A wise and cynical friend of mine once described the motivation behind puritanism as “the fear that someone might be fucking and getting away with it”. I think the subtext of the periodic public panics about teen sex has always been resentment that sexy young things just might be getting away with it — enjoying each others’ bodies thoughtlessly, without consequences, without pregnancy, without marriage, without “meaningful relationships”, without guilt, without sin.
The traditional rationalizations for adult panic about teen sex are teen pregnancy and STDs. But if teen pregnancy really had much to do with adult panic, anti-sex rhetoric would have changed significantly after reliable contraception became available. It hasn’t. Similarly, we don’t hear a lot of adult demand for STD testing in high schools. No; something else is going on here, something more emotional and deeper than pragmatic fears.
Conservatives and liberals alike are attached to the idea that sex ought to be controlled, be heavy, have consequences. The Judeo-Christian tradition of repression, which yokes sex to marriage and reproduction, is still powerful among conservatives. Liberals have replaced it with an ethic in which sex is OK when it is harnessed to building relationships or personal growth or therapy, but must always be undertaken with adult mindfulness.
Both camps are terrified of mindless sex, of hedonism, of the pure friction fuck. Lurking beneath both Judeo-Christian and secularized taboos is a fear that too much pleasure will damn us — or reduce us to the status of animals, so fixated on the drug of orgasm that we will become unfit for marriage and society and adult responsibility. What has not changed beneath contingent worries about pregnancy and STDs is the more fundamental fear that pleasure corrupts.
And beneath that fear lurks something uglier — the envy that dares not speak its name. The unpalatable truth is that a teenager’s “immature” hormone-pumped capacity to have lots of mindless sex makes adults jealous. The conscious line is that the kids have got to be stopped before they have more sex than is good for them — the unconscious line is that they’ve got to be stopped before they have more fun than we can stand.
Thus the curious sense of relief that lurks behind a lot of the propaganda about the dangers of AIDS, even the version of it retailed by lifestyle liberals. Being able to tell the kids that they shouldn’t casually fuck around because it will kill them feels good; it neatly rationalizes our resentment of their capacity for pleasure.
But resentment makes for lousy morality just as surely as it makes for lousy politics. It prevents us from forming rational strategies to avoid the bad side-effects of teen sex, mires us in denial and cant. The real issue here is not the teens’ experience but our envy of their youth, innocence, and sexual capacity. And don’t think the kids don’t sense this!
Teenagers, whatever their other failings, are keenly attuned to the smell of adult hypocrisy; they can tell when our stated reasons for telling them to keep their pants zipped are just cover, even when they lack the experience to understand what’s really bothering us. By bullshitting them, we forfeit our own moral authority. We damage our ability to intervene when the kids really do have to be protected from their impulses.
There may be good reasons to stop teens from screwing each other with the avidity that nature intended. But we adults won’t be able to focus on those, or make a case for them that is honest and persuasive, until we stop kidding ourselves about why teen sex makes us panic. Until we face our sexual fears and resentments squarely, the kids won’t listen. And, arguably, shouldn’t listen.