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Shaming teenagers about sex is a bad idea

July 29, 2010

This post is cross-posted with Transatlantic Sketches and Redheaded Shenanigans and co-authored by Emily and Kate Wiseman.

What a revolutionary concept. And yet—I bet you would find a lot of people out there, adults and young adults alike, who instinctively disagree with the statement that “shaming teenagers about sex is a bad idea.”

Think about it this way. Teenagers are in between childhood and adulthood, and they are gradually learning to make their own choices and assert themselves as individuals separate from their parents and their peers. There are a number of issues that parents and teachers have to talk to teenagers about openly and honestly, including, for example, health and nutrition, drinking, and drug abuse.

In this critical period for teenagers, when they are vulnerable to so many influences, why would you bring shame into the mix rather than encouraging open and honest dialogue?

Open and honest dialogue doesn’t have to mean condoning teenage sex, if that’s where your morals lead you. My parents and I could have open and honest dialogue about drinking. Their stance while I was in high school was basically this: “If you drink, we will ground you for life and that’s that.” But we could still discuss the issue, and shame was never part of the equation.

I knew that my parents didn’t want me to drink in part because it’s against the law and it can lead to bad situations among teenagers (I should have never let them watch 10 Things I Hate About You), but the way I understood it then was that drinking brought with it the potential for far-reaching negative consequences: suspension from school, criminal charges, and the risk of being rejected from the college of my choice.

It’s only natural for teenagers to be reluctant to discuss anything with their parents, especially the issues that might result in an earlier curfew or increased scrutiny of themselves or their friends. But there are many ways that parents can initiate these discussions and model healthy behaviors for their kids without sitting them down and delivering a stuffy lecture.

For example, a family can take steps to prevent both obesity and eating disorders by modeling good nutrition, having family dinners, and being open to questions about nutrition from their children and engaging in respectful dialogue – even if the questions may seem obvious from an adult perspective.

Similarly, a family can also take steps to prevent unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or unhealthy relationships by modeling good relationships between each other, initiating casual (and brief) discussions about safe sex practices, or being curious and involved when their children want a prescription for birth control.

Like many other teenagers, I would have died if my mom had tried to have a conversation with me about sex. I thought I was a pretty well-informed individual. After all, thanks to health class I knew about condoms and STDs and that “the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy is abstinence” (thanks, Mr. Morse). But something we know now is that creating an atmosphere of shame around sex and being sexually active doesn’t prevent teenagers from having sex; it just prevents them from making informed decisions.

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health’s recent white paper, “Removing Stigma: Towards a Complete Understanding of Young Latinas’ Sexual Health,” argues convincingly that “pursuing an adolescent sexual and reproductive health strategy that centers on stigmatizing… does little to advance teen health and in fact may have deeply harmful consequences.” I feel like standing on my chair and cheering when I read:

As a reproductive health organization, we support many of the policies that are put in place to “address teen pregnancy”: comprehensive sexuality education, increased affordability and access to contraception, and the expansion of public programs that address reproductive health, such as Title X and Medicaid. However, we support these policies as part of a platform to increase women’s ability to make informed choices that are relevant to their lives, and not to make choices for them.

Additionally, we support initiatives that expand young women’s options—particularly low-income young women and young women of color—for higher education and job access such as tuition reimbursement, loan forgiveness, affirmative action, fair wages, and organized labor. It is important to remember that these policy initiatives are valid in and of themselves, and attempting to use them to steer women’s reproductive health choices to what those in power find to be socially acceptable devalues them and can create skepticism towards what would otherwise be valuable initiatives.

Similarly, Kierra Johnson’s article in the Huffington Post, “The Myth of the Teen Pregnancy Epidemic,” reminds us that.

People are having sex at every age. Sometimes it is safer. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is with informed consent. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s healthy. Sometimes it’s not.

People are also, therefore, experiencing the outcomes of sex at every age. The outcomes can be both intended and unintended. The outcomes can be both physical and emotional. The outcomes can be positive or less than favorable.

People in every age bracket have sex, get pregnant, have abortions and have children. Sex and the outcomes of sex are not exclusively experienced by teens.

Of course there is always time to learn about sex when you are older. But why not start the dialogue with teenagers before they have to learn from their mistakes or read about sexual health issues on the internet? As Johnson says, “We are ignoring that people need information and resources about sex throughout their entire lives, not just as teenagers. We need to… stop using teen sex and pregnancy as scapegoats for social ills.” Double hurrah.

My last argument, because now that I’ve started I feel like I could argue with my computer all day…

Teaching teenagers to feel shame about having sex or discussing sexual health is bad for their future relationships and emotional health. I don’t have statistics to back me up on this, but I know that it’s true. It doesn’t take much time for teenagers to become young adults and young adults to become regular adults and then even our parents expect us to eventually do the hippity dippity and procreate.

It’s not easy to erase the emotional residue that shame leaves, and those teenagers who were taught that sex is a shameful, dirty thing that only sluts do (because after all, the shame around sex is mostly aimed at women) will be more likely to have trouble discussing sexual health with their partners, even when they are involved in healthy, monogamous relationships.

Regardless of where you stand on the morality of sexual activity during the teenage years, I think we would all agree that two emotionally-sound adults in a loving relationship should not have to deal with the lingering effects of shame when trying to discuss their sexual relationship. It’s not healthy, it’s not right, and it shouldn’t be part of our culture any more.

To read more about different perspectives regarding the sex-negative discourse around teen sexuality, please check out the following articles:

Kate Wiseman is a feminist and a serial expat. She recently moved to Sweden from Vienna, Austria, where she was working for Women without Borders, an international NGO seeking to empower women into decision-making positions worldwide. She is currently working as a freelance writer and studying Swedish. You can read about her adventures as an expat at Transatlantic Sketches.

Emily Wiseman is a senior at Bryn Mawr College, where she is majoring in Political Science. She currently works for the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia and hopes to become a Public Interest lawyer. She blogs for the Women’s Law Project on a range of feminist and legal issues here, and you can find her personal blog (on feminism, food, soccer, and more) at Redheaded Shenanigans.

3 Comments
  1. July 29, 2010 4:23 pm

    This is a great article. Especially in the context of global women’s issues, since sexual shame is a powerful weapon. Women’s lives can rest on whether or not they are “honorable”. Anti-shame education needs to be spread everywhere, to both men and women.

    • August 3, 2010 5:48 am

      Hey! Thanks so much for the positive feedback! I hope this message becomes part of the culture of our generation and the next. The changes we need to make are cultural—the culture of sexual education in middle schools and high schools and the culture of public health for teen and young adult mothers.

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