This post is an answer to Libby Anne and Dan’s question, “What would you tell teenagers about sex?” This is part of their Forward Thinking project. Answers are being collected in the comments on Libby Anne’s post and on Dan’s blog a week from next Monday.
While the title of this post is the short form of my answer, I should note that it’s more aspirational than descriptive currently. As a society, we (speaking from a U.S. perspective here) tend to treat sex as this thing that is completely outside normal life. The fact that most of us have sex with the rest of the world on the other side of a door means we act like sex happens in another world with rules of its own.
That’s a problem because we act as though all the things we knew on the other side of that door are useless when it comes to sex. They aren’t, of course. Sex is a number of things: (frequently) a social interaction, bodily mechanics, pleasure, risk. We already deal with all of those in the rest of our lives, and we already know plenty about how to deal with them.
Not everything we tell ourselves about social interactions is healthy, of course, but we do better in the general case than we do with sex. We understand better the signals that someone doesn’t respect us or is taking advantage of us. We know when we’re being used and that it’s not okay to use someone else. We understand that we should get something back from relationships we put something into. We know it’s okay to suggest doing things that will meet our needs. We get that people aren’t entitled to our stuff or our time. We understand that it’s okay to shut certain kinds of people out of our lives.
We understand better that we can have different kinds of relationships that meet different kinds of needs. We get that we can have some fun with a person we wouldn’t want to spend a ton of time with. We know that it’s fun to do things with one person we wouldn’t want to do with another, even though we like doing other things with them. We know that other people have relationships we can only shake our heads over because we can’t understand why anyone would want them, but also that our lack of understanding doesn’t mean those relationships don’t work for the people involved. We know that the relationships that suited us in high school may no longer suit us in college or when we leave college or when we “meet someone” or when we have kids–and that it’s not surprising that our needs change as our lives change or as we change. We know that all of this is okay, that there is no one right way for all relationships.
When it comes to bodily mechanics, we understand that our bodies, in general, are supposed to feel good. We know that doing something new may involve some discomfort as we sort things out or that taking on some pain may be reasonable when we have a worthwhile goal, but in general, we know that things are not supposed to hurt. When they do, we know how to deal with it. We have assistive devices. We have concoctions in the pharmacy to make things easier. We have doctors and other specialists. We know that there is no valid shame in getting help.
We also know that not everything people try to sell to us to make our lives less painful or easier are worth paying money for. We know not all of them are even safe. We know we need to do our research. We also know not all doctors are created equal and that ours are either there to help us live better, healthier lives or should be given up for new doctors.
We understand that pleasure is worth having and often worth sharing. We know that the religious proscriptions against pleasure are unhealthy and arbitrarily controlling. We get that small pleasures are no less worthwhile than large pleasures, but also that sometimes pleasure deferred is pleasure magnified. We know that some pleasures are not worth the way they make us feel about ourselves as people or what they cost us otherwise.
We also know that pleasure is used to sell to us. We understand that advertisers work hard to make us unsatisfied with the amount of pleasure we have and the sources from which we receive pleasure. We know that pleasure is sold to us in one-size-fits-all packages that don’t fit many people very well. We get that pleasure can be cheap and fleeting or expensive and lasting or cheap and lasting or expensive and nonexistent, and we don’t always have to make the same choice. We know that we don’t always get the pleasure that the package promises.
We know that everything in life carries risks. We understand that human beings are often terrible at calculating those risks. We know that age and the kind of understanding of risk that helps us make good decisions are well but imperfectly correlated. We get that there are people around us who will push us to take their risks for them or take stupid risks so they won’t feel so stupid when they take risks of their own.
We know that even though we can’t eliminate risk, we can reduce it. We know that knowledge, forethought, and honesty are the best tools we have for managing risk. We understand that we don’t have the right to decide someone else’s risk tolerance for them. We get that we don’t always know all the factors that put someone at special risk. We understand that if we risk passing on a disease, we get informed consent from those at risk before we show up. We understand that sometimes we miss out on some fun while we’re sick.
We understand that even careful people are at risk. We know that bad things happen to good people and that there is no shame when this happens, just a good person in need of some help. We understand that treating a person who lost their roll of the dice poorly won’t change what has already happened.
These are all things we understand so much better when we’re not talking about sex. They still all apply to sex. The only thing that happens when we close that door is that we have a little privacy. Sometimes it may feel out of this world. That doesn’t mean we’ve really traveled to a new place with new rules.