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Teen sex, social media red herrings and the moral panic we foster Add to ...

Is there anything that gets people more riled up than discussing teen – especially teen girl – sexuality? Between GQ’ s creepy descriptions of One Direction fans (a “dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates”) and Christian blogger Kimberly Hall’s extremely judgmental letter to selfie-takers, the Internet has been rife with conversations about what’s wrong with girls today.

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Last week, Vanity Fair stoked the moral panic fire with Nancy Jo Sales’ decidedly sex-negative “Friends Without Benefits” – or, if you go by the sensational Google clickbait headline: “What Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and Internet Porn Are Doing to America’s Teenage Girls.” (Ruining them, of course.)

Through a series of interviews with teenagers and a few experts, Ms. Sales reports: that “as new social media appears, teens seem to find ways to use it to have sex, often sex devoid of even any pretense of emotional intimacy.” There’s a lack of sex-positive quotes throughout the piece, which instead covers suicide attempts and “girls selling oral sex for $10 and $15 in the bathroom at a school.” All teen girls do, apparently, is desperately chase male attention, and all teen boys want from them is porn sex. Oh, and it’s social media’s fault.

I’m not sure what world Sales is reporting on, but it doesn’t look much like the real one. Treating teen sexuality as a taboo is far more dangerous than hooking up with a few people on Tinder. And there is little evidence the Internet’s handy sex tools are destroying teenagers. As Amanda Hess points out on the Salon XX blog:

“The U.S. teen pregnancy rate is declining. Teenagers are waiting longer and longer to have sex. In fact, Americans who have sex before they turn 20 are in the minority. Teens are waiting because they feel that sex is “against their religion or morals” or because “they had not yet found the right person,” according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control study. The rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in this country have dropped precipitously over the past half-century, even as a higher percentage of victims are reporting those crimes to the police.”

But none of this research fits into an old-timey nostalgia for imaginary days when teens didn’t have sex. Teenagers have always found ways to hook up and the vast majority of them grow up to be fine, functional adults. As Ms. Hess writes: “The idea that before the Internet rained hellfire on teenage bedrooms across America, girls and boys were sipping soda pops and slipping letterman jackets over each other’s shoulders is untrue and offensive. Sex was not better when women were second-class citizens.”

I’d argue that the potential for teenagers to experiment with good sex is better now than ever. It’s amazing that social media gives us so many more options when it comes to picking partners. I grew up in a town where I didn’t identify with a lot of other kids, so when I was 16 I joined a online music forum. It changed my life, romantic and otherwise. The ability to choose their own social circles – especially for teenagers who are queer or otherwise marginalized – is empowering and can really make a difference in young people’s lives.

There are problems, of course. The stories shared with Ms. Sales might not be a complete representation of young romance, but of course they are still disturbing. I don’t think the commodification of sex and the single-minded pursuit of it is healthy. And expecting sex to resemble mainstream porn by default and treating it as conquest can be incredibly damaging – I saw it in my adolescent life too. Furthermore, young women and girls remain the most likely group to experience dating violence and sexual assault.

But these problems are societal, not technological. Blaming social media is a lazy cop-out that prevents thorough cultural reflection on moral boundaries, historical gender dynamics, masculinity and femininity, and all the other pieces that factor into human sexuality.

The success of Ms. Sales’ scare piece relies on deep-rooted discomfort with sex – in particular, talking honestly with young people about it – that few communities in North America have been able to overcome. Even though studies consistently show that most Canadian parents (between 85 per cent and 91 per cent) support sex education in schools, our curriculum is extremely limited and out of date. It does not adequately cover important subjects like gender identity and expression, building healthy relationships, active consent, or simply talking about sex.

“No means no” and “use condoms” isn’t enough education on the subject, and we’ve known that for a long time. Years ago, the McGuinty government proposed a modernized, evidence-based comprehensive curriculum that took two years to outline, but it was shelved after 54 hours of largely religiously motivated protest from a small-but-vocal minority.

During Social Media Week I attended a panel on the future of sex education in schools and online, where Lyba Spring (a sexual health educator and counsellor who worked at Toronto Public Health for 30 years) talked about how the existing curriculum doesn’t allow educators to answer questions that aren’t explicitly covered. When they detect those gaps, teens are turning to the Internet and porn for more information.

While there are many great resources, such as Planned Parenthood’s Teen Health Source, they simply aren’t enough to really change how teenagers learn about and experiment with sexuality. Schools occasionally bring in independent counselors and educators, but not uniformly.

Until our core institutions adequately address sexuality and we stop all the unproductive moralistic hand wringing, the message will remain that teens have to figure sex out for themselves – if we are troubled by the results we only have ourselves to blame.

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