can watch popular music videos, clothing ads, and television shows like “Glee” without feeling even the tiniest spark, then perhaps you’re an exception. But even if you do, fret not. Like me, you would never consider acting on it. Because a second or two after that initial impulse, the higher-level thinking portions of our brains kick in, moderating our thoughts and behavior.
Fortunately, most of us recognize that engaging in sex with someone who is too young and emotionally less developed could negatively affect them in a number of ways. We realize that if we were that person’s parent, we probably wouldn’t want someone our age hitting on them. We recognize that even if it were acceptable, there probably wouldn’t be much substance to the relationship anyway, like common interests and discussion topics.
The key is that we must honestly accept the existence of certain animalistic impulses as part of our human nature, recognizing that they themselves do not define our sexual ethics or make us “bad.” It’s largely how we choose to behave that defines us.*
Why is this distinction so incredibly important? Because if this part of our nature freaks us out too much and leads us to judge ourselves and others, we will overreact. This overreaction may include a denial that adolescents–or minors of any age–can be sexual beings at all.
I’ll repeat this last point: Our overreaction may include a denial that adolescents–or minors of any age–can be sexual beings at all.
If we’re involved in a public policy, educational, or leadership position, this may result in highly ineffective policies related to sexuality. Any attempts to get really honest when talking about sexuality at this level will make us too anxious, so we’ll deal with the topic only superficially. It’s easier just to skim over things and move onto more comfortable topics.
Most importantly, when we deny that minors are sexual beings, we fail to have meaningful conversations about sexual education. And when sexual education doesn’t happen at a relatively young age, it has a broad range of impacts. Kids will still learn about sex, but it they may not learn about it in a healthy way.
Additionally, this denial can result in blanket policies and punishments that don’t always account for variability in individual circumstances, whether they pertain to controversial issues like sexting, sex between a minor and a non-minor who’s close in age, and so on.
As a result, youth can end up with records that haunt them for many years, impacting their ability to be productive citizens. Even if they did something that was particularly foolish, that behavior may not be any reflection on their character in other domains of their life.
The same thing can and does happen to adults. In the introduction to this series, I shared that someone with whom I’m acquainted nearly went to prison because policy makers misunderstood the relationship between their disabilities and sexuality. For confidentiality reasons, I can’t share details, other than saying that their condition impacts social development and interaction in profound ways, and that there is no evidence to suggest they would ever approach a minor in a sexual fashion. Nonetheless, they must carry a sex offender label for the rest of their lives. This continues to impact them and their family.
On top of that, the initial “treatment” that the government prescribed seemed to deny the individual’s right to have a sex drive at all. This stemmed from blanket policies that failed to allow for individual variation. I believe those policies, in turn, resulted from a fear of discussing sexuality policies in sufficient depth. Getting beyond black and white requires critical questioning, which can be uncomfortable for us. It requires courageous honesty.
A few years ago, I attended a two-day training sponsored by the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, designed to make participants critically question our sexual attitudes. A highlight was the opportunity to hear from a panel of parents on sexuality-related challenges of child rearing. Yes, even the professionals face challenges!
An interesting point that came up was that many fathers, upon their daughters hitting puberty, struggled with how to show physical affection toward their daughters. While obviously certain boundaries need to be drawn, some fathers largely withdrew most forms of physical contact altogether. Apparently, their children’s sexual maturity made them pretty uncomfortable.
A few of the participants then discussed the self-esteem issues and conflicted messages about love versus sex that many girls face as a result of such withdrawal. It seems that some of these issues could be avoided with more awareness and open conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable at first.
Another interesting thought: If adults were more comfortable and open about their own sexuality around youth, then maybe kids wouldn’t feel quite so rushed about sex. The hormones provide plenty of push for sex as it is. On top of that, relatively sexy movies, music videos, and commercials tend to feature very young people much more often than they feature folks in their 30s and older. Only young is sexy.
So we end up conveying very paradoxical messages:
a) you’re at your sexual prime when you’re really young,
b) you shouldn’t start having sex until you’re quite a bit older, though—perhaps even settled down with a family, and
c) once you do reach that point, you’re not going to enjoy it as much anyway, because older people aren’t sexual.
Talk about a recipe for a sexually anxious youth, followed by a midlife crisis!
I also wonder how many sexual predator incidents could be avoided if we more openly acknowledged adolescents’ exceptionally strong hormonal motivations and discussed it with them. One example: an 18-year-old posed as an attractive girl on Facebook, persuading the girl’s minor male classmates to send him nude photos of themselves. He then used those photos to blackmail the boys into performing sex acts for him.
In this example, I wonder why the predator felt he had to resort to such nefarious means to obtain sex. Perhaps that piece could have been avoided, or at least recognized and addressed sooner, had he grown up in a more sex-positive culture. (“Sex-positive” includes open and intelligent discussion.)
What’s also interesting about this example is that the predator was able to use the boys’ nude photos to blackmail them. Granted, no matter how open-minded one’s parents and friends are, the risk of others seeing a sexually explicit picture of you is going to be embarrassing. When I was an adolescent, just the thought of one of my parents catching me masturbating was terrifying. It’s no accident that the topic of masturbation was the primary focus of an entire Seinfeld episode, with the word itself not being uttered once.
Nonetheless, in the blackmailing incident, it is unfortunate that the boys’ perceived destructive capacity of those photos was so strong that they felt they had no other options but to obey the blackmailer. There was apparently no one or no place else they felt they could turn to, because the shame tied to the revelation of sexually explicit photos would be so great.
In a more sexually honest and understanding culture, crimes that use sexual shame to manipulate people into secrecy wouldn’t have quite as much power. (This includes not only blackmail, but rape and incest.) If we just accepted as a given that adolescents are going to do risqué and impulsive things from time to time, and focused our preventive efforts upon education and sexual shame reduction, where might that lead us?
In another example, a high school found itself facing a dilemma regarding dress codes. A vice principal pulled a student aside and told her that her decision to go braless (under a non see-through shirt) made male teachers and male students uncomfortable. The student soon organized a protest and established a “No Bra, No Problem” page. It drew thousands of supporters in just a few weeks.
The girls argued that they had the right to go braless under shirts. Given that boys often run around completely topless at school sporting events, enforcing bra wearing goes even beyond a double standard. Bras, they argued, are often uncomfortable and unnecessary, alongside being expensive. Also, arguments that girls should completely hide the shape of their nipples and breasts suggests that female bodies are oversexualized.
The above all seem like valid points. At the same time, many schools probably recognize that even though women’s breasts shouldn’t be sexualized, they still are. Many people, especially heterosexual teenage boys, may find more defined outlines of nipples or slightly bouncier breasts a bit arousing.
Some of the teachers and administrators may, too. Even though most would never act on their attractions, just the thought of them may trigger the shame overreaction described earlier.
Some girls will have little or no interest in showing off, wearing tops that reveal very little. Some may wish to stretch the boundaries and play with their sexual power just a bit, wearing clothes that are more revealing.
Given all of this, some school officials may fear an increase in sexual harassment once boys are able to see the outlines of their female classmates’ bodies just a bit more.
I understand that schools need to have some dress codes to prevent kids from getting too distracted from their academics. But going braless under a non see-through shirt is a far cry from wearing a bikini-like night club outfit. Furthermore, policing of girls’ clothing decisions can’t prevent sexual misconduct. How male and female students manage their emotions and behavior, and how they communicate, is key.
There’s a great educational opportunity here. The kids need to be able to talk about these issues in an open and honest manner. Female students with concerns about being oversexualized and subjected to a double standard need to be able to express that. Other students, teachers, and administrators need to be able to voice exactly what it is that makes them uncomfortable, whether it’s fear of experiencing additional attraction or otherwise.
Sweeping concerns under the rug as invalid or wrong doesn’t resolve underlying issues. Repressing or ignoring energies often just results in them bubbling up in harmful ways. Talking through discomfort often leads to new insights.
By openly talking about their emotions, kids might learn some coping and communication tools that help them in other settings, too. For example, boys might learn healthier ways of communicating with girls they find attractive. They might come to understand that even in settings where a girl is dressing much more provocatively, it doesn’t mean she’s “asking for it”–a respectful conversation and consent are still necessary. Girls might learn more about proactively managing different situations, so that they can experience more freedom of dress and expression while feeling safer.
Responsibility for enabling such dialogue can’t just be dumped upon schools; it will require support and participation from parents. For example, interested parents could work together to help their kids organize discussion groups.
I look forward to an increasingly fulfilling world where we’re all more capable of showing up more powerfully in our lives, and of fully enjoying one another’s presence. This includes our work-related talents, our thoughts, our hobbies, our artistic gifts, our physical presence, and our sexuality.
*As a sidenote, if you frequently fixate on minors or consider acting on such thoughts, then a candid conversation with a therapist may be useful. Also, if you’re a younger person reading this, I understand that some teenagers actually are more emotionally mature than some adults. But absent some type of reliable emotional maturity exam, biological age probably remains the best measure we currently have for establishing some sex-related guidelines.