‘Encouraging teens to wait until they feel ready for sex is not to promote oppression. It is to promote empowerment’
Clueless, to say the least. Michelle Griffin’s claim (‘Why teens should read raunchy novels and straight-up smut’) that “teens should read more porn”, not to mention her implied claim that more Year 10 students should be having sex, are the flashpoints of a piece which lacks anything vaguely resembling a clearly structured argument. The lumping together of a ‘reality bites’ book specifically pitched at adolescents, such as Judy Blume’s Forever, with the porn-fest of Nicholson Baker’s “surreally explicit new title”, House of Holes, should alert us to that.
The apparent spur for Griffin’s piece is a recent La Trobe University study finding that despite much talk about the importance of sex education in schools that locates discussion of the biological facts about sex within a broader understanding of healthy relationships, not all Year 9 and 10 students have access to this.
Only one in four hear that “experimenting with sexualities and pleasure is OK”, something particularly important given the potential impacts of homophobia. (At the same time, the research does suggest that at least some teachers are rising to the challenge, and we should all congratulate them for that.)
The socio-emotionally disconnected version of sex provided by parts of the education system gives rise to the question: how do teens link this school-based information with their actual lives? The ubiquity of porn may well fill the gap. And researchers like Alan McKee, whom Griffin cites approvingly, seem to believe that the pornography industry is well prepared to fill that gap, a pornography industry that promotes cruelty, brutality and inequality.
Griffin is to her credit concerned about the resulting “shackles of banal commercialised sexuality”. She advocates reading more books over watching YouPorn. That’s great, but she avoids a much more challenging question: precisely which books?
Teens, like the rest of us, are whole people, with rich socio-emotional lives. Some books do justice to the location of sex within a broader socio-emotional context, some do not. But Griffin, apparently relying on a ‘consent makes any kind of sex ok’ philosophy, makes no such distinction (there’s no problem with ‘brutal’ porn, apparently), and in doing so, she sells us all short.
The value of consent rests on the possibility of free and rational choice. The idea that either perfect freedom or perfect rationality applies in messy sexual contexts is a fantasy. All the more so for the adolescent context, where the psychological literature clearly shows that teens are more impulsive and more prone to extreme highs and lows than more mature adults.
Add to that peer pressure and alcohol and you’ve got a heady mix. That’s not to say that some psychologically mature teens don’t have healthy sexual relationships – the literature clearly shows that they do – but consent is hardly all that is required for this. Consent is necessary but not sufficient for a healthy sexual relationship. And actions need to be more than just acquiescence, more than just ‘going along with’, to count as consent.
Let’s face it, even if sex is entered into in a spirit of ‘all you need is consent and no strings attached’, that doesn’t make us flourish. Physical intimacy can all too easily lead to emotional connection and then significant distress when this is not mutual. Who has not seen this happen, even with mature adults? Who does not know how the headspin of even potential sexual attraction can throw everything else out of perspective, even in a mature adult? Who seriously thinks it’s a good idea to encourage in teens the idea that, provided you’ve got ‘consent’, anything goes?
The very idea that you can just ‘consent’ to physical intimacy with someone you don’t have a caring relationship with, in the goal of mutual pleasure seeking, is bizarre. The kind of psychological separation from your body (not to mention the other human being in the equation) you would have to achieve to do that sounds more like the kind of pathology that results from sexual abuse, than any kind of healthy sexual development.
The psychological task of adolescence is to develop a holistic sense of who you are, and to become over time an independent and autonomous adult. Sexuality is an important part of that, but it’s far from the only part.
Reading material that portrays sex as a part of caring, complex, human relationships is one important way of promoting such holistic development. Another way is to construct a loving sexual life with someone who genuinely cares about you – when you are mature enough to form such a relationship. Encouraging teens to wait until they feel ‘ready’ for sex, and to wait for someone with whom they feel safe, is not to promote oppression. It is to promote empowerment. House of Holes seems unlikely to teach anyone that sort of respect for self or others.
Dr Emma Rush is a lecturer in philosophy and ethics at Charles Sturt University. She was a contributor to Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (ed. Melinda Tankard Reist, Spinifex Press, 2009).