The new sexual revolution is upon us. As religious conservatives and media sympathetic to them watch on in horror, this revolution takes root. It does not yet spread like wildfire; its spread is more haphazard, like the hot spots that flare up in some brush fires. Still, there is good reason to believe that this spread will hasten in coming years, despite the frantic efforts of many who would like to see it stopped. No matter how hard churches, schools and parents try, they are not going to stop their children — even their younger children — from having sex. Sexual knowledge and curiosity — much of it fueled by media, popular culture and, more recently, the Internet — has now saturated the awareness of children to the point that it is inevitable that more and more of them will attempt to engage in sexual activity. Many of those will succeed. Whether this new sexual revolution becomes an experience that affirms and celebrates the sexuality of all people or a traumatic experience that threatens not only the moral fiber of society but the psychological and physical wellbeing of its participants depends very much on how adults respond to it.
Of paramount importance is information. Young people have a right to it. They deserve factual information about sexuality as well as its risks and responsibilities. They deserve to be empowered to make sexual decisions for themselves and have the right to both privacy and respect from the adults in their lives. If society continues its present course of trying to restrain them, keep them ignorant and coerce them into useless chastity pledges, the results will be catastrophic. Young people will engage in more high risk sexual activities in locations ill-suited for such activities. Furthermore, they will have fewer opportunities to explore how their sexuality might exist within the framework of a friendship or love relationship.
The New Openness
Up until recently, perhaps, the new sexual revolution appeared to be merely present amongst adolescents, who, since society began wrongly classifying them as children, have formed the vanguard of rebellion against established standards of behavior. Furthermore, open sexual rebellion amongst adolescents generally occurred only within certain segments of the adolescent population and was largely limited to experimentation with peers. Nowadays, however, casual sex amongst adolescents has become ever more acceptable within the mainstream, especially as the long-standing standard of committed relationships, or “going steady”, has eroded in some quarters, leaving the standard of casual encounters, or “hooking up”, in its place.
The Internet has also been an important factor and tool in the increase in adolescent sexual exploration. Not only has it revolutionized communication and access to information, but it has also presented new opportunities for exhibitionistic and voyeuristic behaviors that have never existed before. Ease of use has put a wide range of activities within easy reach of even novice computer users. Now young people can, from the safety of their homes, access all manner of information, talk explicitly with relative anonymity and engage in social networking up to and including the arranging of erotic liaisons.
The Internet has also made it very easy to realize an even more rebellious form of adolescent sexuality: sexual liaisons with adults. Certainly, these sorts of relationships have always existed, but the Internet has made them much easier to establish and maintain without detection. Increasingly, when teens go missing, investigators check their computers to look for traces of activity on social networking sites where they may have met somebody that they decided to meet in real life. Where such relationships may have been nearly impossible to conduct via traditional means, the Internet has liberated young people and put the choice of partner back into their own hands. Traditional gatekeepers — parents, guardians and other trusted adults — can now be effectively circumvented by young people. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, many of these young people are finding immense enjoyment from these liaisons. A 2004 study by Wolak and Finkelhor showed that a very high percentage of these young people not only knew from the outset that the meetings would be sexual in nature, but also returned for second, third and additional meetings.
Nowadays, the sexual revolution is not just limited to adolescents. Primary school students are increasingly engaging in sexual activity. Indeed, in recent weeks there have been two major stories about children having sex at school. In the first case, it has emerged that students and teachers in an Indiana school for months covered up a tryst between two sixth graders that occurred during school hours in a busy classroom with a teacher present. In the second case, fifth grade students at a school in Louisiana had sex in a classroom they found unattended. And whilst many primary school students may not be engaging in intercourse, they are increasingly engaging in other sexual activities such as petting and fondling as well as discussing sexuality amongst themselves in ever more explicit terms.
Religious conservatives have already been fighting youth sexuality for many years. In recent years, however, these efforts have been ratcheted up, partly in response to the failure of previous initiatives. In the nineties, their primary weapon was abstinence education. With the beginning of the Bush presidency in 2001, of course, they gained a sympathetic ear and were able to make their abstinence programmed de facto federal policy. These programmers have now been proven to be ineffectual. Bearman and Bruckner’s 2005 study, Adolescent Virginity Pledges and Risky Sexual Behaviors, showed that the majority of teens who took virginity pledges eventually broke their pledges and were more likely than non-pledges to engage in unprotected sex. The pledges only served to delay sexual debut. Pledges generally married younger than non-pledges.
In the face of this fiasco, the religious right regrouped and has since launched two major new initiatives. The first is the so-called “born again virginity” movement, targeted at those who have had pre-marital sex. The idea is to get these abstinence backsliders to renew their commitment to pre-marital abstinence. The second initiative indicates that the conservatives have also taken note of the increased occurrence of sexual activity amongst primary school students. Their current answer to this phenomenon is the Purity Ball. At purity balls, girls as young as ten or eleven up through teenaged girls accompany their fathers to a solemn ceremony where they pledge to their fathers to remain chaste until they marry.
As well as these primarily church-sponsored campaigns, prosecutors are increasingly becoming aggressive in their prosecution of young people who engage in sexual activities with each other. In many places, particularly in the American Midwest, prosecutors are using consent laws as a bludgeon to punish young lovers even if they are age peers. Despite a degree of public outrage over some of these incidents, these zealous prosecutors vigorously defend their actions as being in the public interest. In some cases, judges have become activists as well. Recently in England, a judge, sentencing a twenty-three year old man for a relationship he had started with a twelve-year old girl, noted that despite her active participation in the relationship the girl needed to be “protected from herself”.
On the Internet front, websites targeting young people that provide candid information about sex are under assault. One of the most open, All About Sex, where young people could get non-judgmental answer to even highly controversial questions, was voluntarily closed down by its operators, who felt increasingly intimidated in the Bush era. Sugar and Spice, a site that I run on Puellula, has also come under harsh criticism in recent years and several people have tried to get it shut down. As well as suppressing this supply of information, efforts are being redoubled to limit the access of young people to the Internet. Filters are becoming more commonplace and, in some areas, mandatory. Some schools, like the St Hugo of the Hills Catholic School in Michigan are banning students from using popular social networking sites such as MySpace. Many groups are calling on such sites to increase monitoring of traffic on their sites as well as limit the access of minors to them.
It is not possible for the genie of child sexual liberation to be put back into the bottle. No matter how hard conservatives oppress, children will find new avenues, new ways to circumvent the limitations being placed on them. As they de-mystify sex for themselves and discover that it is an enjoyable pastime, they will not easily give it up. If they are grounded, they will turn to the Internet. If their Internet privileges are taken away, they will turn to their mobile telephones. If these are taken away, they will turn to their friends who have access to these technologies. If all else fails, they will remove themselves from homes and environments that are oppressive. The more clever children may pay lip service to the status quo, saying the words and going through the motions that are expected of them, knowing full well inside that they have no intention of being shackled any longer. Others will simply scoff at these attempts and raise the ire of those wishing to indoctrinate them. Like other liberation movements before them, children will gain inspiration and courage as they hear the stories of others who have broken the mold and charted their own course. The Internet makes the dissemination of such accounts easier than ever before. Furthermore, the Internet is the medium of the young, who are often much more skillful at its use than the adults trying to restrain them.
If the oppression continues, the sexual encounters the young people will have will remain risky and the potential for satisfaction will diminish. Rather than being able to explore their sexuality in their homes, where they have the time and privacy they need, they will be pushed towards rushed encounters in public and semi-public places, like the two cases in schools mentioned earlier. Anonymous encounters or encounters with relative strangers will be more common, rather than encounters that take place within the framework of a friendship. Many encounters will be accompanied by the excessive use of controlled substances. Many others will take place without adequate protection. Some participants may find themselves coerced, cajoled or pressurized into encounters that they might not wish to pursue. In short, many of the high risk behaviors seen in the free love era and in the earlier stages of the homosexual liberation movement will grow in evidence in the era of the children’s sexual revolution.
If information is withheld from children by adults, they will turn to the information sources that they have available: popular media, the Internet and their peers. Whilst they might find some useful information, they will likely receive the warped view of sexuality and the roles of genders in sexual relationships that are propagated by popular culture. For lack of better role models, they will be more likely to imitate the behavior of the hip hop artists, pop stars and movie actors that dominate the media. They will take their lessons from the songs, films and television programmers produced by these celebrities.
It may well be impossible to convince religious conservatives of how misguided their approach is. As their morality is not rational, no amount of rational reasoning with them will be of any effect. The only effective approach is to attempt to mitigate the effects of their efforts. Where one information resource is suppressed, another one will rise. Where one avenue of communication is blocked, another presents itself. Where one door is locked shut, another is opened somewhere else. For every place where ring the voices of condemnation and intolerance, the sounds of encouragement and hope are raised somewhere else.
Young people have their own sexual liberation in hand. Where today one hundred defy convention, tomorrow will be a thousand. And from that thousand will emerge ten thousand more. As those young people become adults, they will join those of us who have encouraged them to encourage those who are still struggling for their emancipation. In time, there will be too many voices for emancipation for the forces of oppression to overcome.
This article originally appeared in True Innocence Magazine.