Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What would I tell teenagers about sex? A response to Forward Thinking.

I read over on Daylight Atheism (note to self:  update sidebar link!) that there's a new blog carnival on the 'tubes called Forward Thinking.  This month's prompt is, "What would you tell teenagers about sex?"

My first thought on the subject was, "Shit, I am the last person who should be advising teenagers about sex."  My second thought was, "Wait, I have a fourteen-year-old brother and an eleven-year-old sister.  I will probably be talking to them about sex at some point."  So I decided to get some thoughts together in some semblance of order, and here they are.

The first thing to cover, to my mind, is that we are sexual creatures.  Sex is an inextricable part of our nature: every single one of our human ancestors, and a far greater number beyond them, had to have sex to propagate their genes into the next generation for each of us to come about.  There's simply no getting around the fact that sex is a part of who we are.

This leads naturally to the second point, which is that it's just sex.  Sex is as much a part of our nature as eating or breathing, and digestion & respiration aren't particularly profound.  They're just parts of life.

Of course, it all gets much more complicated after that.  Sex is a lot more personal than eating or breathing, after all, and while it's no more inherently profound, it can shape us in ways that eating and breathing do not.  I mean, eating shapes us in some pretty profound ways, and I'm sure I could dig up all sorts of interesting stuff on the importance of breathing, but sex goes quite a bit beyond those - for one thing, digestion and respiration are fairly standardized processes.  Though there is certainly individual variation (my aforementioned little sister has a peanut allergy, for example - peanuts affect her eating and breathing in ways that they do not affect mine), eating and breathing are mostly the same from person to person.

But as evidenced by Greta Christina's "Are We Having Sex Now or What?", sex means many different things to many different people.  I actually read that piece in a college course a few years back called "Sex, Values, and Human Nature," and our first assignment was to make a list of what "counts" as sex.  The next session, we compiled and compared and contrasted our lists, and then we were assigned to read that essay, and then we made new lists and did it again.  By the end, everyone was utterly confused, which was the point.  The other point was that "sex" isn't just one thing, it's actually kind of a huge clusterfuck that definitely has some meaning, but that meaning varies wildly among individuals and even for the same individuals over time.  So what you think of as sex will itself change over time, just as what you think of as fun, or fashion, or good to eat.

The next piece of advice in this badly choreographed conga line of semi-random musings would be that, for all I just said, sex isn't something you should worry about; but it is something you should think about.  Not continuously and obsessively, but in the way you think about your nutrition.  I guess.  You should let your feelings come as they may, allow yourself to process them, let them simmer on the backburner, and take some time every so often to sort out just where it is you think you stand on it.  Especially if you think you might be having sex in some way or another in the foreseeable future.  If you realize you're feeling pressured, or if you're feeling obligated, or if you think you "need" to, then that is a big red flag with flashing warning lights and blaring klaxons.  Your very next thought should be, "This is not right."

If, on the other hand, you simply want to have sex, and you know someone who wants to have sex with you, and it's a low-pressure situation and you're both comfortable and have somewhere private and time on your hands... well... that's just fine.  That's actually roughly the thought process I go through when considering whether to have sex.  Incidentally, it's also roughly the thought process I go through when I'm deciding whether to eat.  (To be fair, one of those is a much rougher approximation than the other...)  It's nothing special, just a matter of checking for motive, opportunity, and potential conflicts.

Right about now, I'm noticing that there are two big elephants in the room, and their names are Rape and Virginity.

Of course, "No means No" and all that, but someone doesn't need to say "No" for rape to occur.  Rape is any sexual act that is not consented to.  Consent is not a verbal thing, consent is a mental state, and unfortunately there's no foolproof way of accessing anyone's mental states besides your own.  Actually, we even have trouble accessing our own mental states, but that's a topic for another day.  The point is that lots of people will cry foul at this idea, complaining loudly and at length that it's so hard to know someone else's mental states and how can we really be sure we're not raping each other unless we make consent be a verbal thing?  To which I respond, Thank you, Doctor, that is the point.

Consent shouldn't be some automatic, easy-to-determine thing where you can just put a check in a box and then go, "All right!  Not raping!  Now to do whatever the fuck I want!"  Consent is something you should put effort into not only getting, but knowing you've got, and continuously checking to make sure you still have.  This doesn't mean you need to have Robot Lawyer Sex, however.  You can make it sexy as you check in every so often, whispering breathily into your partner's ear that you'd like to do x to their y.  When you try something new, you can ask in a sultry tone, "How do you like that, baby?"  Or from the other end, you can assure your partner that s/he has your consent by moaning, "Oh, yes," saying, "Mmm, I like that," or screaming, "Yes!  YES!  FUCK YES!  MORE!  HARDER!"  Or whatever.

The idea that someone needs to say "No" to make it rape implicitly assigns to everyone a continual "State of Yes."  This is not my idea, I read it somewhere else, but the phrases I'm able to remember are now actually (and thankfully!) fairly widespread in the common parlance, and I don't remember any other distinguishing features of the original source, so I can't cite it.  The point was that the State of Yes absurdly assumes everyone's always down for sexy times and needs to opt out in order to make it rape.  This is backwards.  Sex should be something you need to opt in to, which means you therefore ought to think of everyone as living in a State of No, so you need to get not just one yes at the start but many throughout your activities.

We'll close tonight with a brief (if somewhat rickety) segue into the topic of virginity.

Virginity is probably one of the stupidest ideas we've ever come up with.  It's even stupider when we assign virtue to virginity.  There's nothing good about "not having had sex," nor is there anything bad about it.  Furthermore, when you go back to the days of yore, you find out that the term didn't even apply to males; it was specifically meant to indicate whether or not a woman's hymen had been broken yet.  Which, when you think about it for two minutes, is super dumb because we don't have that kind of a word for anything else.  There's no word for people who haven't had their appendix out, or who haven't broken their arm, or who haven't needed to get their tonsils removed.  We will sometimes say that someone is, for example, "a bungee-jumping virgin," or "a sushi virgin," but that really just underscores how absurdly unique the term is - we didn't even come up with a separate word, we just grafted it onto other things.  So dumb!  But there's nothing special about "virginity" - there's nothing special about having it, and there's nothing special about losing it.  It may feel special, and that's fine - really, it is! - but that specialness is entirely in your head and just for you.  This is especially important to realize when you consider that your partner may not share your sense of specialness about your first (or any other) time.

So remember, kids:  sex is perfectly natural, and an inextricable part of our lives.  And while it means different things to different people (both in terms of what it literally is, and how important it is), and it can be a highly personal and profound part of your identity, it's still just sex at the end of the day.  While your "raging hormones" will have you all in a tizzy, having all sorts of strange thoughts and feelings you've never had before, keep in mind that everyone who's survived to puberty has also gone through this.  And also keep in mind that those hormones are chemicals in your body that are literally telling you what to feel.  Don't ignore them, by any means - but be aware of what they are and what they do, and get your shit together before you try this at home.

And use protection!  If you don't want to have a kid in nine months, use protection!  If you don't have a house and a steady job and a committed partner and a plan for how to raise a kid, use protection!  If you haven't personally screened both yourself and your partner for STDs, use protection!  If you are a human and you are about to have sex, use protection!

No comments: