sex, dating, & relationships, youth development & education

Remember the Teenagers. A response to the abstinence-or-comprehensive sex ed fight

I support comprehensive sex education — programs that provide teenagers with information and options in the context of teaching emotional and social processes of self-care and empowerment. But today I’m not writing for the sole purpose of arguing my position. I read yesterday’s Boston Globe editorial on this topic and the comments that other readers have posted. I have many responses and opinions of my own that I will, down the line, articulate. Today, I’m writing because I want to remember the teenagers.

Where are the voices of the teenagers? I didn’t read their words, and no one seems to be advocating for them. The people commenting miss the fact that they are debating the education of real people — people that feel, think and do, every day. Yesterday, while adults fought on the Internet, teenagers across the country said yes to sex, said no to sex, asked to wait, asked for more, showed off their virginity pledges, showed off their hickeys, had their first kiss, gave birth, broke hearts, pledged their love, watched foreplay on television, saw rape in a movie, lied about their age on the Internet, lied about their sexual history, told the truth about their sexual history, viewed cleavage while flipping through a magazine, took a birth control pill, used a condom correctly, used a condom incorrectly, hated sex, enjoyed sex…

Yes, reading those comments from fighting adults, I just really missed teenagers and the intensity of their daily realities. Teenagers are real people, with bodies, sexualities, lives, and multiple senses — and they take in a lot more than they let on.

Most importantly, teenagers are a lot more diverse as a group and a lot more complex as individuals than these adults seem to give them credit for. We learned a while ago in education that we can’t approach all 20 or so students in one room as if they have the same needs. Instead, we practice differentiated instruction, working as much as possible to help students achieve according to their own level, style and potential.

Not all teenagers will decide to abstain, nor will all teenagers decide to have sex. But one theme that I did find in many of the comments from both “sides” of the fight was the desire for teenagers to learn to respect themselves and others.

Teenagers will only have a chance to learn respect when the so-called adults in this situation model such behavior for them. We need to respect each other. More importantly, we need to respect the very teenagers for whom we claim to feel concern. In order to respect teenagers, we must recognize them as full human beings with their own thoughts and feelings and dreams. They can’t vote, which immediately renders them less-than-relevant in any debate over policy. But this policy is about their lives, and this debate puts their right to their own humanity on the line. They are more-than-relevant, and we must treat them as such. We must respect, include, and listen to the teenagers themselves.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

One thought on “Remember the Teenagers. A response to the abstinence-or-comprehensive sex ed fight”

  1. ludrumslinger says:

    I wanted to add to this with an experience I had in January 2008 when I was in Florida visiting a friend (you only need one guess who it was Mimi). We were in a bar talking politics with some locals and two things struck me as very frustrating. The first was that most people in the bar still thought that Barack Obama was a muslim (not that there is anything wrong with that), but apart from that and even more important was that the bartender, who was in her early 20’s said that she (and consequently everyone else who isn’t atleast middle aged) was not old enough / wise enough to vote. This person was so afraid of expressing the “wrong” opinion that she decided that she could not express any opinion at all. Needless to say, she was Republican.

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