Forward Thinking: What would you tell teenagers about sex? (In response to Libby Anne)

Libby Anne writes:

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the problems of the purity culture’s elevation of virginity. The evangelicalism I grew up in made abstinence before marriage a critical matter of faith, and did it’s utmost to persuade of scare teens out of having sex. Misinformation was rife. But like many similar blogs, I spend more time talking about how the purity culture “does it wrong” than about what it looks like to be doing it right. And so, without further ado, I give you this month’s Forward Thinking discussion question:

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

Teenagers and sex, lol. I have to say that Libby Anne’s purity culture might seem exotic to those much younger than me, but in fact, I’m old enough to have grown up with those same standards. It wasn’t until I was in high school that it was legal for single American women to receive a prescription for the pill. Fear of pregnancy kept most young women committed to a version of the purity culture, even for those of us who were not swayed much by religious strictures.

That was not the case when my daughter was a teenager, but she was not a sexually adventurous teen, and she has since settled into a happily monogamous relationship with her girlfriend of several years. (I was clueless until she came out at twenty, lol). Although I talked to her about the physical aspects of maturing into womanhood, we never really had occasion to talk through less cut and dried concerns.

I think other bloggers will have many wonderful things to say about autonomy and bullying, gender identity and expectations of parents and society. But the thing I would like to talk about, that I wish I had understood when I was a teen, is the sad synergy of sexual feelings and what we Buddhists call “craving”. So much of sexual morality has been discussed in Christian terms that I feel another perspective might be useful.

The perfect example of pure craving is the toddler in the grocery store who’s about to throw a tantrum because his mom won’t buy him something. As we get older, craving gets more complicated, more mixed in with other feelings. And in particular, when we’re teenagers, craving gets mixed up with sex.

My first taste of sex mixed with craving was my adoration of Davy Jones from the Monkees. By today’s standards my fantasies were incredibly innocent. The worst you could say is that I wasted a lot of time (and, oh yeah, annoyed my family by affecting an English accent.) But I was also learning about the first element of craving, which is obsessive, repetitive thinking. 

The second, more destructive element didn’t show up until I had my first sexual crush on a real person, a guy I met at summer camp. After we were separated, I made and sent cassette tapes to him. When his responses stopped coming, I experienced the most crushing fear of being a worthless person. Every good, “feminine” characteristic seemed to me to be lacking in myself, and every image of unfeminine, unlovely behavior seemed to fit me perfectly. I probably spent six months in despair.

(This, by the way, is the malign signature of craving — obsession combined with an underlying fear. Craving mobilizes our survival instincts against us, insisting that if we will DIE, we will absolutely never recover if we don’t get that dress, that part in the show, a date for prom. Craving also tends to blind us to the legitimate feelings of those around us… including, sometimes, the person we crave. I have come to believe that there is no self-centered little shit like a Romantic-with-a-capital-RRRRRR little shit!

There are people — mostly, but by no means exclusively, male — who, rather than feel fear, transmute that fear into anger. When craving strikes, these can be dangerous people. These are the people who demand self-abasement of those who care for them. These are the people who, if they feel rejected, start vicious rumors about the object of their “affection”. These people are abusive — sometimes verbally, sometimes physically. These people sometimes explode into violence. It’s a problem that seems to get worse, year by year.)

Most of what I knew in my teens about feelings and dealing with feelings was wrong, as it turns out. I welcomed craving, under the mistaken impression that it was “falling in love”. And I believed that if love was real, if it was “meant to be”, then it would overwhelm me. Under the influence of songs by Schubert and Schumann, I convinced myself that my melancholy was the sign of an artistic soul.

At least I didn’t attempt suicide. I did get sent to see psychologists and counselors a couple of time, and they gave me plenty of hearty advice about paying less attention to my feelings and just, for heaven’s sake, getting ON with life.

What I would like to say to my former self, and what I think that a lot of kids today could profit from hearing is this: feelings are comprehensible and manageable. There’s no need to ignore or suppress them, nor do they have to control your life. 

The trick to managing feelings — the technique I was never taught — is to pay attention to them without being drawn in. It took me decades to learn that, but it needn’t have. Because here’s the thing: at that point, I already understood that to sing well, I needed to simultaneously feel the emotions of the song and also keep a sort of analytic attention on technique and musicality — the placement of this vowel, the preparation for the next high note, etc. This bifurcation of emotional and analytic attention, letting both run at the same time, was something I already knew how to do. Why did no one suggest it could be applied to managing feelings?

The answer, probably, is that Americans believe they have a god-given right to their feelings. And if anybody doesn’t like our feelings or the way we express those feelings, well, they should just get OVER themselves. 

But the truth that has taken me decades to learn, is that when I pay close attention to my feelings, but avoid getting sucked into them, I gain a whole dimension of freedom I never had before. I gain a wellspring of understanding that gives depth to my singing and my speaking and my writing. I gain a steadiness of purpose that lets me treat disappointment and triumph as lessons outside myself instead of proof of my worth, or lack of worth.

Ultimately, what got me through those years (and I think what also helped my daughter at a similar age) was that I was steadily working toward a goal. Certainly one of the things that dismayed me about a couple of my daughter’s friends was that they seemed so aimless. I cannot remember being aimless.

Thinking about this post, I’ve come to the conclusion that, although sex is THE big, attention-snagging feeling for teenagers and their parents, pair bonding is not really the main task of the teen years, at least not in the twenty-first century. A more immediately important skill is the ability to look out over the world and find work that needs doing, that you want to do, and that you think you could do well. It might not end up being your life’s work, but if not, you will be able to choose again, with some confidence in your ability to choose.

And when you are engaged in satisfying work, or in preparing for satisfying work, then finding a life partner is very much simplified. You will naturally gravitate toward someone who shares your values and is willing to help you, and receive your help, as each of you pursue your vocations. Oh, sexual feelings will play a part in your choice, of course they will. They should! Sex and love and satisfying work — when you can manage to do all three, you are truly an adult.