There Is Probably Almost Never A Good Reason To Call Someone “Immature”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “maturity” and “immaturity” again, ever since reading this Captain Awkward column about a person (context suggests that the letter writer is female) whose boyfriend is very close with his ex and supports that ex emotionally all the time. Letter Writer is concerned about this, but the boyfriend dismisses her concerns, saying that his previous girlfriends were “mature” enough to understand his special relationship with his ex.

Among other things, Captain Awkward advises her to make some space for herself–hang out with other people, sleep alone back at home more, etc–and explains:

I say this partly because one of your questions was “Am I not being mature enough?” and I have to tell you that an older man talking to a younger woman about her “maturity” when he’s trying to get her to endorse something that makes her uncomfortable sends a red flag up in my peripheral vision and causes immediate and severe side-eye. Your boyfriend may have good reasons for behaving as he does with M., given their history, but the “I thought you were more mature and could handle it” defense is straight out of the manipulative asshole playbook. If you need a tutorial on how to appropriately react to such patronizing bullshit, here’s Prince:

Prince gives the side-eye and the fuck-you stroll.

(Yes, I had to leave in the Prince gif.)

This got me thinking: is there ever a good reason to tell someone that they are “immature,” or to tell them to be more “mature”? Could calling someone “immature” generally be mean and manipulative at best, abusive at worst?

My earliest memories of this involve my parents calling me “immature” when I was probably 11 or 12 or so. I no longer remember what caused them to say that, but it was probably because I was having “inappropriate” emotions or failing to have “appropriate” emotions, or because I was seeing things in a black-and-white way. (Incidentally, that is something I still do in certain circumstances, usually when I feel threatened and am trying to protect myself. When I feel more safe and secure, I tend to think in a very nuanced way.)

Even as a preadolescent child, I understood that their statements were ridiculous and said more about them than about me. How does it make any sense to call a child “immature”? Compared to whom? How is a child supposed to mature themselves on demand? And if you understand that this is impossible, then why call a child “immature”?

(As you can imagine, some adults adored child-me, and others really didn’t.)

More than anything, these comments felt like a power play, a way to make me feel guilty and wrong without any clear way forward. Supposing there is such a thing as maturity, some of it is clearly based on biological processes that people can’t generally control (develop, prefrontal cortex, damn you!), while other aspects of it are probably based on choices an individual makes and experiences they have as a result. Children can and do make meaningful choices in their own lives, but their lives are also largely determined and constrained by adults with power. If there was something I could’ve done to increase my “maturity,” clearly, I needed to be told. For instance, “When you’re upset at someone, remember that they are as complex a person as you.” Or, “Sometimes you need to take risks to get what you want.” Or whatever. I’m not actually sure what sort of advice 11-year-old me would’ve needed.

An adult calling a child immature is, while completely unhelpful and possibly hurtful, slightly less concerning to me than an adult calling another adult immature, or implying that if the other adult is mature, then they will understand some situation or other. If you’re dating someone that you look down upon as “immature,” why are you dating them? It seems that the only acceptable thing to do is to either 1) say something like “I feel like we’re at different stages in our lives right now” and break it off, or 2) find a way to reframe your partner’s supposedly “immature” traits in a way that isn’t degrading to them. Though I’m not actually sure how to accomplish the second one.

I’m also reminded of a fantastic post by Tumblr user erikalynae:

Gather round kids while I explain this manipulation tactic that men perpetually try to use and why it’s bullshit.  If someone is openly showing interest in you by making disparaging or disappointed comments about your age, they’re trying to put you on the defensive. This guy wants me to try to quell his discomfort, to bring up that I’m only a month shy of 20, etc. - he wants me to try to prove myself to him, that I’m mature and adult enough for a man like him.  His goal is to establish a power imbalance right off the bat. If we were to date, I would constantly be on the defensive, constantly striving to be an equal, constantly trying to prove my “adult” credentials. Anything he says or does or wants from this point on that I object to would just be seen as a strike against my age, proof that he was right and that I’m not mature enough for him. This is how SO MANY men pressure younger individuals (primarily women and girls) into situations and relationships they aren’t comfortable with. If he truly thought I was too young for him, he wouldn’t have messaged me. This is a very calculated move, and it’s fucking gross.  Adult relationships with age gaps are completely fine, but only if all parties view each other as equals. If someone is trying to set you up in a way that ensures that’s never a possibility, run far away.

Gather round kids while I explain this manipulation tactic that men perpetually try to use and why it’s bullshit.

If someone is openly showing interest in you by making disparaging or disappointed comments about your age, they’re trying to put you on the defensive. This guy wants me to try to quell his discomfort, to bring up that I’m only a month shy of 20, etc. – he wants me to try to prove myself to him, that I’m mature and adult enough for a man like him.

His goal is to establish a power imbalance right off the bat. If we were to date, I would constantly be on the defensive, constantly striving to be an equal, constantly trying to prove my “adult” credentials. Anything he says or does or wants from this point on that I object to would just be seen as a strike against my age, proof that he was right and that I’m not mature enough for him. This is how SO MANY men pressure younger individuals (primarily women and girls) into situations and relationships they aren’t comfortable with. If he truly thought I was too young for him, he wouldn’t have messaged me. This is a very calculated move, and it’s fucking gross.

Adult relationships with age gaps are completely fine, but only if all parties view each other as equals. If someone is trying to set you up in a way that ensures that’s never a possibility, run far away.

Although I obviously can’t draw too many conclusions from one advice letter, the boyfriend in the Captain Awkward column really sounds like he’s pulling this exact move. By framing “understanding” or “not understanding” his special connection with his ex as a matter of “maturity,” he forces the letter writer to either dismiss and ignore her own concerns, or adopt the defensive position of trying to prove her own maturity (and therefore the validity of her concerns). Of course, this is a catch-22. I was told all the time as a child that if I feel like I have to “prove” my maturity, that means I’m immature. Clearly, a woman who’s “mature” enough for LW’s boyfriend wouldn’t even be having these concerns! Because she would “understand.”

I do want to note, since people always want to derail things to discuss the specific example, that it’s entirely possible that LW really is being unreasonable about her boyfriend’s ex. But I don’t think so. It sounds like her boyfriend’s ex needs professional help, and it sounds like her boyfriend’s ex is really taking up a lot of her boyfriend’s time and this isn’t just Some Silly Jealousy Thing.

Regardless, there is a way for the boyfriend to frame this in a better and less red-flaggy way: “I need a partner who will be okay with the fact that I have an ex that I’m very close with and support emotionally.” There. That’s it. Anyone who will not be okay with this will not be a good partner for him. It doesn’t matter if it’s because she’s “immature” or “needy” or “jealous” or judgmental about mental illness or just someone who wants a lot of time and dependability in a relationship. It literally doesn’t matter. Everyone gets to have their needs, and everyone gets to have their boundaries.

Too often the word “immature” becomes a way to vent one’s frustrations with a child or partner or whatever without actually having to state what the issue is or provide any way for it to be resolved. A child who gets anxious and cries when it’s time for school isn’t anxious, they’re “immature.” A partner who has different priorities than you in their life right now isn’t having different priorities in their life right now, they’re “immature.” If your partner were “mature,” then they would understand you and your needs and be able to work with them. If your child were “mature,” they wouldn’t be causing you problems.

If you feel the urge to tell someone in your life that they’re being immature, try tabooing that word first–it may lead to a more productive conversation. But more important than the words you choose is acknowledging that people behaving in ways that are inconvenient for you doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

Do Children Matter?

[Content note: child abuse]

Someone posting in a Facebook group–doesn’t matter who or which group, since they were merely voicing an opinion held by many–said that censoring high school graduation speeches is acceptable because “I just don’t think people that age are mature enough to have free speech.”

(I will say that it was a group related to humanism, and I’m not sure what the fuck kind of humanist accepts the denial of constitutional rights to entire classes of people.  Not my kind, at any rate.)

There are two issues to discuss here, one surface-level and one a little deeper. I’ll dispatch the surface-level issue first.

I actually do think that there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in high schools, just as there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in certain spaces for adults, such as colleges and workplaces. The best argument I can think of is that these spaces need to promote certain goals and functions, and free speech, while a very important part of our public life in general, can quickly overwhelm these goals and functions. The creation of a safe learning/working environment is more important than letting everyone say exactly what’s on their mind all the time. However, that has nothing to do with “maturity” and everything to do with the particular goals of particular spaces.

First of all, what is “maturity”? Do people suddenly obtain it on their 18th birthday? Are all adults “mature”? If not, should they also be denied their First Amendment rights? How will we determine who is “mature”? Should people with developmental disabilities be denied First Amendment rights? Should people who have demonstrated a lack of impulse control (a potential marker of immaturity)? Should a 30-year-old who goes to wild parties every night and gets drunk and can’t hold down a job be denied First Amendment rights? Should everyone be required to take a maturity examination before they are permitted to exercise rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution? What would that examination entail? An interview? A neurological test?

I am not a constitutional scholar, but note that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans a similar concept, literacy tests for would-be voters, and that legislation has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

So hopefully that complicates this question of “maturity” at least a little bit.

The whole point of rights is that they’re not just for people we like or agree with. They’re not just for the people who have their lives together and always think rationally and critically. They’re not just for adults, or just for white people, or just for Christians. They’re not just for people whose brains work the way we think people’s brains should work. Rights are rights because they are for everyone, especially the people you don’t agree with.

Now on to the thornier part of this discussion, which is this: the attitude displayed by this person towards children and adolescents is very common, and very harmful.

It harms in several ways. One is that engaged, altruistic, passionate adults do not generally develop (at least not easily) from ignored, insulted, condescended-to children. If we tell children that they have nothing of worth to say or contribute until their 18th birthday, believe me, they will not wake up that morning with a sudden desire to write letters to the editor, vote, volunteer, and generally speak up for what’s right. They will be insecure and trapped by impostor syndrome. Not a recipe for an active citizenry.

Oh, I’m sure you’ll say that you hang up all your child’s artistic creations on the fridge and forward their best book reports to Grandma and Grandpa, but let me ask you this: do you think your child has important and insightful observations to make about politics, culture, ethics, art, literature? If your child said something with which you disagree, would you engage them in a spirited debate, or would you shut them down with “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Aww, that’s nice, sweetie”? If your child has criticisms to make about the way they receive their education, or about the extracurricular activities they participate in or the house or neighborhood in which they live, do you actually listen to them and see if there’s any way that the adults in your child’s life (including you) could be doing better?

If you’re reading this and you have children, chances are you do all that stuff, because you’re great. But do most American adults?

At this point someone will usually say “But what if my child says that they are morally opposed to eating vegetables or doing homework or having a bedtime see I can’t possibly take my child’s ideas seriously.” Here’s the thing, though. Even adults sometimes (often) say things that are totally unreasonable. If you truly respect another person and value their thoughts, you can engage their totally unreasonable opinions with reasoned debate. Obviously, In The Real World, we don’t always respect other people and value their thoughts, and that’s (broadly speaking) fine. But you should respect your children and value their thoughts. You can also take this opportunity to model good critical thinking and argumentation skills, by engaging their opinions respectfully and directly.

And I know that parenting is hard and you can’t be a good parent 100% of the time and sometimes you will say “Not now honey” or “That’s nice” because you’re exhausted and juggling 100 things and that’s how it is. I’m not giving parenting advice. I’m absolutely not here to judge who is a Good Parent and who is a Bad Parent. I’m simply offering a reframe. Children saying silly things doesn’t mean that they are silly people. You can engage silly ideas seriously, and thus send the message to your children that 1) backing up one’s arguments with evidence and reason is important, and 2) their arguments are important enough to be met with kind counter-arguments, not outright dismissal and condescension.

Ah, but do I have children, you may ask. No, I do not. I helped raise two children, though, and I carried those children out of a wrecked car and over broken glass once (no, I did not cause the accident), and I taught one of those children to speak, and right now I’m living at home and engaging in all sorts of serious intellectual discussions with those children on the daily. Today I had a discussion with a 13-year-old about the ethics of business, or, why ripping off other children to get nice Pokemon cards for cheap is wrong. This weekend I had a discussion with a 10-year-old about police brutality and racism. Given our privileges and where we live, it’s very possible that I have been, and will remain for some time, the only person to directly address racism with her.

I was also very recently a child. Probably not many of you reading this can remember your own childhood as well as I do. I was a very lucky child because my parents have always endeavored to send me the message that my thoughts are valuable, no matter how old I was. Yes, sure, they sometimes engaged in a bit of condescension, for which I usually called them out and sometimes won the resulting argument. But the fact that there was an argument, and not a “That’s just how it is,” is what matters.

More importantly still, my parents basically lived the whole idea of “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” You would probably be surprised to know that although they (probably) don’t even read this blog and (probably) wouldn’t agree with a word on it, they have tirelessly encouraged me to pursue writing professionally, to publish more and more widely, to speak publicly, to ask for payment and recognition. It never seemed to occur to my parents that just because I sometimes said something foolish meant that I shouldn’t have spoken at all.

As a child, I was often stung by my parents’ quick criticism, their rush to ask me for evidence and examples and clarity. I can’t say that it was always easy or pleasant. But I always knew that they loved and valued me. And moreover, that constant process probably contributed to the strength of my writing now.

Perhaps as a result of this aspect of my upbringing, I was editing my high school literary magazine at 16, writing a monthly column for a print newspaper at 17, and publishing in campus magazines and newspapers starting at 18. I started my first blog at 12, as soon as blogs became a thing. And I don’t mean an online diary, although I’d encourage people of all ages to do that to build their writing and communication skills. I mean, I was blogging about politics and society. At 17, I was trained in pro-Israel activism (I used to be a conservative; it went away) and used those skills online–the same skills I now use in the service of the causes I now support. At 18, I started this blog. At 21, my writing first started to go viral online, and that’s when I was invited to join FtB. At 22, I gave my first solo conference talk. (SSACon! W00t!) At 23, I started freelancing professionally.

None of this would’ve happened if the closest adults in my life had not said to me, directly and indirectly, over and over, that my voice matters. It mattered when I was 12. It matters now at 24. It will matter when I’m old and nobody thinks I’m pretty anymore. Maybe it will even matter after I’m gone.

Most children don’t have all the privileges I have that contributed to my ability to put my opinions out there like that. Moreover, not all of them have adults in their lives who encourage them to speak, and who hear them when they do.

And yet, even now, at 24, I hear constantly of how useless and naive and dumb people my age are. You’ve seen the tired millennial-bashing thinkpieces. Despite two degrees and a list of professional accomplishments and leadership positions that’s too long for a standard resume, people who are older constantly talk down to me as though I’m, well, a child. Their child, someone else’s child, doesn’t matter. I’ve thought (not too seriously, but still) about quitting writing publicly plenty of times, and it was almost never because of the violent threats and harassment I receive, although that sucked. It was usually because someone on my own “side” (ha, not really) made me feel like I was worthless and my thoughts are too. (There was one particularly horrid incident where a man insisted over and over, in an increasingly abusive fashion, that I should not write a blog post about a particular topic because, despite my degree in the fucking field, I was not qualified. I must’ve cried. I don’t cry about the internet a lot. I don’t really cry a lot at all.)

If that’s my experience, imagine the experience of young people of color, young trans people, young people from a poor background, young recent immigrants, young people who could not access university education.

We do not, as a society, value our young people. You may think we’re sexy (the white, gender-conforming, able-bodied ones, anyway), you might love it when we spend money on your products, you might love having a few of us at your events to make them seem hip and cool, but you do not value us.

Now for the most difficult and painful part, and that is this: when we do not value young people’s voices and experiences, we create a culture where child abuse is rampant.

This is always the hardest point to defend because adults immediately start telling me all about how they abhor child abuse and how dare I suggest otherwise.

Of course you abhor it. I’m sorry if I suggested otherwise. I am confident that if you believe that a child is being abused, you would do the right thing and notify the authorities.

But would you believe that the child is being abused?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their mom (your friend from the PTA, who’s always so friendly and nice) couldn’t possibly do such a thing?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their coach, who always finds you after the game and tells you what a great team player your son is, would never do that?

If we tell children that their experiences don’t matter and adults are always right, why would they even bother to accuse an adult of doing something so wrong?

If we tell children that they’ll understand when they’re older, why wouldn’t they just shrug and try to cope until it stops?

If we tell children that they are not mature enough to be granted one of their constitutional rights, which they learn about in school, which other rights will they assume they don’t deserve?

When will we start to matter? When we turn 18? When we turn 21? When we get married and have kids? When we pass your mandatory maturity exam? When we have stable jobs with benefits and 401(k)s? When we’ve paid off all our loans? (That day may never come for me, thanks to people who are much older and wiser than me.) When a neurological test shows that our brain is no longer developing? (You realize that brains continue to grow and change for our whole lives, right?)

Do any of these sound like rational, just standards by which to judge whether or not someone’s opinions matter?

I commit to doing a better job of listening to children, starting with the ones in my house. Their intellectual and moral development is more important than me getting to feel superior about myself.

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Why Kindergartners Need Sex Education

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot takes “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton to task for her assertion that children do not need sex education, especially not in schools. 

College may be too late to effectively change the deep-seated attitudes that some people, especially men, learn about sex and other people’s bodies. That’s what makes early sex education so vital. Patton seems to draw a false distinction between sex education and teaching children not to touch people’s bodies without their consent:

I think what we’re talking about here is body awareness or bullying or verbal harassment or recognize what somebody else’s space is and don’t violate it and don’t touch it, and keep your hands to yourself. This isn’t sex ed, these are manners.

Teaching children about consent does not necessitate describing sex and rape to them in graphic detail, and nobody is actually suggesting that we do this. In fact, “developmentally appropriate” is a term that gets used a lot in these discussions, and while it can be a slippery concept to define, it’s clearly being taken seriously by advocates of early childhood sex education.

Teaching consent does necessitate explaining to children that only they get to say who can touch their body, and that it is wrong to touch someone else’s body without asking them first. Parents can model this in a number of ways, even with very young children—for instance, by asking them if they would like to be tickled, stopping immediately if the child says to stop, refraining from forcing their child to hug or kiss relatives, and reminding the child to ask other children before hugging or touching them.

However, it’s not enough to hope that parents will do this. Although Patton claims that this type of education has no place in schools, not all parents agree that they should teach it, either—and, crucially, not all parents have the capability to provide the frequent supervision and feedback that it might entail. Some parents are single parents. Some work two jobs.

This is where schools come in: teaching children the things they need to know to eventually become responsible, capable adults. In this regard, respect for consent and bodily autonomy is as important a lesson as reading and writing. Without it, there is no way to be an ethical person.

Read the rest here.

Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]*

My Daily Dot piece about Lena Dunham went up yesterday, but I was out walking 14 miles of Manhattan so I didn’t have time to link it here. This was published before Dunham released her statement, which partially (but not nearly entirely) addresses some of my concerns.

Lena Dunham’s recently released memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has stirred up a lot of controversy, and probably not the controversy that Dunham hoped to stir up.

Several passages in the book detail the Girls creator and actress’ childhood sexual experimentation with her sister, Grace, who is six years younger. After a conservative writer quoted the passages and accused Dunham of sexual abuse, the internet exploded.

The passages describe Lena Dunham playing with her sister’s vagina when Dunham was seven and her sister was one year old. She also writes about bribing her sister with candy so that she could kiss her on the lips and masturbating in bed next to her. Their mother was aware of at least some of the behavior, but apparently didn’t think much of it. “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” she writes. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”

Not all of Dunham’s critics have been conservative columnists, however. Many women, especially women of color, have been active on Twitter, discussing the passages and how they exemplify the abuse that others have faced in childhood. These critics have started a hashtag called #DropDunham, calling on Planned Parenthood to end its partnership with her:

Meanwhile, others think there’s nothing wrong with Dunham’s actions:

 

[…]Did Lena Dunham abuse her sister? That depends on a lot of things, some of which we may not know without getting more information. However, there are a number of things about Dunham’s behavior as she describes it herself that bring up red flags.

Read the rest here.

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*Although I personally avoided definitively labeling Lena Dunham’s actions as child sexual abuse, I included this content note out of respect for those who consider it such and find it triggering.

Stop Asking Women If They’re Going To Have Kids

I wrote an article at the Daily Dot about Jennifer Aniston’s response to being asked about having children, and why you should stop asking women this question.

The Internet—and universe at large—may be very concerned about whether or not Jennifer Aniston is planning on having children, but she’s not. In an interview on Today this past week, Aniston opened up about constantly being asked about kids. She said:

I don’t have this sort of checklist of things that have to be done, and…if they’re not checked, then I’ve failed some part of my feminism or my being a woman or my worth and my value as a woman because I haven’t birthed a child….I’ve birthed a lot of things, and I feel like I’ve mothered many things….And I don’t feel like it’s fair to put that pressure on people.

Aniston is not alone in dealing with these sorts of questions. Many adult women, famous and not, field them. If we’re unmarried, we’re asked if we aren’t worried about the “biological clock.” If we’re married, we’re asked when there are going to be kids.

It’s a common question to ask, but it’s a subject so deeply personal and intrusive that I’m amazed so many people still think it’s appropriate to ask about. What are the potential answers there? “Yes, I want children, but I haven’t met someone that I could have them with?” “Yes, I want children, but it’s medically impossible for me?” “Yes, I want children, but I can’t afford it?” “Yes, I want children, and I’m trying to conceive?” “No, I don’t want children?”

The latter is true for some women, but if we say it directly, we just open ourselves up to more questions. “Why not?” “How could a woman not want children?” “But what will your husband say?” “So what are you going to do with your life?” “Why are you so selfish?”

But those who do want children and say so must then reveal either intimate details about their sex lives (“We’re trying”) or other personal information that they shouldn’t feel obligated to disclose (“I can’t conceive” or “My finances aren’t really conducive to that right now”).

It’s not surprising, then, that celebrity women often have to tiptoe around this question. For instance, Aniston didn’t say in her interview whether or not she wants children or wished she’d had them.

What she did say, though, cleverly subverted the intent of the original question while framing it as unfair to ask. Aniston noted that she hasn’t “failed” at being a woman by not having children and that she’s created many other things—perhaps instead of having children. And while the trope of the woman who compensates for not having children by putting everything into her career is pervasive and negative, it’s important to note that different things are fulfilling for different people. From her wording, it’s clear that the things Aniston has spent her life doing have been meaningful.

Read the rest here.

Learning Sexuality: Children, Marketing, and Sexualized Products

[Content note: sex, child sexualization, child molestation and rape]

I’ve been depressed lately so writing has been difficult. (Here’s more about that if you’re curious.) Hopefully this isn’t the only thing I’ll be able to produce for the next few weeks.

~~~

Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.

Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.

Both of these things may be true, but I’ve noticed that many people of a progressive persuasion often have trouble entertaining both of these ideas at the same time.

That is, whenever someone is claiming one of these, someone always appears to argue the other one as though they disprove each other. If someone says, “You know, it’s really sketchy that they sell pole dancing kits for little girls,” someone will inevitably counter, “So you’re saying there’s something wrong with girls expressing their sexuality? You’re slut-shaming.” If someone says, “We shouldn’t prevent children from exploring sexuality safely,” someone will respond, “Yeah well they only want to explore it because the mainstream media is teaching them inappropriate things.”

Much has already been written and researched about the sexualization of childhood (particularly girlhood). One study suggests that almost a third of girls’ clothing may be sexualized. The American Psychological Association released a report on it in 2007 and discussed some of the negative effects of sexualization. And, of course, commentary abounds and you can easily find it online.

Are some of the critical responses to sexualized children’s toys and clothing prompted by, as counter-critics love to allege, “prudishness”? Probably some of them. But that’s not all there is to it.

First of all, as the APA report suggests, increased sexualization of girls can have negative consequences for individuals and for society. But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for discovering one’s sexuality through experimentation and exploration rather than by looking at commercials and magazines to see what other people (supposedly) do. Many of us grow up with images of what sexiness and sexuality is that later turn out to have absolutely no resonance for us. It’s a particular facial expression, a particular way of dressing, a particular procedure for hooking up and getting off, a particular move or strategy or “trick” to get a potential partner interested.

Eventually, some people unlearn some of these things and decide which of them really feel sexy and which don’t. For instance, some of the things I think are sexy are pretty “normative,” such as high heels and PIV intercourse. Other things that have been presented to me as sexy by my surrounding culture, though, I do not still think are sexy, such as men who ignore my boundaries, falling into bed together without having to say a word, and long straight hair. Some things that I think are sexy are things that have generally been presented to me as decidedly unsexy, such as asking for consent before kissing, having upper body muscles, and women who are dominant rather than submissive.

But some people don’t really question what they find sexy and why, and end up having a sexuality that’s pretty close to what they’ve seen advertised. And some of them are totally happy with that. But others are not, and they never really realize that they have other options.

Cliff Pervocracy once wrote about the experience of realizing that a particular pornographic image with which we’re all familiar isn’t necessarily how everyone likes to do it:

Rowdy and I watched porn together last night.  Because Rowdy is a gentle soul in ways I am not, I tend to watch hardcore kinky porn and he tends to watch porn of real couples having sweet lovey sex.  We were watching his porn.

The woman in the video had sex the way I do.  When she was on top, she didn’t pump her whole body up and down, she just moved her hips rhythmically.  And she didn’t stay on top forever going poundpoundpound like a champ; she did it for a few minutes and then switched positions.  I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a woman in porn do that.

The part that blew my mind: the guy in the video was way into that.  And Rowdy was way into that. And it was in porn, which gave it the official stamp of People Think This Is A Sexy Thing.  I was astonished, because I always thought wiggling my hips on top meant I was incompetent at sex.  I thought you were supposed to bounce full-length on a guy until he came, and since my thigh muscles can’t do that, I thought I was too weak to do me-on-top sex correctly.  It was amazing to see people accepting a less athletic method as a totally valid, hot way to have sex.  Hell, it was amazing just to find out that I wasn’t the only person on Earth who has sex that way.

Kids are probably not going to be exposed to hardcore pornography, of course, but they get exposed to other messages about what normative sexuality is, such as high heels and makeup, female passivity, and, apparently, pole dancing.

Aggressively marketing particular sexualized products or behaviors to little kids means that they are that much more likely to grow up with the idea that that’s how you do sexuality. It gives them that much less room to discover for themselves what’s fun and pleasurable as they become old enough to try it.

But the problem with this whole situation goes beyond people growing up forced into little boxes of sexual expression. Namely, there is a terrible and dangerous hypocrisy here. Adults create ads and marketing campaigns that persuade little girls to want pole dancing kits and t-shirts with sexy messages on them, and adults make horrible assumptions about the girls on whom this marketing works. It’s a rare case of molestation or statutory rape in which some source doesn’t claim that the female victim dressed “older than her age” or “seemed very sexually mature.”

Every bit of me just rages and rages when I read these things. We have people who are paid more money than most working adults will ever see to manipulate girls and their parents into wanting and buying these things, and then we blame these girls for being preyed on by adults who ascribe to them an awareness that they probably cannot have yet.

First of all (not that this needs to be said), statutory rape is wrong no matter how sexually mature a child is. (I’m not talking about those “grey areas” where one person is 17 and the other is 19 or whatever. I’m talking about those cases where the victim is 10 and the predator is 45, for instance.) But regardless, when little girls wear “revealing” clothes or put on lots of makeup or dance in a “suggestive” way (whatever that even means), they’re almost definitely not doing it because they literally want to have sex with someone. They’re probably doing it more because it’s been presented to them as a fun and exciting thing to do, something older girls do, something that just you’re supposed to do as a girl. It’s adults who interpret children’s exploration as necessarily sexual, or as a sign of sexual maturity. Just as adults freak out when they catch little kids playing with their genitals (or with a friend’s). They assume that just because it’s an expression of sexual desire when they do it, it must mean the same thing when children do it.

Of course, there’s nothing anyone, even an adult, can say or do that guarantees sexual interest, short of clearly saying so or initiating sexual activity. Little girls in miniskirts aren’t “asking for it” and neither are adult women in miniskirts. Or boys or men or gender-nonconforming folks in miniskirts, for that matter.

If we’re going to relentlessly market these types of clothing and toys to children, we need to stop making gross assumptions about “what it means” when a child wears those clothes or plays with those toys. It means nothing. It means that marketers know what they’re doing. It means that dressing up or dancing and shaking your butt can be fun. It means that kids enjoy exploring their bodies and what they can do or look like. It means nothing.

I’ve spent most of this post critiquing the marketing of sexualized stuff to children, but it’s also worth talking more about the other half of the false dichotomy I presented at the beginning. I think a lot of the panic about children doing “sexual” things is caused by what I just mentioned–adults’ (mis)interpretations of what that means. It’s also caused by general prudery and “but I don’t want my kid to grow up and do grown-up things!” Incidentally, very little of the panic about childhood sexuality seems to focus on the fact that children sometimes do (and are encouraged to do, particularly if they’re male) nonconsensual things, but sometimes that does happen and sometimes adults do (justifiably) worry about it.

Being neither a developmental psychologist nor a parent, I can’t tell you what is and is not appropriate for a child in terms of sexuality. In fact, I don’t think any developmental psychologist or parent could give you a definitive answer to that, either, and don’t believe them if they say they can. Things like this will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, because children develop at different rates and have different levels of understanding and awareness of their own urges and desires. But I want to legitimize the idea of letting children discover their own sexuality without being shamed or punished for it.

Further, the fact that children’s expressions of sexuality may be strongly influenced by what they see in the media does not mean those expressions are Wrong or Bad, or should be curtailed (necessarily). First of all, they will probably feel very “real” to the child, just as passivity and silence used to genuinely feel sexy to me. Second, you can’t strong-arm someone into discovering what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Telling a little girl that thongs are bad and she should never wear one or want one isn’t going to get her to think, “Hm, I probably only wanted the thong because I saw it in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and I really want to be pretty like the lady in the commercial.”

It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by one’s sociocultural context. Everyone changes and adapts to that context. (Yes, even you, hypothetical person who thinks you’re above all this.) So kids will always pick up on cues in their environment about how they should act. The problem is that, right now, sexualized images and products are being purposefully marketed to kids who are probably too young to even have the desires we associate with those images and products. Case in point: we think of pole dancing as something women do to arouse straight men, and even though it’s something that people now often do for fun or exercise, that’s still often going to be the meaning we ascribe to it. Do you really think a four-year-old has any understanding of what it means to turn a man on, or any desire to do so?

The problem is also that the range of sexualities that kids will encounter in the media, and in marketing specifically, is extremely narrow. Since sexuality is something that develops partially in response to what the developing person sees around them, this gives them a very short menu to choose from. Some may not ever realize that there are tons of other, longer, more interesting menus out there.

~~~

Note: There are a bunch of issues that I’m aware of but didn’t have space to discuss in this post, such as the even greater sexualization of children of color, the invisibility of queer and asexual expressions in this whole marketing/advertising bullshit, the fact that boys and girls are both impacted by this but in different ways, and so on. Future posts?

Touching People Without Their Consent: Still A Problem Even If It’s Not Sexual

Since I’m always blathering on about consent, including consent in non-sexual situations, I’ve noticed a common belief that a lot of people have. It can basically be summed up like so:

  • If you’re interacting with someone sexually, you need their consent. (Duh.)
  • If you’re interacting with someone of the gender to which you’re generally attracted (i.e. you’re a straight man interacting with a woman), you should be careful and get their consent before you touch them.
  • BUT! If you’re interacting with someone of a gender to which you’re not attracted, or you’re interacting with a family member or a friend and so the situation is, in any case, “not sexual,” THEN you don’t need their consent and you should feel free to hug them, touch them on the shoulder, or even grope them “as a joke.”

The reason this is on my mind right now are two articles, and my life in general.

One article is by Ginny over on the Polyskeptic blog. She recounts a disturbing incident in which another woman wanted to get a better look at the tattoo on the back of Ginny’s shoulder and proceeded to lift up the strap of her tank top in order to do so–without consent. A man nearby told the woman off, but she responded that it’s “just the shoulder” and “I just really like tattoos.” And then:

But something the guy said, or maybe just the way I was sitting there rigidly instead of turning around to engage in friendly conversation made the woman realize she was maybe being a tad inappropriate, so she let go of my clothes and patted me soothingly on the arm and said some half-apologetic patter. To which I didn’t really respond because I was still in my “I am so weirded out right now and your soothing pat is STILL YOU TOUCHING ME” frozen zone. And I think by this point she got that I was really uncomfortable, so she broke out the magic words to make it all better: “It’s okay honey, I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean, I like men, ha ha.”

She didn’t realize that which gender(s) she happens to be attracted to is completely irrelevant.

The other piece is on Role/Reboot, and is written by a gay man who witnessed the following scene:

Last Thursday night as I was coming home from work, I noticed a fellow gay man who I have seen around Washington, D.C., at various nightclubs and bars. As we both entered onto the metro, we sat in seats relatively close to a young woman. The woman, who appeared tired, smiled at both of us and put headphones in her ears. In D.C., this is usually a plea to subtly ask someone to allow you to reach your destination in peace without being disturbed. Since I understood this unwritten transit rule, I respected it and pulled out an article to read. Unfortunately, my brethren took this as an invitation to engage in a one-way conversation.

Slowly moving into the seat next to her—despite no one else occupying his space—he began touching her clothing and body and commenting on the “fit” of her dress. Then he proceeded to touch her hair since he “loved how long her locks were” and “wished he had hair like hers.” Unamused by his male privilege and what he considered to be compliments, she politely said thank you and asked if he could quit touching her.

Obviously not appreciating this young’s woman rejection of his “compliments,” he immediately referred to her as a “bitch,” and told her “it’s not like I want to have sex with you—I’m gay.”

Of course, women are not the only victims of this. On the June 14 episode of Citizen Radio, Jamie Kilstein recounts a scene he witnessed on the subway in which two white women–clearly tourists–sat next to a Black man who had headphones on. They tried to talk to him, but he either didn’t hear or ignored them (reasonable in New York City). So one of the women put her hand on his knee and made a comment about it being a “tight squeeze” on the subway, and he immediately responded, “Don’t touch me.” There didn’t seem to be anything sexual about the situation, but that doesn’t make the woman’s behavior any less inappropriate. (While I don’t want to read too much into this, it definitely makes me think about the entitlement that many white people feel to touch Black people, especially their hair.)

A slightly different but similar thing happens with friends and family. People–especially children–are often shamed and guilt-tripped for choosing not to show physical affection for family members, even ones they do not know well or necessarily feel comfortable around. The assumption here is that being someone’s family member entitles you to physical affection from them, just like being someone’s partner entitles you to sex from them. While plenty of people hold one of these assumptions but not the other (generally the first but not the second), they are cut from the same cloth. And that cloth is the belief that social ties entail a duty to provide physical affection, and that if you do not provide it, you are being a bad friend/child/sibling/partner/etc.

How does this relate to the three stories I linked to? Well, many people apparently believe that once you take sexual attraction out of the equation, there’s absolutely no reason for someone to be uncomfortable with being touched (in nonsexual ways). If a gay man sits next to me on the train and starts touching me, I have to be okay with that because he’s not interested in me that way. If a straight woman starts lifting up my clothes to see parts of my body that I covered up, I have to be okay with that because she’s not interested in me that way. If a family member wants a hug and a kiss from me, I have to provide them because, well, obviously it’s not “like that.”

(False, by the way. While I am fortunate to never have experienced incest, plenty of people have.)

For starters, I’m really glad that some people have realized that you shouldn’t touch strangers without their consent if there’s a possibility that you’re sexually attracted to those strangers. But why can’t we expand that to people of all genders, whether you’re attracted to them or not?

There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with being touched, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person touching them. Some people have triggers as a result of past trauma. Some people just don’t know your intentions because they don’t know you or your sexual orientation, so they don’t know if you’re a friendly stranger expressing physical affection because…I don’t know, you like to do that? or if you’re someone who intends to harass and/or assault them. And, most importantly, some people–many people, I’m sure–just want to be left the hell alone by strangers. Sometimes being touched by someone you don’t know is just unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable.

Furthermore, if we accept “but I’m not even into [your gender]” as an excuse for nonconsensual touching by well-meaning folks, that also leaves it open as an excuse for actual predators to use.

Your desire to touch someone sexually or nonsexually for whatever reason does not outweigh their desire not to be touched. It doesn’t matter why they don’t want to be touched; that’s their business. Just like you wouldn’t touch a bag or a purse that belongs to someone else, don’t touch a body that belongs to someone else–which, by definition, is every body except your own.

Teachers Can Be Bullies, Too

[Content note: bullying]

There’s a beautiful video that’s been making the rounds on the internet. It’s an animated version of a spoken word piece called “To This Day,” in which Canadian poet Shane Koyczan retells his own experiences with childhood bullying–and, really, so much more. Here it is.

The video really resonated with me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own experiences with bullying, even though they actually had little resemblance to the stories told in this video. Although I was definitely picked on and called names by other kids at times, for the most part my tormentors were not children. They were adults. Specifically, teachers.

Teacher bullying is its own beast that can’t be addressed the same way as peer bullying, and likely has different causes. The teachers who bullied me seemed like they hated children. They seemed jaded about their jobs. Although I was often accused as a child of “thinking only of myself,” I picked up on this pretty quickly and I sympathized to some extent.

I think the reason they hated me especially was because, as a gifted, socially awkward kid, I asked for more attention than they probably felt I deserved. Once in fifth grade we were doing an art project in class and I wanted to find out if there were any other colors of construction paper available, so I asked my teacher. She burst out in front of the class, “You’re just trying to make my life difficult, aren’t you!” I still remember that, standing in front of the supply closet with her and being accused of somehow scheming to make things hard for her. By asking for another color of paper.

My 7th grade English teacher despised me for some unknown reason. Unfortunately (or fortunately) my memory seems to have blocked out whatever it was that she did, but I remember being terrified of going up and asking her questions, and I remember crying in the bathroom during lunch a lot because of something she’d said to me. If I wanted to, I could probably go back and reread my journal from that year and give you specific examples, but honestly, I’d rather not.

My 8th grade algebra teacher had a hobby of arbitrarily calling me out for no particular reason and accusing me of doing something wrong. She was lecturing once and I was taking notes in my binder. At one point I flipped over a sheet of paper because I’d filled it up, and she suddenly stops the lecture and goes, “Miriam, what are you doing?” My seat was in the back corner of the room, so naturally everyone turned and stared at me. I was older, more defiant by then. I looked right back at her and calmly said, “I was turning a page in my binder.” With no further comment (or apology), she went back to her lecture.

Of course, if these were just isolated incidents, it wouldn’t be bullying; it’d just be teachers lashing out and acting inappropriately. But they weren’t. Such incidents are the legacy of my middle school years.

I wasn’t the only one, either. I noticed other kids being bullied by teachers; some of my friends were among them. The terrifying thing is that a lot of anti-bullying measures focus on getting bystanders to intervene. Useful advice, perhaps, when other kids are the bullies. What about when it’s a teacher who grades your assignments too? Who could just as easily turn on you?

The sad thing about this is that initially, as a kid, I trusted and enjoyed talking to adults way more than I did my peers. I was always the kid who would rather corner some houseguest of my parents’ with a conversation about black holes or animals than sit at the kids’ table and listen to some boring conversation about Britney Spears or who had a crush on who or whatever.

But over time my negative experiences with adults began to outweigh the positive ones. When I was not mocked or falsely accused of imaginary classroom transgressions by my teachers, I was condescended to and treated like I was years younger than I really was–or felt. The fact is that kids of the same age vary widely in their emotional and intellectual development, and treating them all like they’re inept and immature is unfair.

(In fact, the condescension generally continues to this day, even as I’m 22 and about to graduate from college. It is almost impossible to have a conversation with someone more than a decade older than me that does not end up being implicitly or explicitly about my age, because nearly all the older adults I meet seem to be convinced that I need nothing more than their unsolicited advice and protection. Although this sort of thing tends to have very good intentions behind it, the assumption that children and young people are unable to make decisions for themselves and desperately need guidance is harmful overall. The more involved I get in online activism, the more older adults I meet who treat me with respect, but it’s difficult to forget the fact that for most of my life, adults outside of my family were often condescending or even cruel.)

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. So many people bear scars much worse than mine. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, sometimes from family members, are terrifyingly common among children.

Bullying is tragic no matter who the targets and bullies are. But I’d say it’s even worse when the very people who are charged with educating children and helping them feel safe and accepted at school are the ones perpetrating it. In fact, in our education system teachers are often expected to impart morals to children, too. I remember the “character building” exercises and the lectures about treating others fairly and with respect. What a brutal irony that was, coming from teachers who shamed me in front of my peers for daring to ask a question or just for being different.

I have many wonderful friends who plan to become teachers. I trust that they’ll be good ones. But at this point I just want to say this: if you’re planning on being a teacher and there’s any doubt in your mind that you’ll be able to handle the frustrations of the job without taking them out on children, please find a different career. If you are a teacher and find yourself snapping at kids because you’re so burned out, please find a different career.

This is too important a job to do poorly. Children are too dependent on the validation of adults, too sensitive to the massive power differential that exists between them and adults, to always be able to just brush off your stinging words. It’s unfair to put that responsibility on them.

[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke are doing this cool thing called Forward Thinking where people blog about values. This week’s question is, what would you tell teenagers about sex?

I have a lot of perspectives on this. As a teenager, I wasn’t really told anything about sex–good or bad. A few things, sure. I picked up a lot from the surrounding culture but by that point in my life I’d learned to be extremely skeptical of anything I see on TV or hear from a classmate.

The beginning of what I would tell teenagers about sex would actually be to teach them from early childhood to practice that sort of skepticism. It saved me from what I can only imagine would’ve been years of either feeling shame about my sexuality, getting into sexual situations I didn’t really want, or both.

But skepticism only gets you so far, and sometimes it can take you much too far–as soon as you start questioning people’s lived experiences and demanding to see proof, you should know you’ve wandered into hyperskepticism.

Besides that, it’s unreasonable to expect teens to seek out everything they need to know all about sex on their own. If I’m ever in charge of any teens, there are things I’d want them to know right off the bat. So, here–starting with the most obvious and then wandering into what’s probably less obvious–is what I would tell teenagers about sex.

Ask first. Consent is hot, assault is not.

Credit: The New School

1. Basic health and safety stuff.

How to use condoms, dental dams, and Plan B. How to obtain and use hormonal birth control. What IUDs are. How pregnancy works and what options you have if you become pregnant. What STIs are, how they are transmitted, and how to tell if you have one. What sorts of medical exams you need to get, and how often. How to find a gyno.

(This is where most non-abstinence-only sex ed seems to end.)

2. Sexual ethics.

A lot of things fit into this, starting with consent. Teens should know how to ask for consent and tell whether or not it has been given. They should also know how to communicate their own consent. They should understand that coercion is wrong; if someone doesn’t want to do something with you, stop asking. They should know how to discuss sexual and relational preferences, as well as STIs and other factors that affect sexual decision-making. They should know that cheating is wrong, but seeing multiple people with the consent of everyone involved is just fine.

3. Sexual harassment and assault.

As unpleasant and scary it will be for teens to hear about this, it’s something they need to understand. Sadly, there’s a good chance they do already, either from personal experience or hearing about it in the media. Teens should know what harassment and assault are, that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender upon anyone of any gender, that there’s nothing you can do to cause sexual assault except sexually assaulting someone, and what options and resources there are for someone who’s been assaulted. They should also know about the cultural factors (victim-blaming, alcohol, gender roles, etc.) that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault and what they can do to help reduce them. They should know when and how to safely intervene if they think someone is about to violate someone’s else’s boundaries.

4. You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy.

Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t.

Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.

4. Sexual/gender diversity.

I think it’s important for kids to know and understand the different ways in which humans experience gender and sexuality. Although it’s obviously impossible to be exhaustive with this, I would talk to young teens about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual; being trans*; being asexual; being intersex. Once they’re older, I would talk to them about kink and polyamory. Giving names to what might be their own desires will help them come to terms with their own experience and find like-minded people, but even if they turn out to be the most straight, cis, vanilla, monogamous people ever, it will help them accept others and support queer/otherwise nonconforming friends.

5. Masturbation.

It’s a great way to learn about your own sexual needs and preferences. It’s definitely not something you have to stop doing just because you’re hooking up with/seeing someone regularly. Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re “lonely” or “pathetic”; it just means you enjoy experiencing sexuality independently.

6. Finding more information.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of parents or teachers to tell teens everything they will ever need to know about sex. They should know about some of the well-known and trusted resources that exist, such as Scarleteen, The Guide to Getting It On, and What You Really Really Want. They should also know how to tell whether a resource is trustworthy or not (really, that’s an essential skill for skeptical teens in general).

I would also remind teens that if they need help or have questions, there are adults they can ask. I’d be one of them, but there are certainly others. Don’t be discouraged if you ask an adult for help and they judge you or refuse to answer. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone right.

7. As long as you’re being ethical and safe, there’s no wrong way to be sexual.

Despite what others–even other adults–will tell you, it’s nobody’s business what you do with consenting partners. It’s also completely okay if you don’t want to do anything with anyone at all. There’s no “order” that sexual acts are supposed to progress in, and the bases analogy is crap. It’s also total crap that you have to be a certain way sexually just because of your gender. (Or race, or anything else, really.)

8. Related: sex serves different purposes for different people.

For some, it’s something you do to express love for a significant other. For others, it’s something fun to do with friends. Some don’t attach any “meaning” to sex at all. Sexual relationships tend to work best between people who are both looking for the same thing, so that’s something to consider when planning to get involved with someone.

9. Sexuality isn’t separate from society.

Sexuality is affected–and affects in turn–everything from media and pop culture to law and foreign policy. It’s also important for understanding systems like beauty standards, sexism, racism, and poverty. Although it wouldn’t necessarily be my job as a parent or teacher of teenagers to explain to them exactly how all of these things work (who even understands that in its entirety?!), I would hope to at least make them curious about it. I would want them to start thinking about how different types of people are viewed sexually, and how political institutions determine what is sexually permissible in a given society.

10. Porn and sex work.

Two complicated subjects that most adults would rather keep teens sheltered from, to be sure. But we all know that doesn’t work. I would want to talk to teens about the ways in which porn and sex work misrepresent sexuality, and the ways in which capitalism, sexism, and other systems have created a society in which porn and sex work can be deeply exploitative and dangerous. If you’re going to participate in either, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing so as ethically as possible.

11. Virginity.

It doesn’t really exist. Really! I’d love to get teenagers to read Hanne Blank’s brilliant history of virginity, but since that’s probably impossible, I’d just tell them that what we call “virginity” has changed so much over the centuries that it really doesn’t even matter. Consequently, your “first time” doesn’t have to include candles and rose petals; it might be awesome or it might suck or it might be anything in between, and that doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your sexual future. If someone has a problem with you “being a virgin” or “not being a virgin,” the problem is with them, not you.

12. Question everything.

Question your desires: might they be influenced by the surrounding society?

Question what you see in the media about sex.

Question what your friends tell you.

Question what adults tell you.

Question what I’m telling you.

Question research studies.

Question laws and policies.

Question tropes about sexuality: that asking for consent “ruins the moment,” that you “need” alcohol to hook up, that sex is something “special” and “sacred,” that having casual sex means you don’t “respect yourself,” that only penis-in-vagina is “real sex,” that being a virgin makes you a “loser,” that saying “no” is always easy, that men can’t “control themselves,” that if someone’s nice to you and wants sex, you should give it to them.

Questioning everything doesn’t mean discarding everything. It means understanding that sexuality is subjective, that desires and attitudes are always influenced by external factors. Just because the way you want to be sexual was probably influenced by your culture doesn’t mean that it’s invalid or that you should try to change it, but it’s good to be aware of how malleable human sexuality is.

Some people would probably claim that teenagers are too young (their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough) for this type of thinking, but I strongly disagree. We sell teenagers short all the time. The fact that people don’t encounter this type of thinking until college (if they even go, and if they even encounter it there) doesn’t mean teens can’t do it. They just need to be encouraged to.

I also think that kids and teens can benefit greatly from being told things that they may not fully understand yet. It encourages them to view knowledge and learning as a process rather than an achievement, and reminds them not to get too cocky about what they know.

Sex is much too important a subject not to think critically about.

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.

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*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.