What I Really, Really Want for My 40th Birthday
You probably already know I'm the founder and executive director of Scarleteen. (If not, hello! Lovely meeting you.) You might not know that on Sunday I'm turning 40.
I don't normally ask the internet for birthday prezzies, but 40 is a big freaking birthday. When I was the age of most of the young people I counsel now, I had it in my head I wouldn't live past 36. I've become the adult I didn't even think I would be around to be. When someone asked me what I wanted last week for my birthday, what I felt I really wanted, in my heart of hearts, was the kind of world I'd truly prefer to live in and want for young people, particularly around sexuality, their bodies and their relationships. I want the world I've been working very hard to try and create. Big birthdays deserve big gifts, right?
Of course, no one can just snap their fingers and give that to me. But there is something small each of you can do to plant some seeds for it, and I'm going to go ahead and be a noodge and ask you for it.
Here's what I'd like you to do: whether you're an older adult or a younger person, I want you to identify one person in their teens or early twenties in your orbit that you care for. Maybe they're a nephew or niece, a sibling, a student, someone you mentor, a co-worker, a neighbor, a friend's kid or even your own.
Then I'd like you to email them a link to Scarleteen or a copy of my book (or both!), but not just a link or a book. I'd also like you to add a letter from the heart that explains why you're sharing the link with them, and then identifies you as someone gladly willing and able to be there for them to talk to. Let them know that you know this time of life can be seriously overwhelming and can also feel really isolating. Let them know that you support them in their own journeys and explorations and their own fun. Let them know that you are available to listen without judgment or projection; to give any information, feedback or input they want with bald honesty and no preaching; to be a source of support they have in their corner should they ever need one, no matter what, and even if you don't agree with them, even if they think they did something awful, or even if it's 3 in the morning and you have to get up for work at 5. Let them know that whether they have any kind of sex or choose not to have any kind of sex, you're in their corner and support what that they want that feels real and right for them.
Writing that letter will probably only take you a few minutes. Honoring that commitment to them, on the other hand, is a far larger present. But again, big birthday, big gift.
See, this is what I do with much of my day and have for most of my adult life in one way or another, though more times than not, over the last decade I do it with young people I have never actually met, who didn't know who I was until they came asking for help. I'm so glad that they have myself and our volunteers to come to, and I'm happy I can be there for them, even though no matter how good a job I do, it's never going to be as good as them having someone in person, who they already know, can be. I'm acutely aware that most of the time the teens who come to me for all of this do because they either don't have anyone else to turn to they can count on, or they do, but they don't know they do because no one has ever just come out and said, in a very clear way, that they will be there and want to be there.
And that, fine denizens of the Internet, is just not the kind of world I want to live in or want young people to have to live in.
My teens and twenties rarely resembled those of much of the generation I meet online right now in a whole lot of ways. When I'm doing outreach at the teen shelter, I more often meet youth who are a lot more like I was, who are grappling with more of the kinds of things I was, than many of the young people I come into contact with via Scarleteen.
However, even with the young people who don't have the struggles I did, there are always common threads. Feeling isolated and like I had no one to turn to who I knew, without question, would accept and support me without judgment or punishment, without trying to tramp on the freedoms I did have that were sustaining me: that's one big place I find common ground with young people now. I really wish I didn't.
I spent several years in my early teens keeping my sexual assaults a secret locked inside and eating away at me because I couldn't identify an adult to talk to about them I knew was safe and knew wanted to be available to me. There initially wasn't a safe adult I could identify to talk to about being queer, either. Even when hospitalized for a suicide attempt, I still didn't tell anyone anything that was going on with me. I wound up doing really well in my later teens and after that when it came to sex, relationships, following my dreams, working towards my life goals, connecting with friends, but that's only because eventually, a couple of those adults did identify themselves to me clearly and openly. A parent, a teacher, a therapist, the parent of a friend: the support and help they gave me made a world of difference, but a difference of incredible magnitude was made in just the moment those people told me the kinds of things I'm asking you to tell a young person who you know.
I'm concerned about the young people out there right now who had the issues I did to grapple with. I'm concerned about the young people I work with sometimes at the shelter who have grown up moving from foster home to foster home, whose parents have literally thrown them to the wolves. I'm concerned about other abuse and assault survivors. But I am almost more troubled by how many young people there are out there right now who should be doing okay because their primary needs have been met and are still being met, and they do have access to many resources, they don't have those kinds of challenges, but they still aren't doing okay. Plenty of them aren't even in sexual relationships and yet have stress and anxiety about sex and relationships they aren't even having. Millions of them are rife with (and medicated for) anxiety. More and more of them are finding themselves involved in emotionally abusive relationships. When a lot of them say their friends will judge them, they aren't being dramatic. I often feel like this generation is held to standards mine wasn't: they often express feeling like they're not allowed to make mistakes, their level of achievement is expected to be higher than anyone else's (even with economic and social issues making it tougher in many ways for them to achieve anything), they're not allowed to have fun, and they're supposed to be seen (including on billboards to capitally benefit adults), but not heard. They read and listen to the ways older adults talk trash or untruths about younger people, and I have to read and hear it too, and I see and hear far more of that -- as do they -- than I see and hear support and faith in them. I agree with the assessments of young people about how it is for them. I also agree with them that it really sucks.
In terms of sex, a lot of them who are sexually active also aren't doing so on their own terms. It's politically and culturally provocative right now, and has been for a while, to suggest it's not only okay young people are sexual, but that if they're going to have sex and enact their sexuality, they should be very much enjoying themselves, but per usual, I'm saying it anyway (and also per usual, I won't lie and say that the notion there's something provocative about that statement is anything but ludicrous and about wanting to control). When the parts of life that are supposed to be about pleasure stop offering people pleasure, of any age, I think that's pretty freaking scary. If the word pleasure makes you itchy, replace it with the word joy, because that's what real pleasure is. No matter our age, life can be hard enough that we deeply need its simple joys: without them, life is little more than slogging through. Especially with all the awful stuff I had to deal with growing up, I can't imagine how I would have gotten through it without also having a damn good time now and then, in bed, in the mosh pit or anywhere else I found respite, celebration, freedom and a place to discover and embrace the person I was and would become.
The conventional thinking is that strife and massive amounts of stress are "normal" during the teen years, that it's normal for young people to "have problems," but that's an idea many young adult therapists and other advocates have repeatedly argued is false, and I'm in agreement. While this is a challenging time in life, I'm of the mind that much of the hardest struggling all kinds of young people do could mostly be avoided if they were just better supported, better cared for, better respected and seen by the rest of us and afforded more trust and freedom. Even if I'm wrong, it may still help and certainly won't hurt.
For the record, I know that sometimes it's not easy to talk about the things they want and need to talk about, and to listen and give feedback without judgment or unsolicited prescription. In order to do that, we may even have to address things in ourselves, including from our own teens and twenties, that we'd rather have just left to gather dust. We often have to examine inclinations we may not have even known we had, like the desire to repress, conduct or control, desires which can be particularly hard for progressive people to even know we may have. But in my experience, while young people are the central beneficiaries of our making these efforts, we benefit, too. Advocating for young people the way I have, supporting young people the way I have, has been a real gift for me, perhaps one of the biggest of my four decades in this life. Doing this for them has been a practice, just like a practice of sitting and breathing each day, that has absolutely been a major player in my own growth and personal development, in my own understanding of myself and the world around me, even when it's been tiring, hard or stressful or has forced me to recognize that age alone doesn't always give us wisdom, and sometimes has even meant the loss of certain kinds of wisdom young people have but we forgot. I expect that you do or will experience the same benefits yourself.
If you're reading this here, I know you want the world that I want for them, too. By building a resource like Scarleteen over the last 12 years, I've got much of the information piece already covered for you to give them, as well as a secondary outlet of support. All I'm asking of you is to direct even just one young person to the information and then to make yourself available to that person as a far better avenue of support than I could possibly be, especially for the millions of teens and twentysomethings I'll never meet in person. So, wish me a happy birthday by writing and sending that letter or that email, will you? I thank you, my increasingly grey hair thanks you, the young person I was (and you perhaps were, too) thanks you, and the young people you make yourself openly available to will usually thank you for it someday, too.
P.S. If you're a teenager reading this? If you want to give me this kind of gift, I can present two equally valid options to you. You can offer yourself up in this way to someone younger than you or to a same-age friend. Even if it's someone the same age, I don't have to tell you that you guys often judge the crap out of each other, so making a big effort not to and being there for someone in this way is major. But you can also hear me in this saying that there ARE usually people out there for you ready, willing and able to provide the same for you, even if they haven't outrightly said it. If they haven't, then another way you can give me this gift is to go ahead and ask this of someone you suspect might be that person for you, advocating for yourself in this. I know all too well that it's hard and it's scary, and it'd be so much better if they were the ones who came to you, but like I said up there, getting older doesn't always make us more wise. However, a whole lot of us are awfully good at rising to the occasion when we realize we've been daft.