When I was a teenager, having sex wasn't really part of my rebellion.
Having GOOD sex was.
Now, I know that I'm kind of not supposed to even say this stuff out loud, especially within earshot of anyone under 18...or 21 or 29 or whatever this week's proper age for sexual activity issued forth from our oh-so-moral government is per being an unrepentant tramp. Don't suppose age matters here: it's pretty clear there's not any age or station at which it's acceptable per the Bushies to be a woman who enjoys sex on her own terms and happily has plenty of it.
I know that admissions like that sometimes have the effect of diminishing my credibility in the eyes of some as a young adult sex educator. As I understand it, if you had really great sex as a teen (or a grown woman, or a lesbian or a gay man or anyone not over 50, heterosexual and married), and worse still, lots of it, you somehow lose (or never had) the ability to think critically and soundly, to have any sort of objectivity whatsoever, and thus, would obviously advise every teenager you meet to go do exactly what you did, covering them with your icky, infectious slut-bugs. You are one dangerous, contagious harlot from whom all good children who would become good adults should keep their distance.
To perhaps the surprise of exactly no one, if you were one of the ten people who held off on sex until you married at the now-average age of 27, or had really lousy teenage sex with catastrophic results, that gives you extra credibility if you're the kind of sex educator that is telling them to stay the heck away from sex and their sexuality at all costs.
But I wasn't ashamed of it then, and I work hard to keep any other teenager from being ashamed, so I'm certainly not going to be ashamed of it now.
Being sexually active in my teens wasn't about pissing my parents off, or gaining social status, or meeting some sort of status quo (especially considering that while I wasn't out for a few years, my partners were not simply male, and this was the early-mid-eighties, before anyone gave you points for macking down with other girls, to say the least). The sex I was having wasn't merely two-minute intercourse, I wasn't in partnerships where my body or self was dismissed or treated like a receptacle, I wasn't feeling ashamed of how I or my genitals looked, being coerced into one-sided sex I didn't want, or only wanted the emotional or social benefits of, and figuring that getting little to nothing physically out of sex was worth the other benefits it might have offered, or that the sex would eventually net me care from partners I wasn't already getting.
Instead, I was almost always having sex that made me feel really good, where I had lots of good orgasms, where I could laugh with my partners at our fumbling when we fumbled, where my morning-afters left a perpetual grin on my face, rather than the look-away-I'm-hideous grimace of ashamed regret. I did a darn good job in choosing sexual partners who were kind, caring people that earnestly liked me -- and vice-versa -- and who had mutual pleasure and care in mind.
Mind, it was the 80's, and I also did plenty of things that I wouldn't encourage other teens to do, both sexually and in conjunction with sex, but in many ways, I feel I have positive sexual experiences to thank for not only getting me through the awfulness of much of my teen years, but for setting me up to continue to have great sex throughout my life, and to feel really good about my sexuality and the self it's a part of.
Due to the negative parts of how I came of age in the house I was living in, due to the sexual abuses and harassment I dealt with, due to simply being a smart, sensitive gal who engaged in cultural analysis in her head a lot I got the message loud and clear that I was sexualized like nobody's business, but that that sexuality wasn't supposed to be something I owned. It was supposed to be something used against me (and I was just supposed to take it like a girl), or used to gender, commodify, devalue or objectify me. Thankfully, I also got a few opposing messages that all of that was completely screwed up, and thankfully, the context of my life as a whole equipped me with the tools to know how messed up those attitudes and cultural edicts were.
I didn't have sex -- with guys, with girls, with myself -- to make anyone else mad or uncomfortable, or to follow somesome's orders that I should. I had sex to claim and reclaim my own body and sexuality, to remind myself of all the good stuff about it, including that sex was supposed to make me feel good and be something I wanted and initiated. I had sex to find out what sex was, the ways I liked it, what part it played in my life and my identity. I had sex because I was a poor kid with a lot of pans in the fire and it's a totally affordable vacation where you can fit in an awful lot of relaxation and de-stressing in very limited periods of time. I had sex because I wanted to have sex and I liked having sex. I had sex because it felt great, it was one hell of an adventure, and I discovered ways to be assertive in the rest of my life though the sex I was having. I had sex because in the romances and friendships in which I had it, it felt right, it increased intimacy, and it was one of many ways to get to know someone else and myself better.
In a word, I had sex for all of the reasons people have sex. Fancy that.
I know a big turning point for me in my sexual development, odd as it may sound, was the assault that happened at 12. Despite having to live in silence about it, despite it not being managed at all well, or even acknowledged as the hardcore trauma it was, despite having to work all of it out only in my own head until many years later when I found some support, I knew full well that it, and another abuse a year before, was NOT sex. I'm not even sure how I knew that, but I did.
I'm down with being a statistic: is it likely that some of why I had sex at an earlier age than many was because of abuse? Yes, I think it was. On the other hand, while there were also a whole lot of other reasons I did as well, even when we're talking about the parts of my motivation to do so that likely came from abuse. And for those aspects that were motivated by abuse, it wasn't primarily about my thinking my only use or was sexual, or about reenacting my abuse.
It was about rebelling against it: if I was going to be having any kind of sex with someone else, and they with me, it was going to be about pleasure, it was going to be about freedom in my body and theirs, it was going to be about joy and communion and natural curiosity, it was going to be something we liked doing on all levels; something which was emotionally, intellectually and physically satisfying for me and whomever else was involved.
And it was.
The older I get, the more aware I become that I had really good sex as a teen and young adult. In fact, now having spent many years talking with and listening to teens about their sex lives -- even when their only partner is themselves -- I know that by comparison, I had astonishingly good sex. Perhaps even more depressingly, I know from also doing work with adults that I had better sex as a teen than a lot of people have as full-fledged adults.
Mind, even with my burdens and my traumas, I grew up in a different time and place and environment than a lot of teens today.
I was primarily urban. My community was diverse, and no one viewpoint about anything (or looked any one way), including about sexuality, was dominant. No teacher or guest speaker in my school ever came in to tell me that I would die if I had sex, or become an unsavory, unsticky piece of tape who couldn't properly bond to other people because I was having sex. I had a level of confidence, reslience and self-assurance that resulted in any of my peers calling me a dyke or a whore or a slut (which didn't often happen) being told to get stuffed, and my not taking any such jibes to heart.
I left one home early on (and spent the last year barely there no matter what it took to avoid it), and had a measure of autonomy and responsibility to manage a lot of teens even then didn't, and now still often don't. I had jobs from an early age, I made many of my own clothes, I fed myself, I got myself around the city on my own on public transportation, I paid for much of my own basic care, including some of my schooling, and in general, the frivolities of my teenage life were balanced out by an awful lot of responsbility, so sex wasn't the first place I needed to be accountable and in the driver's seat.
I knew where the sexual health clinics were, and I used them vigilantly, and with community support in using them. I very rarely took risks in terms of protecting myself from pregnancy and infection, and no one was trying to scare me away from those protections. Because I spent much of my youth in the hospital my mother worked in, very comfortable around doctors and nurses, I was always fine with asking my sexual healthcare providers questions, and I had the benefit of knowing the right language to ask them in -- and a comfort with that language -- so I could net real answers. There was sound sexuality information on bookshelves at both my mother and father's apartments, in my school libraries, in my public libraries.
I had one parent who was 100% fine with the fact that I wasn't heterosexual, who was wonderful to any girlfriends I brought home, and who never gave me any idea there was anything wrong (or even unusual), at all, with being queer. That same parent also sent really strong messages about my claiming ownership and responsibility for my sexual choices autonomously. I was never the girl who'd have to ask a partner if they had a condom or birth control, and be at anyone else's mercy as to what they'd try and get me to go without using. I was the girl who simply pulled whatever it was out of my purse, handed it over, gave no indication to the recipient whatsoever that sex without was optional, and in meeting any resistance to being safe, tended to merely shrug and voice that no sex was going to happen then, and that was cool with me.
I also had no illusions about the fact that sexual violence and abuse was widespread, and that bad things absolutely could happen to me, and -- having a more cynical view in many respects than many my age -- with my luck, probably would, especially if I didn't walk in every door already standing up for myself. I had a defiance and an anger about a lot of my life that was a very real gift in this regard, as it was -- and still is -- in many others.
I also had some measure of comprehensive sex education growing up.
Given, it wasn't exactly queer-inclusive, but it sure wasn't queer-negative, either. It didn't quite tell me how to enjoy myself during sex and didn't address any of my abuse, but it also didn't tell me sex would kill me on first contact, even if I protected myself, that I needed to get married to have it, that birth control (safer sex wasn't an issue yet: thank heaven for having a parent working in AIDS care before most of the world even knew AIDS existed so I knew about that) being effective was just a myth or that if I did become or was sexually active, I was the human equivalent of an overused kleenex. The cultural sentiment was such that I could even ask a teacher I respected for help or advice, and that adult could give me support and information without fear of losing their job.
* * *
Imagine, if you will, how things might have been for me in different circumstances. In say, the circumstances of many teens today.
It would have been very easy for me, and far more typical, for instance, to have developed a profound sexual shame and low self-esteem that would have been easy for others to exploit given some of the abuses I lived through, had I only heard opinions and information which enabled or encouraged those results. It would have been very typical for a girl like me, survivor at an early age, who grew up with one strong set of very negative messages about my terrible, awful growing-into-womanhood body, to not be so resilient and defiant, especially with the pervasive messages of the media, the Girls Gone Wild commercials, the capitalizing upon teenage sexuality while at the same time denying it outright, the en masse weight loss mania, the commodification of girl-girl relationships, the endless hard-sell of heterosexism and that one right man as the answer to everything. Even if I hadn't have been a survivor, all this crap would have had a profoundly negative impact on me.
With the continued suppression of, and resistance to, a lot of feminist politics and the cultural revisitations of the ideal woman-as-eunuch, or woman-as-property, imagine how much more difficult it would have been for me to assert myself when it came to my sexuality: both in simply honoring its totally healthy, normal desires and in negotiating sex with partners. Imagine how doggone ashamed I might have been with myself, even for the sex I was only having WITH myself. Imagine what I might have thought of the men and the women I had sex with. Imagine how I might have felt as a sexual abuse survivor. Imagine how on earth I could have managed to be that girl holding out the condom and holding her own.
Being a low-income teen, had I not had -- as a majority of teens right now do not -- access to affordable, accessible and nonjudgmental sexual health services, I'd have had a lot of questions that went unanswered that very much needed answering. I may well have gone without the birth control and safer sex I needed, the annual screens and exams, and I may not have had access to medically accurate sex information at all. No sense in pussyfooting around: if I had been even half as sexually active as I was then just without that one thing, chances are quite excellent I'd have been long dead by now.
Once I switched over to my arts high school, I was in a completely GLB-friendly environment, to the degree that I'd call it GLB-celebratory: had I stayed in public high school, had all my immediate community been wary of queerness at best, and homophobic at worse, things would not have gone so well for me. Had I not had some good role models around me, some awesomely strong, outspoken women and some fantastic old queens, that made clear that my sex, gender, orientation or desires didn't make me inferior, sullied or shameful, I would not only have been a very different person then, I would be a very different person now, someone who loved and accepted herself and everyone around her a whole lot less.
In a less diverse environment, without a wide spectrum of beliefs and attitudes available to me, try and figure out how I could have really found out what I really thought and felt about my sexuality and my sexual life, explored freely enough to find out what identity was authentic to me, and what it was I really wanted for myself, to fulfill my needs, not just the needs and wants of others. Had I not had at least one family member where I could be completely honest about my sexuality and sexual life, who supported my choices and helped me learn to make them responsibly AND had I been reared in an environment where other support wasn't anywhere to be found, where would I have turned to to find it? (P.S. This is also a good wonder to have if you're wondering how it is so many younger teen girls get hooked into iffy relationships with older men, because guess who has NO problem endorsing and supporting their sexual maturation?) When I did just plain screw up, how might I have dealt with it and learned from my errors if there wasn't at least one person who I knew loved me who could also tell me that it was okay to screw up sometimes?
What if I had not been reared with my inquisitive spirit nurtured? Without it being a given that I was not only allowed to, but encouraged to, ask questions about anything and everything, including my own body, any aspect of sex, sexual politics and mores? Had I instead been raised with much of that purposefully stifled, unless what I thought fit someone's agenda, who might I have become?
Hell, how might I have been able to have the focus, confidence, energy and time to devote to all my awesome achievements of my teen and young adult years that had nothing to do with sex if I'd been a teenager today, just trying to navigate my way through the jungle of sexuality?
* * *
See, all of the things I had going for me are things that many teens right now do not now have. Plenty of them have exactly none of these things.
My challenges aside, let's take a real look at all of those benefits I had, and bear in mind that even with them, I was still left wanting when it came to sex education and to sexuality support. If I still felt I needed more, if I could have benefitted from better, then you've got to ask yourself how on earth we or anyone else expects a lot of teens and young adults right now to come out healthy and whole with how little support so many of them have to be healthy and whole, sexually and otherwise.
I seriously don't want Scarleteen and my work to be the only thing out there for them, and thankfully, it isn't, even though sex education like this remains in serious danger of extinction. There are parents out there who rock it with sexuality support, information, and providing great environments for their kids when it comes to sex. There are other organizations which support and distribute sound, comprehensive sex ed. There are schools bucking the system, and there are communities stepping up to the plate. Not enough of them, if you ask me, but they are out there.
But I like to think that over the years, myself, the volunteers and the users have figured out a way to provide something that is quite unique and very sorely needed: something bigger, even, than just a good sex ed class or one supportive person. Basic, accurate sexuality, sex and sexual health information is critical. But so is a positive, wide, diverse and shameless context for it.
I think it's vital to have an environment for sex education which feels comfortable, personable and also respectful; which answers questions but also asks them, making clear that sexuality isn't simple and that its influence on us as individuals, in our relationships and in our communities and culture is vast. I think it's essential to have sex education which dares youth to take very real ownership of their sexuality, as individuals and as a collective -- perhaps in a way we don't even know to exist yet in our world -- and busts its ass to give them the tools and support to do so.
When I did the acknowledgments for the book -- which, suffice it to say, went on for an age, like everything out of my mouth tends to -- the very last sentence is this: "To that girl I once was, here's that book you wanted. Sorry it took me so long."
In many ways, this can also be said for Scarleteen.
I didn't really mean to make something for who I was: in many ways, there is plenty at Scarleteen I did have, and which would have been superfluous for me. On the other hand, there's plenty there I really could have used, such as opportunities to process my sexual abuse and what it meant to me to be a survivor, or having other peers around in different places to talk to who were queer, without worry of my conversations about those issues quickly finding their way through the gossip mill of my immediate queer community. Gender was also a real issue for me: it wasn't until college, and many years of trying to fit a very femme mold that just wasn't me, that it was ever strongly suggested to me that gender was about choice, not biology or what ideals were pushed on me. That's one I'm still working my way through, and feel I have wasted an awful lot of time struggling with, that I could have used to a much better end. Had someone let me know earlier on that I had more choices than ingenue or femme fatale, it would have been pretty life-altering.
During the times when I had trouble rectifying my enjoyment of sex with the occasional feeling that that's all I would be seen as sometimes, having someone to talk to about changing some of my choices or the way I made them, and about how to analyze the real root of those feelings would have been a real gift. As one of the only teens I knew as sexually active as I, having others around who were more expert, who could talk me through a pregnancy scare, scenarios when I wasn't sure what I wanted my boundaries to be, some of my conflicting feelings about my female body or my queerness? This would have been seriously nice. Having someone with some distance from me, who I didn't have to worry about disappointing, to call me on my shit when I did do things sexually that were just plain stupid, or put too much stock in my sexual life or identity also would have been a real bonus. And I'll tell you right now, that as the primary sexual advisor to most of my friends, they sure would have benefitted if I had had a source like Scarleteen to send them to, especially on those days when I was so damn sure I knew all there was to know, and on the days when they believed me.
If a teenager like I was could have found these benefits in this and more, it should be painfully obvious that a majority of teenagers today need it more than ever: especially if they're going to be having any sort of sex (and most are), and all the more if we have any care about the sex they're having actually being any good, in every way it can -- and should -- be for everyone, at any age.
(Super-duper thanks to everyone who has blogged today for Scarleteen, to those donating, and in advance for those whose entries are forthcoming: not only is it a great big help to us, but now that things have started winding down for me this week, I've really been enjoying reading some of what's out there.)
Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col
for this post. it is resonating with me.