Teens' Sexual Rights

Educators argue that adolescent sexuality is healthy and vital

I lost my virginity the summer after high school. Had I grown up in the '90s rather than the '80s, I'd probably have popped my cherry long before 17. Today's teens face new challenges as they navigate our increasingly explicit culture, especially since sex ed has become politicized, polarized, and in some places, practically nonexistent.

My friend Ellen Friedrichs often hits me with questions like "Can I break my penis?" and "Are there any long-term effects of masturbation?" Friedrichs, who has a master's in health education, offers workshops for teens on various sexual topics including STD prevention, safer sex, puberty, and pregnancy predicaments. She writes for Planned Parenthood's teenwire.com site, where she responds to almost 200 questions a week; teaches human sexuality at Rutgers; works with teens in a South Bronx after-school program; and recently launched her own site, sexedvice.com, to reach a wider audience.

Friedrichs is on a mission, in part because so few are willing to stand up for teens' sexual rights. "People are terrified of teen sexuality. But we're really fighting for the same goals. I think teen pregnancy is probably not a great idea, I don't want anybody to get a sexually transmitted infection, and a lot of kids aren't emotionally ready for sex, but I don't think that denying kids information is going to solve any of these problems."

Ellen Kate Friedrichs
photo: Joe Fiorentino
Ellen Kate Friedrichs

The abstinence-only position is a popular, though misguided, cause. Miss America 2003, Erica Harold, felt so strongly about the issue that she ran on a platform focusing on teen abstinence, although pageant officials urged her to choose a less controversial topic. A new website sponsored by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, 4parents.gov, emphasizes only the risks of intercourse: "There are many potentially negative consequences when adolescents engage in sex. They include STDs, pregnancy, broken relationships—and hearts." Their suggestions for parent-child chats, such as "Find non-sexual ways to show you care (give a card or a nice comment)," leave much to be desired. Friedrichs argues that abstinence-only education isn't a deterrent to teen sex. "Closing your eyes, putting your head in the sand, and telling kids to practice abstinence until you're in a heterosexual marriage isn't effective. Kids have a right to know this information. Parents let their kids watch the most violent, graphic movies but freak out that some kid saw Janet Jackson's nipple. Their priorities are so different from mine. I would much rather shield a child from violence than sex. I'm not trying to promote that all kids go out and have sex."

Mentioning teens and sex in the same sentence, if you're not condemning them, often has negative consequences. Judith Levine, whose book Harmful to Minors (University of Minnesota Press, 2002) argued that children and teens can enjoy sexual pleasure safely, received death threats, and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was let go in 1994 after she advocated that masturbation be taught in schools. Elders understands that visions of kids waiting until they're legal adults to test out their libidos are strictly utopian. "Parents need to let go of the idea that ignorance maintains innocence and begin teaching age-appropriate facts to children," Elders wrote in a 1997 nerve.com essay. Critics such as blogger Dawn Eden regularly attack Teenwire, claiming it encourages teens to be sexually active, and Friedrichs has received hate mail. One gym teacher told her he "needed to take a cold shower" after reading her advice to homosexual male teens. Few want to acknowledge that sexual desire and curiosity are often formed well before 18 (the legal age of consent in New York State is 17).

Friedrichs is aghast that New York City schools only require 10 hours of HIV/AIDS prevention education. "Kids aren't getting comprehensive sex education that covers everything, including abstinence, safer sex, and sexual orientation. Most curricula don't acknowledge that kids want to have sex or address those desires reasonably and logically. Libraries have filters on Internet sites, so kids can't get into basic teen education sites." Keeley McNamara, a health educator at a school-based clinic, echoes this vision of sexual ignorance. "The adolescents I work with are full of myths about sex. I've heard everything from 'birth control makes you sterile' to 'you can't get pregnant if you have sex right before or after your period' to 'condoms don't protect you from HIV and other STDs.' " Both pin the blame on Section 510 of Title V of the Social Security Act, enacted under Clinton, which "has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity." The law requires any school accepting Title V funding to solely offer abstinence-only sex education, without exploring or acknowledging other alternatives or birth control. Since Friedrichs and McNamara work within programs that are privately funded, they can teach classes that go beyond STD prevention.

According to McNamara, there's a huge difference between promoting teen sex and providing teens with the necessary information to make informed decisions. "The current trend is to tell teenagers not to have sex, but they're numb to hearing that. I'm not in the practice of telling kids to have sex. I'll ask them if they liked their first sexual experience, and they'll look shocked and appalled that I've asked and say 'I don't know.' I'll tell them, 'If you didn't like it, maybe you shouldn't be having sex right now. There are ways to make it more fun, but your body might be telling you something.' " Contrary to the image of educators foisting condoms on unsuspecting students, these teachers explore all possible options. "We talk about ways to listen to what your body's trying to tell you, too," says McNamara.

Teenagers are naturally curious about sex, and often turn to unreliable sources rather than parents or teachers. Online, they're just as likely to find misinformation as they are a quality site like scarleteen.com. Schools can't shoulder the entire burden of teen hormonal angst, but what they do offer shouldn't condescend, lie, or mislead. Parents, educators, and media need to speak honestly to teens about both the pleasures and pitfalls of sex if we expect results.

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