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Teen Sex and Media Hype

Last week, U.S. News ran a rather sensational cover story on teen-age sex, making what I think is the mistake of treating teen-age sex as something novel or unnatural.

Teen-agers have been having sex forever. Their bodies are maturing, their hormones are raging and doing what comes naturally is, well, natural. Indeed, for most of human history, teen sex was an entirely normal part of life, since people tended to marry and be treated as adults at what were, by modern standards, very early ages.

Programs that don't take that into account aren't likely to succeed, and media coverage based on sensationalism doesn't help. But as blogger Moira Breen observed: For a lot of teen-agers, teen sex isn't about sex, or at least enjoyable sex, but about the status of having a boyfriend or girlfriend. That's no surprise, given that teen-agers often have nothing else.

Once, teen-agers weren't a demographic: They were adults-in-training. They worked, did farm chores, watched children, and generally functioned in the real world. They got status and recognition for doing these things well, and they got shame and disapproval for doing them badly.

But since sometime in the mid-20th century, the role of teen-agers has been different, as a recent article by Thomas Hine in American Heritage magazine points out:

"Young people became teen-agers because we had nothing better for them to do. High schools became custodial institutions for the young. We stopped expecting young people to be productive members of the society and began to think of them as gullible consumers. We defined maturity primarily in terms of being permitted adult vices, and then were surprised when teen-agers drank, smoked, or had promiscuous sex."

No longer adults-in-training, teen-agers became part of their own social class, on the one hand indulged and sheltered, on the other viewed as juvenile, oversexed and somehow dangerous. In fact, far fewer teen-agers were shouldering adult responsibilities. Instead, they had a new, increasingly cosseted role as high school students, social butterflies (and outcasts) and consumers.

Increased sexual activity, research indicated, was directly related to increased schooling and decreased responsibility. Teen-agers may be busy with teen activities, but not with adult responsibilities, and it shows.

Hine is right. We have infantilized teen-agers, and then we act surprised that they behave immaturely. And lately we seem even to be infantilizing 20-somethings: Reports on "Taliban" John Walker Lindh, or Monica Lewinsky, or Louise Woodward, the nanny accused of killing her charge, all tend to feature references to their alleged youth, though at their age historical figures like George Washington or Teddy Roosevelt had been acting as adults for years.

Unfortunately, the most common response we see to reports of teen-age sex is to further infantilize teens. This serves the interests of nanny-state advocates who want to infantilize everyone, and of those who believe that coercion is the only path to virtue. When this approach fails, as it is sure to do, that will justify still more coercion. (Abstinence programs, the U.S. News story reports, make teens more anxious to retain "technical" virginity, but often via riskier practices like anal sex.)

I recommend a different approach: If we want teen-agers to be more adult, in their virtues as well as their vices, we should try treating them more like adults. Teen-agers should be encouraged to hold jobs in addition to going to school. (Or instead of since high school is not for everyone.)

It may seem odd to argue that dropping out and getting a job might be a good thing for some teen-agers, given the high value we are supposed to attach to education. But education only matters when people are being educated, and for all too many students high school isn't really about education anyway.

Much of high school is wasted time: School meets only about 180 days a year, with a lot of class time wasted on going over the same ground from one year to the next. Teen-agers with a powerful desire to be adults should be allowed to follow an accelerated program, with earlier graduation (and perhaps other privileges) as a reward. Many teen-agers would take advantage of this, rather than spending extra years in what's little more than a pre-adult holding tank. 

Today's high-schoolers do work, but in general they're far less responsible for their own support, and far more separated from adult responsibilities and achievements, than people their age have ever been. Where once it was possible to gain status through actual accomplishment, now the chief status accessory is a boyfriend or girlfriend. Shorn of opportunities to exercise adult virtues, teens work with what they've got.

Consider this analogy: Unmotivated teen-agers who are idling away their time in school, protected from the real world and supported by their parents, are more like welfare recipients than they are like responsible citizens. However, since the implementation of welfare reform has forced a degree of personal responsibility, illegitimacy rates are way down, and so are many other social pathologies associated with welfare dependency. Maybe what teen-agers need is some "welfare reform."

Perhaps if teen-agers were encouraged to take on adult responsibilities and win status and recognition in constructive ways, they'd probably start acting more like citizens, and less like a leisure class, with all the vices that have historically attended leisure classes.

If teen-agers weren't infantilized in so many other ways, they'd have a better base of judgment and self-respect, and could make better decisions about when they were ready to have sex and be more responsible about precautions and consequences when the time came.

Of course, lots of people would lose under an arrangement like this. Marketers would lose their grip on a key demographic. Busybodies would lose an important opportunity for tut-tutting. Journalists would lose an opportunity to run articles on teen sex that are simultaneously censorious and exploitative. And politicians would lose an important opportunity for posturing.

But those are problems I can live with.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

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