I find it very strange how, in the last few years, morality issues for teenagers have been turned on their heads. Things which used to be thought of as either good or bad are now thought of simply in terms of health and safety, while things initially thought of as health and safety issues are the new moral causes.
Take smoking, for instance. At one point, the anti-smoking campaign was focused only on its health aspects. Today, we give smokers pariah status. We have zero tolerance for smoking, and we prosecute any who sell cigarettes to kids (something which, by the way, I favour). The same can be said about obesity. No longer is weight simply a health issue. The term “food police” is being thrown around, as legislators, teachers, principals, and other authority figures preach to kids about proper eating habits. Becoming fat is now a sign of poor moral character.
And yet, how do we treat teenage sexual activity? As long as you practice “safe sex”, you’re okay. There’s no zero tolerance. Health officials don’t parade around the schools handing out “Sex is worth the wait” buttons. On the contrary, many schools hand out condoms. Something that was once seen as morally wrong is now expected, even encouraged, as long as one tries to avoid disease.
There is no such thing as safe sex, as I have written about before. Sexually transmitted diseases are the leading cause of infertility later in life, and if you think kids are always going to use condoms, just ask yourself how many of our teens can even remember to floss their teeth regularly. These are kids, after all. Besides, condoms don’t prevent the spread of all disease, and that’s a steep price to pay for something you did with little thought when you were 16.
A new study out of Ohio State University tried to map teen sexual behaviour, to chart the adage “you don’t just have sex with one person, you have sex with everyone that person has ever had sex with” in the real world. They found a chain of 288 one-to-one relationships at a single high school in the United States. In other words, if a teen had sex with only one person, the total number of people involved indirectly totalled 286. This was true despite the fact that most teens had only had two or three partners over a number of years.
But even here I am making the same mistake. I am focusing solely on the health risks. Taken to its extreme, though, do we really believe that it is good for 14-year-olds to engage in sexual activity with as many people as they wish, as long as they use protection? If we don’t, then we’re acknowledging there are other variables to consider.
Adults know that sex is not only about the body; it’s about the heart as well. It has social and emotional repercussions that should not be glossed over. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found in the 90s that 25% of teens who were sexually active reported feeling depressed, versus 8% of teens who were not sexually active. And girls who were sexually active were three times as likely to attempt suicide as those who were not, with sexually active boys being five times as likely to attempt it. Sex during the teen years is far from being a neutral activity.
So why are we so reticent to tell kids “for now, just say no” when it comes to sex? I think part of it is that we don’t want to make sexual value judgments ourselves. The result, though, is a society that is seriously misguided when it comes to how we guide our teens. No, you shouldn’t smoke, and all of us need to eat better and exercise more. But to protect your heart, prevent depression, keep yourself from situations you’re not mature enough to handle, and prevent physical harm, we have to encourage our kids to just say no to sex, too. Until we can say that as forcefully as we warn kids about the risks of tobacco, we’re proving ourselves to be pretty poor guides in life indeed.