After graduate school in public health, I was employed by the State of California to help solve the problem of teenage pregnancy by educating teenagers about birth control. The fundamental origin of the problem – i.e. the premarital sexual activity of the teenagers – was accepted as a given. The Planned Parenthood professional assigned to train me pointed out that the real solution to this problem was to eradicate the sense of shame associated with premarital sex.
I was stunned. But the logic was obvious: Teenage pregnancy is a problem. Birth control is the solution. Shame is the barrier to applying the solution. Therefore eliminate shame in order to solve the problem.
But taking a young person’s sense of modesty and giving back a pill or a condom wasn’t what anyone would call a fair trade.
Nonetheless, for the next several months I proceeded to talk to hundreds of teenagers about various methods of birth control. But I was never convinced that I was genuinely helping them. That one comment about shame was the tip of an iceberg that no condom could ever cover.
Professionally, I succumbed to the obligatory gag rule: Don’t say anything that could arouse the sense of shame. In practice, then, I was compelled to imply that all sexual choices were morally neutral.
The new sexual ideology protected teenagers from shame by saying, “if you feel like you are ready, then it’s OK.” Ready for what? Ready to build a life together? Ready for another conquest? Ready to feel like a slut? Ready to bring a new life into the world?
Shame is a powerful word that explodes off in many directions
There is a cruel, destructive side to shame. Controlling people by shaming them into self-loathing or compliance, for example. But shame also protects us. It prevents us from treating others in a despicable fashion. And it protects the sanctity of our unfinished and unready selves.
Recently, I returned to the high school campus and was free to talk with students about how they see themselves and what they dare to hope for. The poignant, articulate expressions of their ideals and intentions belied every stereotype that the relentless construct in our minds.
Many are offended by the adult assumption that most teens are sexually active. One girl was so uncomfortable that she finally went to her teacher in Living Skills class to explain that she was not sleeping with her boyfriend. “It’s like the adult world invading our world,” another girl commented.
Yet they are embarrassed to ask the questions they care about most. “What should I look for in a guy?” “How do I know if it’s morally right?” “How will I feel afterwards?”
Behind their “Correct,” value-free facade lurks a deep sense of loss. They lament the lack of guidelines and moral structure. One girl described it this way: “It used to be that people got married and they had sex. Then when the baby came there was a place for it. Now technology has taken away the worry of having children. That leaves sex to float around in everyone’s life when there’s no guy who’s going to stick around.”
“It used to be that kids wouldn’t want to disappoint themselves or each other,” a boy remarked. “I think it’s really lonely,” said another. “It’s sad.”