Libby Anne and Dan Finke at Patheos have started a project called Forward Thinking, which is a series of questions they put to bloggers to encourage them to think productively. The replies to these questions are then rounded up and a new prompt posted. This will be my first crack at it.
Congratulations, teenager! You are the recipient of a rapidly and perhaps scarily developing sexuality. By “sexuality,” I am of course referring to the parts of you which are growing and in some cases becoming hairier at a rate which is almost certainly not to your satisfaction in one way or another, but also to the feelings you have about those parts and what you’d like to do with them, either by yourself or with friends. I’m referring to the changes in the way you carry yourself, the way you dress to either show off or hide (or frequently both) your body, and the way your relationships with pretty much everyone you know are changing in mutual recognition of all this. It’s a lot to take in, I know– “fraught” would not be too strong a word for it. But you’ll get through this.
I want to talk a little bit about how to do so, while being a good person– what you could call sexual ethics. There are two aspects of that which I’m going to cover:
- Taking care of yourself
- Taking care of others
Yep, that’s it. That’s what sexual ethics is. You might think it’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t to a lot of people…and I’m going to try and explain that too.
First, let’s talk about taking care of yourself.
You need to do this both mentally and physically, and oftentimes they will amount to the same thing.
For example, masturbation. It’s something you should do– you know, if you want to. It feels good, it’s sanity-preserving, and most importantly for teenagers, it give you an opportunity to get to know your body better and achieve some sexual satisfaction without engaging in intercourse with another person. It is not wrong and never in your life will it become wrong. It can only be inappropriate, such as if you don’t take proper care to preserve your privacy while masturbating, or count as poor behavior toward your sexual partners later on if you decide that masturbating is more important than interacting with them. But generally speaking, masturbation is simply treating yourself to an orgasm without having sex. If you’re a virgin, you remain one after masturbating– but you have become more educated about what pleases you sexually, which means that when/if you do eventually have sex with someone else, you will be better equipped to know how they can please you. That’s taking care of yourself.
When you’re ready to actually have sex with someone– or rather if you are, since some people never want to have sex with someone, and live out their lives quite happily that way– taking care of yourself means making some demands of that person. No, not literally (unless you and your partner(s) are into that sort of thing). But there are certain things you’ll need to insist on, for your own well-being. The first and foremost being contraception. Contraception is not magical— it is a real thing that really prevents you from creating a pregnancy and, in certain forms, prevents you from catching or transmitting a sexually transmitted disease, when you use it correctly. The pregnancy thing is something you will be concerned about for most of your life– certainly now– and the disease thing is something you’ll be concerned about forever. So don’t let the embarrassment of talking about sex prevent you from taking care of yourself– this stuff is important. Using contraception doesn’t make you paranoid, judgmental, slutty, or a killjoy– it makes you smart. Don’t have sex with people who are not smart, or who don’t respect your desire to be. They are the judgmental killjoys, not you.
The other demand you need to be willing to make of your partners is that they listen to you, and don’t do things you’re not comfortable with. Because guess what? Sex is a relationship, and relationships have to be conducted according to the terms of the people involved in them. What you want matters, and you have veto power– always. You don’t get to force your partners to do things, but you can refuse to do things. Get comfortable with this power, so that you can use it without hesitation if the need comes up. Agreeing to hold hands with someone (yeah, I’m going back to the basics) doesn’t mean you agree to kiss them. Agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t mean you agree to have them touch your body. Agreeing to have them touch your body doesn’t mean agreeing to have your clothes taken off. And so on down the line. You can agree to these things, sure, but it’s not assumed. You always have the right to stop. Always. That’s you taking care of yourself.
Now let’s talk about taking care of others.
The best way you can take care of others is by remembering that it’s not all about you. Sex is not about getting what you want and forget everybody else. Other people and their sexual desires matter just as much as yours– they are not simply targets and obstacles in the way of targets. So forget about treating people like crap if they won’t sleep with you, or talking crap about other people because of who they sleep with or want to sleep with. Sexual competition– people wanting to sleep with the same people that other people do– exists. It’s a thing, and it’s nobody’s fault. If you get mad at some other girl for attracting the guy you like, you’re saying he doesn’t have the right to make his own choices. But he does, doesn’t he? Just like you do. So maybe you’re upset, and that’s fine– it’s upsetting to not get what you want. But you can’t require that the people you like have to like you back. That’s not fair to them, and just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it true. So take a deep breath, listen to some good music, and move on. That upsetness you’re feeling is called jealousy, and it’s understandable and natural but it can make people do some terrible things if they can’t deal with it. Don’t be one of those people.
Following in the line if “it’s not all about you,” you can take care of others by respecting their decisions. They’re allowed to like what and who they want to like. They’re allowed to sleep with who they want to sleep with, provided that person is agreeable, of course, and– here’s the most important thing– nobody is obligated to sleep with you. Ever. There is nothing you can do or say that makes a person owe you sex, and nothing they can do or say. There’s this term called “enthusiastic consent,” and what it means is that a potential sex partner should be just as into the idea of having sex with you as you are about having sex with them. If they’re not, something is wrong and you should stop. Does it suck to stop when you don’t want to? Yes, but it’s better than being the kind of person who tries to have sex with someone who doesn’t want it, or isn’t even conscious enough to express clearly (in words or in actions) that he or she wants it. Consent is agreeing to do something. If someone isn’t clearly agreeing or isn’t capable of agreeing and you go ahead anyway, that’s sexual assault or rape. Now you know. Do not forget.
You may have noticed that in all of this talk about how to be ethical sexually, I’ve said nothing about the wrong people to have sex with, or the wrong kind of sex to have with them. With one very important exception that I’ve stressed in different ways: the type of people to have sex with are those who are capable of consenting to have sex with you, and have done so. The kind of sex to have with them is the enthusiastically consenting kind. Beyond that, I haven’t said “Having sex with this sort of person is bad,” “Having sex with this many people is bad,” “Having sex at this point in your life is bad” (assuming, of course, that you’re a consenting adult yourself) or “Having this kind of sex is bad.”
And I’m not going to.
Because those statements do not fall within the bounds of taking care of yourself and taking care of others. Those statements, for that matter, often amount to the very opposite of taking care of yourself and others. They’re used to harm people who aren’t harming anyone themselves, and that is (you guessed it) bad.
To illustrate this, I’ll tell you a little about what was going on when I was a teenager and going through my own internal struggles about sex and sexuality. I went to high school in the mid-90’s. During that time the movies I saw included Philadelphia, Reality Bites, Threesome, and Jeffrey. You may not have seen all or even any of these movies, but here’s something they all have in common– they all feature at least one gay character. In every case it’s a man, and in two cases there’s a gay male character with AIDS. Because the mid-80’s was when the AIDS scare hit if you were paying attention, and the mid-90’s was when it hit if you weren’t. And I wasn’t– not until high school, anyway, when sex and sexuality really started mattering to me.
The third season of The Real World, back when reality shows were still something of a novelty, included a gay housemate called Pedro Zamora who was living with AIDS. As entertainment editor of the school newspaper I wrote about this, as well as another article on the experience of coming out as a gay high school student (which got me branded as a dyke by anonymous sources). I knew several gay fellow students, some out and some closeted, and dated one of them (you’re awesome, Jeremy). We founded a gay-straight alliance club at our school. I volunteered for the Red Cross as part of the National Honor Society program and my job was to go to local middle schools and give presentations on sexually transmitted diseases and how to avoid them. We attended seminars on AIDS and met people living with it– gay men. A theater geek, I spent my summers working at Music Theater of Wichita, where the majority of my friends were gay men (and one lesbian). I got to know what they were like and what their relationships were like. And what they were like is: normal.
I’m telling you all of this because these are people who, it was being declared all over the place then and still sometimes is today, have been punished by God with a horrible disease for having the wrong kind of sex, with the wrong people.
If God or the universe punished people for having the wrong kind of sex, with the wrong kind of people, do you know who would have AIDS? Rapists. Child molesters. And nobody else.
Actually that’s not true since AIDS doesn’t just affect the person who has it but also anyone that person has sexual intercourse with, which could include any future victims of a rapist or child molester. But you get my point– if God or the universe care what kind of sex you have, and with which kind of people, they clearly do not express it in any clear and unambiguous way in terms of physical afflictions. So don’t look to natural consequences to tell you what is moral or immoral sexually. Good people also experience STDs, unplanned pregnancies, and other sexual misfortunes. Those fall under the category of precautions you should take to take care of yourself; not judgments from above for doing something wrong.
Single question pop quiz:
Which of the following stops an STD transmission or the creation of an unplanned pregnancy?
a) being married
b) being straight
c) being a guy
c) having sex with only one person, or a small number of people
e) a condom
If you answered “e,” then you have grasped the relevant point of this section (and you’re also correct). Let me explain the answers a bit more:
- Being married. A marriage is a contractual agreement between two people– usually opposite sex, but sometimes not– who have decided that they want to be together for the foreseeable future, usually with at least the pretense of being monogamous. However oftentimes they are not completely monogamous, and sometimes they’re even deliberately not monogamous. The vast majority of Americans will have sex before getting married, which statistically speaking includes you. Some of you, of course, will not ever get married. That being the case, marriage– while a wonderful thing for many people– cannot be counted upon as a reliable way to avoid diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Especially unplanned pregnancies.
- Being straight. AIDS became known as a “gay disease” because it’s more easily transmissible via anal sex, and anal sex– it was and still is often assumed– is how the gays do it. But here’s a little secret for you: straight people have anal sex too, and plenty of gay people don’t! Yes, lesbians, but a lot of gay men aren’t into it either. Lesbians, for that matter, have the lowest rates of STD transmission of any sexually active group. And when it comes to avoiding unplanned pregnancies, gay sex is unquestionably a better method.
- Being a guy. I don’t actually think that anyone believes being a guy is, in itself, a way to avoid STDs or unplanned pregnancies. But there’s no shortage of people who act like neither one is or should be a concern for guys, because after all they’re not the one who gets pregnant. And if someone is going to be suspected of being infected with STDs based on their sexual behavior, it will invariably be a girl. More on this in the next point.
- Having sex with only one person, or a small number of people. Promiscuity is far and away the factor most people assume to be the cause of STD transmission or unplanned pregnancy, but strangely the already strong assumption of this becomes even stronger when we’re talking about a girl. It’s as if we manage to forget that transmission of an STD requires two people, two straight people if we’re talking about an unplanned pregnancy. The next time you hear someone characterize prostitutes or promiscuous women as disease-ridden, think about this. Who did they get these presumed diseases from? In any case, the real determining factor is not the number of partners, but whether contraception is used and used correctly. A person who has sex with multiple partners but does so safely is taking care of him/herself better than someone who has sex with one person without contraception. (If you’re interested in learning more about STD transmission in prostitutes– more accurately, the lack thereof– who use contraception, check out Alexa Albert’s excellent book Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women).
- A condom. At this point, I think this is self-explanatory.
A condom has tremendous advantages. They’re (comparatively) inexpensive and can prevent both STDs and pregnancy, and don’t require a prescription. However, condoms can break. They’re expensive given that you need to open and use a new one each time you have sex, and some people manage to use them incorrectly. So my recommendation would be: use backup. If you’re a girl, there are several options– the pill is most popular, but you might investigate Norplant, NuvaRing, and IUDs as well. See a gynecologist. Make this your priority if you’re even thinking you might have sex sometime soon. And when you talk to him/her, don’t be afraid or embarrassed– his/her job is to make sure you’re healthy, to help you take care of yourself. There should be no judgment involved, and if there is, find another doctor.
There are important things this post hasn’t covered: Alternative sexuality. Abortion. Slut-shaming generally. How to talk to your parents about all of this, and what they expect (and why). But hopefully I’ve gotten across the main point I was trying to address, which is that the morality of sexuality is not really about what people often pretend it’s about. Ultimately, what matters is the consequences of the decisions you make for yourself, and for others. In all of the judging, there’s a stunning lack of taking care going on out there. And that’s not only also important; it’s most important.
So please….take care.