Teen Sexuality & Agency

This weekend, while Governor Palin's nomination as Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate, her hard-line conservative positions on human sexuality, and her daughter's pregnancy were making headlines, I was reading sociologist Jessica Fields' insightful new book Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality. As Courtney Martin posted over at Feministing (in a review that prompted me to run out and buy the book), Fields "basically lays out a liberation philosophy for sex education." Reflecting on the fieldwork Fields conducted in sex education classes during the mid-1990s, Courtney writes:

Young women learn to see their bodies as ticking time bombs and young men to see theirs as the uncontrollable fire that could lead to explosion. Instead of promoting self-awareness, responsible exploration, respect for the diversity of sexualities, or compassionate communication, we teach them that their bodies are dangerous. Conservatives want that danger staved off until marriage, where it suddenly becomes holy, and liberals want it staved off along the way -- through the use of accessible contraception.

While I obviously advocate safer sex, I also feel like progressives have let ourselves (as per the usual) be only reactive, instead of re-authoring the questions. We must not only ask how we can protect young Americans from unwanted pregnancy and STIs, but how we can encourage them to be self-aware, healthy, and happy. How can we inspire them to author their own questions?

As political commentators discussed teenage pregnancy, marriage, and parenthood, comprehensive vs. abstinence-only sex "education" (I offer a few examples here, here, here and here for those interested), Fields' book offered a what I thought was a fascinating counterpoint to the conventional wisdom. What struck me most about the political coverage was that the majority of Americans -- whether they identify as liberal, conservative or somewhere in between -- assume teenage sexuality is something dangerous, unhealthy, morally wrong. To be a sexually aware and engaged teenager in America is to be held suspect by the majority of adults as irresponsible and the result of bad parenting. As previously noted on here at the FFLA, this isn't the only attitude adults can take about teenage sexual expression, and (in my opinion) far from the ideal. In Risky Lessons, Fields prompts us to re-visit this common-sense assumption and ask ourselves how we might better support young peoples' exploration of the physical, emotional, and political pleasures and perils of their emerging adult sexuality.

In the early 21st century, "Sex education" has been reduced to risk reduction (if you believe in "comprehensive" sex ed) or eradication (if you believe in the abstinence-only doctrine). Young people deserve sexuality education that provides them with intellectual and emotional resources for making sense of their adult bodies, relationships, and agency in the world as sexual beings. And I hope that (if anything good can possibly be said to come from a Republican ticket so deeply opposed to providing those resources to all of America's teenagers) the Palin nomination and the resulting debates over teenage sexual expression can provide us a critical moment of reflection on these issues and a chance to consider the liberatory potential sexuality education.


  1. It probably doesn't help (in these conversations) that the word"teen" encompasses an age group with a wide variety of maturity. A 13 year old and a 17 year old are not even close in terms of maturity and decision-making ability, especially with what we now know about brain development during the adolescent years. Not to mention that physical maturity differs, as well.

    Sometimes I think it would be easier to discuss these issues if we didn't lump these groups together. I don't know where the line would be (between ages). But I do agree with what you've written regarding the body-fear that is taught in our society.

  2. Good point, k8; it's important to remember that teenagers of different ages (and even of the same age) can be at really different points, developmentally. One of the difficult things about institutional education is that it tends to become a blunt instrument -- individual students' needs and desires get lost in the group dynamic.

    Fields' point, however is that even young teens are *already* often sexually active (in the sense of being aware of themselves as sexual beings, and contending with sexual messages and sexualized social interactions in the world) and that we do them a disservice by not encouraging them to develop a holistic, integrated sense of their sexual selves.