I am writing this post in response to two comments made on a post at Ambivablog on the teenage culture of oral sex. That post is a response to an Atlantic Monthly essay on the development of that culture. Essentially, Amba argues, the culture is bad for girls because it takes sexuality out of the larger context of the whole person. Amber Stuart responds in comments saying that this culture helps to build self esteem in both girls and boys. Amber Stuart's comments bother me for a number of reasons, both personally and philosophically; I will take each in turn. I think it important to note here, that this is not an argument against oral sex for all people in all situations (that can be discussed some other time), but against casual sexuality amongst teens. Stuart begins
"I'm both perplexed and amused by the tone of both the article and the comments. I can't help but think that there is a severe generational componant at work, here."
First off, I'm in my mid to late 20's. I'm not part of the "older generation". It wasn't much different when I was in high school and college. Amber may be able to use that argument against the original author's post, but it is a moot argument here. What I'm going to say comes from someone not much older than those we are discussing. When I was leading a small group on a retreat and sharing my past experiences, a girl said to me "That's my life to a T." Things haven't changed that much. She then continues
"You all seem shocked and dismayed at this behavior, seeking blame (the girls, the boys, their fathers, the society, gay men, George Bush) but you seem to be missing some important points. These girls have a casual attitude towards oral sex. When magazines and websites bemoan the state of 'the self-esteem problem with girls' here we have a way in which girls have found a way to improve their self esteem with little risk to themselves — and you're screaming because they are being used?"
The fact that they have a casual attitude towards oral sex is part of the problem. However, the real flaw in the analysis here is that it has little risk to themselves. Now I don't know of any studies of the psychological impacts of having casual oral sex, but I can't imagine it's completely neutral. One thing I can speak to is that I have read many reports of STDs being transmitted by oral sex. There are far healthier ways to improve one's self esteem. I would even contend that casual oral sex could lead to lower self esteem in the long run since girls could think they are only worth something for what they can provide rather than for who they are.
"I see both teenaged girls and boys in my practice, and I've noticed this trend since I started. It usually takes a while, but once you get them to open up they are quite happy to discuss this issue. BJs are seen by many of these girls as the 'great equalizer', a way in which the less-popular girls can improve their social standing in the vicious world of girl politics."
So, because it's something that any girl can do, it's the "great equalizer"? Or is she contending that less popular girls use giving head as a way to make up for their lack of "natural" popularity? Either way, I see the situation as making things worse for the "unpopular" girls. I see this as yet another way to divide women, to make us competitive with each other rather than supportive of each other. It could also even be argued that this is just another way to feed the patriarchal society. But back to the topic at hand…
"Do they form lasting relationships this way? No. But do you really want 15 year old girls forming lasting relationships? They see it as a low-cost, high-return way of gaining power — power among their circle of girlfriends. Some even see it as a way of acquiring a valuable skill."
You are most likely not going to form a lasting romantic relationship when you are 15, but it is possible. The most important thing, though, is to have healthy relationships. Even if they are short-lived, that they are upbuilding, healthy, loving relationships. I'm not even talking about romantic relationships, but friendships within their circle of girls. We want to have positive relationships, not competitive relationships where people are striving for power. Perhaps this is something we should be addressing. Rather than "How can I get more power?", we should be asking "Why is there this power struggle?".
Another thing, how is this a valuable skill? Let me be blunt. I haven't always had the same views I currently do. I considered myself a virgin until vaginal penetration at 17. I had given blow jobs plenty of times when I was a virgin. I enjoyed it. It was probably my favorite thing to do. However, I'm not sure I would say it was a valuable skill that I acquired. It's not as if it's that hard to learn. I'm sure these girls could learn the skill after they got married just as easily, actually more easily because they won't have to worry about "performing" as much, than when hooking up with 15 year olds. Most girls aren't that good at it because they a) don't focus on the correct parts and b) don't keep at it long enough. Acquiring a "valuable skill" is lame. There are many more valuable skills to be acquiring during one's teenage years.
"When a homely 15 year old beams at me for the first time in six months because she finally "did it" with her boyfriend, removing the pressure for a more intense and possibly more damaging physical relationship, I can't help but wonder why you are so disgusted and alarmed at this? This girl was in serious trouble, suicidal thoughts, a scratcher, etc. based largely on her inability to establish any kind of power within her group. With this one simple act she catapulted herself out of the dregs of teenaged anguish and felt empowered in a way she had never before. Do you expect these poor girls to gain self-esteem in our oversexed culture from their embroidery or their homemaking?"
Not necessarily, but I also don't think perpetuating the oversexed culture is the answer either. We need to ask why she was unaccepted in her group and address her needs. We need to address the whole power structure among teens in the first place. People are always going to be competitive, but we need to strive to do it in healthy arenas, like sports, for example.
"And you completely ignore the effect on the boys. You blame them, but you do not appreciate the profound effect that having an acceptable sexual outlet has on a testasterone-poisoned 15 year old. I've seen boys who felt as tortured by low self-esteem as any scratcher turn around entirely when they finally got a girlfriend willing to 'do it'. Grades improve. Behavior issues diminish in some cases. And far from being more willing to objectify women, the act brings an awareness of the girls around them that isn't usually present until college."
Again, I'm sorry. I still contend there are healthier ways to improve self esteem. Testosterone is not poison. Just like estrogen/progesterone (and all the effects they have including PMS) are not poison. It's called self control. Get some. I disagree that awareness is mutually exclusive with objectifying women. They may be more aware, but I would still come down on the side of the actions would lead to the objectification of women (and possibly also women's objectification of men).
"Are their abusers? Sure. Do kids get hurt? Sure. Are there risks? Of course. But by indulging in this fairly harmless bit of sexual expression, both boys and girls are able to find some level of security in the punishing torment of adolescent hormones — and no one gets pregnant. Tell them it's not a good idea, and you blow all credibility with them — they have no problem accusing you (justifyably!) of hypocrisy. The only people who see this as a problem are their parents, myopic feminists, and conservatives whose sexual ethic was formed in the 14th century."
I don't think I fall into any of those 3 categories; I know I don't fall into the first. I disagree that I would lose credibility with them by telling them it's not a good idea. In fact, I know I wouldn't from past experience; I have led small groups on retreats with middle and high school students across the country. Just saying "Don't do this." goes in one ear and out the other. However, relating lessons learned from personal experience gave me credibility. The young people gave plenty of feedback, so I knew what I told them had made a difference. It had changed their minds. They listened to me because I had been there, done that. It's not hypocritical if you are practicing what you preach.
Now, just like I was up front with those young people, I was up front with you folks about my past experiences earlier in this article. That was the past, though. To determine if I am a hypocrite, one must look at my current actions. It's easy to practice what I'm preaching when I'm not involved (if that's the word) with anyone…or, at least, easier. However, I am involved with a guy who I care deeply about and with whom there is definitely physical attraction. 😉 We both respect each other enough, though, to not be engaging in oral sex (or a whole host of other activities for that matter). We actually have pretty restrictive physical boundaries. Is it easy? No. Is anything worthwhile easy? Of course not. Stuart continues in a later comment:
"What do you say to a young girl about sex, when a lack of any sexual contact puts her in the back of the pack for prospective boyfriends, and a lack of sexual experience leaves her so totally outside of her peer group as to be ostracized?"
You tell her that she deserves better! You tell her that she should (as cliche as this sounds) "be herself because those who matter won't mind and those who mind don't matter." There are social circles that don't require sexual experience for membership and boys who don't require "putting out" to be involved with them. They are usually the better, healthier, more meaningful relationships (friendship and romantic) anyhow.