Teen Sex vs. Adult Resentment

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.

20 thoughts on “Teen Sex vs. Adult Resentment

  1. It’s true that a lot of teenagers are involved in premarital sex nowadays. This attitude towards sex is also prominent in the web since a lot of them are resorting into on line dating and cybersex. Online dating in itself has its advantages. The web is a good place to meet people. But I guess we need to create programs that would awaken the youth in the dangers of sex or cyber sex. Entering into a realationship is normal and there’s nothing wrong, too, about on line dating. However, there are also limits to these activities. Self-control and disciplinethen are necessary.

  2. I think a lot of teens are having sex because their being taught and influenced to have it. Their friends are going out and partying and their comming back to school telling everyone they had sex and saying “you should do it to”. But also some teenagers are doing it to feel beter about themselves. Their feeling down about themselves and they need to let go of some of that stress, so their going and having sex with random guys because they know guys are stupid and will do that. Now im not saying all guys are like that, but a lot of guys these days are having sex because they know when girls are feeling low about themselves and they know hey can get whatever they want.

  3. That is in interesting spin and one that I as a parent finds absolutely ridiculous. LOL for one reason being that I am 39 and enjoy sex more then I ever have. The second reason being I can get it anytime I want. The reason I don’t want my teenagers having sex right now is that they are not ready. Sex should be a process of give and take between two people who love each other. There are the dangers of getting an STD and also of getting pregnant. My teenage son is not ready for the responsibility of a child. Even if there were no moral consequences these 2 reasons are enough to justify my decision to be against my son having sex at this time. Another situation I don’t want happening is my daughter having sex just to make a man feel good. It should be something that feels good to both of them. As a woman I know that sex gets better the older you get. I tell you whoever wrote this needs to get a life!

  4. Hi Stacey,
    Having just read the article in question, and your reply, I conclude you are a liberal. I ask only to see if esr has it figured correctly.

    “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.”

    And thanks, I had quite missed this article from 2002, I would never have noticed it, if not for you. And having now read it, I find it is a reasonably accurate descriptor of teens (it is, after all, only a general observation about being human and a teen), at least in the U.S.A.

    It’s usefulness in discerning conservative from liberal does arise however. I’m betting esr got it right. No?

  5. The web is a good place to meet people. But I guess we need to create programs that would awaken the youth in the dangers of sex or cyber sex. Entering into a realationship is normal and there’s nothing wrong, too, about on line dating. However, there are also limits to these activities. Self-control and disciplinethen are necessary.

  6. I met my wife in the the web and now we have 4 nice children. So the web is a good part but we also have to keep an eye to our children with the web.

  7. I think a lot of teens are having sex because their being taught and influenced to have it. Their friends are going out and partying and their comming back to school telling everyone they had sex and saying “you should do it to”. But also some teenagers are doing it to feel beter about themselves. Their feeling down about themselves and they need to let go of some of that stress, so their going and having sex with random guys because they know guys are stupid and will do that. Now im not saying all guys are like that, but a lot of guys these days are having sex because they know when girls are feeling low about themselves and they know hey can get whatever they want.

    great site, very interesting, I have given it a Digg for you

  8. Well written article. Until this sexually-repressed society instills healthy attitudes in its young people about sexuality, we will will continue to breed one generation after another of guilt-laden teenagers and adults who are socially conditioned to feel shame about acting on their sexual impulses. The unhealthy, psychologically damaging sense of shame we instill in our kids about nudity and sexuality in our endeavor to “protect” them, when we’re really trying to protect ourselves from our own sexual baggage, is why we have so many adults who engage in predatory sexual behavior. Our culture breeds sexually confused, demented adolescents at conveyor-belt speed and then stands back in fear and loathing when they act out on their impulses as adults. It is a great paradox in our sexually ill society.

  9. Great article.

    There’s a question, though, that has been in my mind the entire time: What about sex that isn’t voluntary? I’m not comfortable with the fact that teenagers aren’t being properly informed. Some schools would rather push the “abstinence only” envelope instead of taking the necessary precautions to protect their students. I remember in my high school years whenever I took health class, there was one paragraph about rape, and the basic message was that if it happens, you tell someone. But who can these girls go to? If their parents don’t accept [or aren't aware] of their sexual engagements, how can they help their child? Think of the psychological damage that girl will have to live with, and the lack of information she has to go by.

    & society is no help. There is a constant barrage of images and commercials enforcing the soft, gentle, innocent, but sexual, woman who is confident and beautiful and in shape. [Sarcasm] We never see the battered, beaten, & crying woman because that is not the image of woman that we want to see. Some sex ed programs teach girls that boys can’t even control their urges, so they have to take charge and always say no. So, what can young girls do with all these confusing messages? At such a young age, girls are so sensitive about their image and their bodies that some will do anything to win that boy’s attention across the room, even if it means boosting their breasts & wearing a pile of make-up.

    We’re sending the wrong messages here, & some girls don’t even realize that showing some cleavage might get more than a few looks.

    I didn’t mean to break into a huge rant there. It just bugs me that we can’t become more comfortable talking about sex in general to prevent mishaps in teenagers’ lives. That’s my two cents…

  10. Honestly, I’m a teenager, and I can tell you right now that people my age do it just because it’s fun and they want to live a little. Adults need to wake up and come to the 21st century. Sex isn’t some traditional, sacred thing anymore where people must love each other and be married. As the article said, it’s just mindless fucking. It’s fun. It’s the thrill of defying what your parents want you to do. It’s exciting and liberating and makes you feel independent.
    And you know what’s funny & ironic is that if parents weren’t so hardcore “NO SEX” with their children, their kids wouldn’t do it as often. If parents were a little more nonchalant about it, their teens would be too, and they’d probably be like “Eh yeah I could have sex but I don’t feel like I need to.”
    But instead teens are excited by the rebellion that comes with the act. When parents are fervently against something, teens are more eager to do it. Being bad feels really good. It seems adults have forgotten this. We teenagers, however, have not.

  11. 19 Years Teen.
    You guys are hilarious. :P
    Since when has self-restraint become a bad thing?
    Too many of my sisters friends are getting pregnant at the at of 16, and 17. Some don’t even know who the father is. And some think it could be one of two men and play them both! LOL!
    The issue here is responsibility gentlemen and ladies. Its not jealousy. Its not envy. Its the utter unbelievable lack of human responsibility in the 21rst century, and the dangers that sex drags along with it.
    The 17 year old friend of my sister now has a 1 month old baby girl, with a 24 year old father, who isn’t even the real father. This 17 year old GIRL hates her mother. Her fathers in prison. What life did this baby girl just inherit? What cruel, disgusting, joke just occurred? An endless cycle of bad parenting. Of lack of responsibility.
    Some basic logic:
    Start sex at a young age =
    You have more sex throughout your life=
    Your more likely to become a parent earlier on in your life.
    More basic logic:
    Start sex at a young age =
    More emotional stress, disruption of concentrating on the foundation of the basics for your life. =
    Problems later on in life, which thus have ripple effects on anyone and everyone close to you (including your children)
    I could go on. I’m not going to.

    Everyone is at fault here. Parents and teens alike. A vicious cycle of pointing fingers and lack of responsibility on both sides, from generation to generation to the point where everyone is so blinded by self-righteous individualism and gratification that no one cares anymore. As long as it feels good.
    /rant

  12. interesting read – unfortunately kids try to grow up too early these days and sex is just part of that playing at being grown up process. unfortunately it has massive implications of STD’s, unwanted / unplanned pregnancies and low self esteem being just a few. Our kids (and thats what most teenagers and even early 20-somethings are these days need to be allowed to grow up and not be pressured into adult sexual activity because it is the norm, shown eveywhere in the media and because its the cool thing to do because their mates are doing it. I feel sorry for the youth of today – they are trying so hard to prove they are grown up enough to partake of adult activiities including sex that they miss out part of the growing up process – whats the rush, stay young and innocent for as long as possible. theres plenty of time for sex when your good and ready.

  13. I have to agree with this article, there is no good argument for a general rule of abstinence among teens. Recently we had a abstinence seminar at my school and the only lasting affect is that the girls that used to have sex while on birth-control are now afraid birth-control will give them cancer and are still having sex.
    As a teenager myself I’d like to inform the adult public of why teenagers are having sex. We have the most hormones we will ever have in our lives, and it’s pleasurable. Peer pressure is a factor to some, but not most. I’d like to add, that if we weren’t ready for sex mentally, we wouldn’t be physically craving it. Instead of trying to tell us the exact opposite of what nature is telling us, you would be better off informing us of the ways to protect ourselves.
    Most of the girls I know who are having sex are so scared of telling their parents that they’re not asking for any sort of protection. These are girls whose parents have told them repeatedly to come to them if they’re having sex. This proves that no matter what you say, we pick up on what your thinking.
    It’s really the stigma placed on sex that’s the main cause for the spread of STD’s in American schools today. Parents instill the thought that sex is a thing that’s either sacred or dirty into their child, then when that child becomes a horny teen they’re ashamed of themselves and are afraid of adult disappointment. They’re afraid adults are going to label them as stupid, which is the worst fear of someone our age.
    In the end it would be best for us to face what we are, mammals. We have urges and it’s alright to take care of them as long as we don’t hurt anyone in the process.

  14. 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.

    I know who are having sex are so scared of telling their parents that they’re not asking for any sort of protection. These are girls whose parents have told them repeatedly to come to them if they’re having sex. This proves that no matter what you say, we pick up on what your thinking.

  15. “Kids today are having more sex”, “teenagers these days do more drugs”, “youngsters in these times are morally worse in such and such a way”. Anyone ever looked at some real scientific evidence, or do all of these middle-aged moralists just repeat things they’ve heard on some show somewhere? In reality teenagers are having less sex and doing less drugs, proven by both actual studies and evidenced by my own subjective personal experience as a “teen these days.” Perhaps eight kids at my high school of 1400 have had any form of sex, as far as is publicly known.

  16. Kids are going to do what they see others do–and they’re not just making stuff up. If they see someone who they respect doing certain behaviors, then they will do it too. Adults need to lead by example–not by just telling their kids not to do something.

  17. You sound like the above described teenagers. Long on opinion short on experience and thought.

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