Recent reports of a policy allowing 11- to 13-year-old students at King Middle School in Portland, Maine to receive contraceptives without parental consent elicited a storm of press coverage and shock on the part of everyday Americans, given the students' youth. Just last week, a news story from Ohio reported that three girls, two 13 years old and one who is 14, were having sex with as many as fourteen boys and men, even as the CDC announced that one million cases of Chlamydia were found in the U.S. last year -- the highest ever reported for any sexually transmitted disease. All the stories are only the latest symptom of an underlying cultural pathology – one that relies on the silence and timidity of responsible adults in order to flourish.
Societies, like parents, get the behavior they expect from their children. Given the messages transmitted by our popular culture, it’s hardly surprising that even middle schoolers would conclude that developing a sex life is not only acceptable, but almost expected of them. American society has come far from the days when parents, clergy and the culture stood together to encourage young women, in particular, to resist sexual behavior that could have lifelong negative repercussions for them. Then, sexual modesty was honored, even in the breach; today, when it comes to sex, the cultural mandate is to “just do it” – and most of the time, that mandate goes unchallenged.
This is an era when sexually-charged television shows like “Laguna Beach” dominate the teen market, movies making light of unmarried pregnancy like “Knocked Up” clean up at the box office, and music with repulsively raunchy lyrics tops the charts. Especially for girls, the media obsession with celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton drives home the point that “sexiness” – all too often defined as little more than vulgar exhibitionism in dress and behavior – trumps any other quality that a girl might possess, like intelligence or character.
Ironically, radical feminism is partly to blame. The insistence that men and women are not just equal – they are the same – has resulted in a social landscape where young women are encouraged to ape the least attractive aspects of stereotypical male sexual behavior. Having sex without emotion or commitment, like those oh-so-fabulous heroines on “Sex and the City,” is deemed to be the hallmark of liberation. “Empowerment” has come to be understood by many young girls as little more than license to treat themselves as sex objects. And young women are paying the price.
In a sex-saturated society, girls face increased pressure to find some way of becoming sexually active. Along with the well-known dangers of unwanted pregnancies or STDs, giving too much, too soon results in girls experiencing guilt, shame, and lack of trust in males. In fact, academic research has recently confirmed that for girls (though not for boys), even modest sexual experimental increases the risk of depression. Could this phenomenon help to explain the CDC’s latest report finding that suicide rates among preteen and young teen girls had spiked by a whopping 76%?
Certainly, it’s not easy to reject what trendsetters decree is “cool.” Those who object to the sexual saturation of the culture are likely to be ridiculed as uptight, joyless prigs. But by acquiescing, even implicitly, in a social order where girls are encouraged to present themselves as nothing but sex objects – and being called a “prude” is more stigmatizing than being characterized as a “slut” – America has been letting young women down.
When adults fail to speak up in opposition to the sexual values being transmitted by pop culture, young people interpret their silence as indifference to or agreement with those mores. And so it’s unfair to glorify women like Spears and Hilton – and then insist that girls not emulate them. It’s wrong to shower rappers like Eminem with music industry honors – and then hope that young women will discount his lyrics. And it’s unrealistic to present teens with movies, magazines and books larded with sexual content, and then expect them to take seriously admonitions to abstain from sex.
Change is possible. But it will come only when Americans decide that the toll on young girls exacted by a sex-saturated society is unacceptably high. Without a broad social consensus for toning down the sexual content dominating so much of pop culture, policies recognizing the inevitability of underaged sex, like the one at King Middle School, will endure, and so will news reports of other young girls with multiple sex partners, and the rising rates of STD’s – all weary reminders of a needless, sad reality.