My long-time, very dear friend Alice Fielding kindly agreed to share her experience around sexuality education and her evolving thoughts on pre-marital sex. She’ll be following the comments on this post, so feel free to engage her in conversation though your comments.
The only sex talk I ever got from my parents took place at Pizza Hut one rainy afternoon when I was twelve. My dad set his ham sandwich on his plate, leaned forward, looked me square in the face, and said, “SEX IS ONLY FOR MAKING BABIES.” After pausing for effect, he sat back, picked up his sandwich, and resumed eating.
He definitely made his position clear, although I already knew that my parents believed premarital sex was wrong, having picked up this idea from context. I was routinely shocked by what I read on the bathroom walls at my middle school. In elementary school, I had been shocked when a substitute teacher told us she had gotten married the previous month, but had a daughter who was a year old. In high school, I would be shocked when the girl who wore revealing clothes, the girl everyone whispered about, actually did get pregnant and have a baby. Even in college, when asked by a resident adviser what I believed about premarital sex, I wasn’t able to answer.
My parents weren’t religious fundamentalists. My father was a committed Unitarian Universalist; my mother attended a Presbyterian church wearing a lapel button which read, AGAINST ABORTION? DON’T HAVE ONE! I was even less dogmatic than my parents, and in my late teens felt confused about the fact that I didn’t know anyone else my age who was against pre-marital sex but not for religious reasons.
As soon as I graduated from college at age twenty, I got into a committed relationship with a family friend I’d known for several years. He wanted to have sex with me, and I felt silly saying “I can’t have sex with you because my parents think it’s immoral.” So I said yes. When the relationship turned abusive, I felt lost and alone. I didn’t think anyone else would ever want to be with me; I felt like the dirty toothbrush or licked Junior Mint from an abstinence-only sex ed curriculum. Worse, I was afraid to tell the trusted older adults in my life what was happening to me, for fear that they would stop loving me once they found out I was immoral. The only reason I ever told any of them was that months after I finally ended the relationship, I started experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that were too severe for me to deal with alone.
My mentors and friends were loving and supportive from the moment I told them about the abuse all the way through the nine years it took me to recover from the PTSD. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without them. The tragedy here is that if I had told them much earlier, the abuse would not have escalated, and it might not have occurred in the first place. The trusted older adults in my life would have perceived what was happening and helped me, if only I hadn’t been afraid to tell them.
I’m not opposed to premarital abstinence. In fact, I think abstinence is the healthiest choice for most teenagers and many young adults, and I think anyone of any age who makes that choice should be fully supported in it. I am, however, utterly opposed to abstinence-only sex ed, and not just because it’s unrealistic or has been proven ineffective. I’m opposed to it because it closes the doors of conversation between older and younger adults, and that can be incredibly damaging to young people who want to live their own lives but still need guidance from folks who have more experience than they do.
So, go on. Take your daughter or son, or nephew or niece, or younger sibling or cousin or friend’s child out to a pizza restaurant. And don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of sex. But make it a two-way conversation. If you are the younger person in this situation, remember that prior generations grew up with different sexual norms that may be difficult to see past. Regardless of whether you are the older person or the younger, listen. Don’t shame or judge, but try to understand.
Have you ever had an honest, trusting conversation about sexual ethics or decision-making with someone much older or younger than you? If so, how did it go?