I have had the pleasure of working with preteens and teens for some time and had to face very early on the question of sex. I believe this topic should not be a shameful one that needs to be hidden away. Rather, it should be discussed openly with wisdom and tact. Furthermore, preteens and teens have the right to wonder about something that is a healthy part of everyone’s life. This is all the more important for religious preteens and teens. How are they going to be able to make informed decisions about sex and chastity if they have no one to help them sift through the oversexualised images that bombard us daily?
Not that it’s easy! I have often floundered, especially the first times I was asked about sex by kids only a few years younger than I am. I have a lot to learn when it comes to discussing the topic with preteens and teens, which is exciting. Unfortunately, it’s also quite lonely a road, as I have yet to find a group of youth and adults I can discuss this with openly. Ironically enough, this helps me to relate even more with the preteens and teens that I work with, as neither they nor I have a safe group where we can discuss these things openly. Thankfully, we have each other, but what about all the other preteens, teens, and adults working with them who don’t have anyone?
It comes as no surprise that I, bookworm extraordinaire and eternal nerd, would turn to a book like Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex, by Joel Best and Kathleen A. Bogle. This one made the cut partly because of its title. Oftentimes, titles about preteens, teens and, sexuality are centered around either girls or boys, whereas the conversation should embrace both genders. I also picked it up because just like many others in North America, I have heard horrific stories about rainbow parties and sex bracelets, but have yet to meet a preteen, teen, or freshly minted adult who has ever engaged in such practices. Granted, this is a totally unscientific population sample for so many reasons (would they have told me about this, however close we are? Do I even know a statistically significant number of preteens, teens, and freshly minted adults?), but it still got me wondering.
In Kids Gone Wild, authors Best and Bogle explore what is known about these contemporary legends and how the media perpetuates them while debating their authenticity, resulting in confusion amongst media consumers. It is an intriguing exploration into how such stories spread, the extent of their geographical reach, and how they can morph as they travel from one medium to another, playing a big game of “Telephone” with important consequences. They discuss how viewing kids and teenagers as being “out of control” fuels the debate on sex education and affects policy decisions on a range of things such as the availability of the morning after pill to sex offender registries inclusion criteria.
I have another unscientific personal theory, one that seems to be reflected somewhat in the pages of this book. Historically – or rather, prehistorically – survival depending on imagining and acting on the worse possible case scenario. My personal, unfounded theory goes on to posit that today, this survival technique translates into anxiety and sensationalism, to the point that we are keen to believe just about anything that triggers our anxieties. The deeper the anxiety triggered, the keener we are to believe the message. As survival depends on the next generation, a deep instinct all species have is to protect their young. Therefore, one of our deepest fears is that the next generation will not carrying forth our civilization. Perhaps this is why stories about teenagers’ sexuality capture our attention and appear on so many media outlets, even as research shows that teen sex is not as rampant as we would think and teen pregnancy is at low levels.
The way Best and Bogle describe the spread of these stories is fascinating and a little alarming. Why do they generate such media traffic? Are they even real, or are they only rumors? What is it about them that they travel like wildfire across not only the country but the globe? After all, the preteen and teenage years are some of the precious years of our lives, in which we have the time, the optimism, and the strength of our beliefs to contribute decisively to the betterment of society. How does one go from picturing them as our bright and promising future to sex crazed maniacs?
Because according to mainstream media – CNN, The Today Show, and the New York Times, the sex lives of modern teenagers would give the most vulgar television shows a run for their money. “Sexting” explicit photos; wearing “sex bracelets” to show what sexual activities they have done or are willing to do; performing oral sex at “rainbow parties”; forming “pregnancy pacts” to become mothers at the same time – I don’t know about you, but this does not sound like any of the hundreds of teenagers I have worked within the last ten years. And I feel fairly confident I would not have reacted well to such a description of my friends and me when I was in that age range, and I am concerned about the way teenagers today feel when they see themselves described as such.
Even if the teenagers in our immediate surroundings – our families and our community – might not be of “that” type, no doubt we treat them differently if we see them as potential raging sex maniacs. After all, our actions are heavily coloured by our beliefs. Two potential changes in our behaviour is that we are not going to trust them as much as they deserve, and we are going to try to control them more than they need to be. The way we interact with them when they broach the topic of sex will also be affected. Instead of seeing them as mature, growing, and responsible, the red alarm that is going to go on loudly in our minds (which could sound something like OMG-HE-ASKED-ME-ABOUT-SEX-WHY-WHAT-DOES-HE-HAVE-IN-MIND) will create an environment suitable for such sensitive discussions.
The book resonated the same way articles such as the one by Ian Kerner did. In his article, “In an Era of Raunch, How to Raise a Gentleman,” he shared the following list of tips in dealing with the sex question when it comes to your offspring: “Talk about sex. The information is out there… Don’t avoid the talk, embrace it… Help your children decode the media… Stay in tune with their world. Talk to his teachers and other parents to get a sense of what’s happening in and out of the classroom. Let him make mistakes… You can’t shut the world out, but you can help him live in it. You can’t stop your boy from seeing the world around him. But you can change how he looks at it.” Such a process implies two things: that the parent is objective, calm, and collected and believes that their offspring is inherently a noble being. And to have these two elements present in a relationship between an adult and a preteen or teenager, the adult cannot believe that the preteen or teenager is defined by his or her lower instincts.
It seems that every generation panics when the generation following it pushes the boundaries of what it considered appropriate. Questioning these boundaries is healthy, as is redrawing them. However, it should be done wisely, which requires factual evidence and a cool, analytical head. No doubt sexuality will continue to change, ebbing and flowing with the times, but there is no doubt in my mind that, with a healthy conversation on the matter, it can evolve in a way that preserves the nobility of man.
Kids Gone Wild is a great read that allows us to look beyond the sensationalism in our culture and see what kids and teenagers are really about, as well as exploring the consequences when a society seems determined to believe the worst about its young people. It is the kind of book we need to read and analyse, which will equip up to talk about such sensitive issues more comfortably and without judgment. This in turn will help us understand reality for what it is, rather as we are told by the media it is. And hopefully understanding our preteens and teenagers for what they are, an integral part of the solution, will help create an environment of trust in which sexuality can become a topic that is comfortably addressed.