Virgin or Slut: Pick One
and a Gossip Girls novel, all the juicy parts underlined in pink pen. Welcome to contemporary American adolescence, where sexuality is either up for sale or moralized into nonexistence.
On the one hand we have a hypersexualized and pornified pop culture -- thongs marketed to tweens, Victoria's Secret ads with models who don't look a day over 13, and reality shows like A Shot at Love on MTV, where both men and women will do anything -- including jump in vats of chocolate and discuss their sexual histories on national television -- all for instantaneous love with a petite model. The message to young women is loud and clear: Your body is your power. Flaunt it. Use it. Get attention. The message to young men is also unmistakable: Your gaze is your power. Your role is to judge and comment on women's bodies. As a man, you are inevitably obsessed -- sometimes stupidly so -- with the female form.
On the other hand, we have a federally funded (over $1 billion thus far) abstinence-only sex education program in this country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half (46 percent) of all 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once. According to the government's most comprehensive survey of American sexual practices to date, more than half of all teenagers have engaged in oral sex -- including nearly a quarter of those who have never had intercourse. Regardless of this reality, health teachers from Nacogdoches, Texas, to Newark, N.J., are taught to emotionlessly repeat -- as if pull dolls of the Bush administration -- "The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence. The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence. The only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is abstinence."
Here, the message to young women is also resolute: Your body is dangerous. Control it. Ignore it. Don't ask any questions. Teen girls are cast as asexual princesses happily trapped in towers, guarded by their Bible verse-spouting fathers. The message to young men is more subtle. In this fairy tale written, produced and directed by abstinence-only advocates, teenage guys are both potential villains -- the oversexed, hormone-crazed young men who must be refused continuously by good girls -- or potential knights in shining armor -- saving enough money from their summer jobs to buy sparkling rings that will save their sweeties from the hell of slutdom.
In between pornified culture and purity balls, in between the slut and the virgin, the stupid, lascivious dude and the knight in shining armor, in between the messages directed at young women -- your body is your power vs. your body is dangerous -- and young men -- your gaze is your power vs. your gaze is dangerous -- are real young people trying to develop authentic identities and sexual practices. And they are struggling mightily.
Too many of them are diseased, disordered, and depressed -- participating in inauthentic performances of sexual bravado, cut off from their bodies' true appetites and desires, and hurt because they can't seem to identify or communicate their own boundaries.
How could we be surprised? We've constructed a polarized culture that gives teenagers edifice, not education. We've sent them out into the wildly complex country of contemporary adolescence without the essential weapons -- sexual literacy, communication strategies, self-reflection exercises, and at the very least, accurate information about anatomy and contraception.
We've let the increasingly conglomerated raunchy mass media pollute the visual world with plastic, codified images of "sex" and the increasingly out-of-touch, religious and righteous federal government play Pollyanna -- deaf, dumb and blind. As the schools relinquish responsibility for educating American teens about sex, the advertisers and networks step in, providing an airbrushed, inauthentic, unrealistic view of sex and the bodies that are "doing it." They're happy to play sexy nanny while our government officials and educators are out to lunch; it guarantees ratings and the next generation eager to fork over cash on products marketed to their effectively socialized inadequacy.