A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion during a #sheparty (Wednesday afternoons, go to the hashtag on Twitter to participate!) with Angela Toussaint, author of The Momarchy: A Single Mom’s Guide to Guilt-Free Parenting. The topic was teen sexuality, and while I believe Angela and I agree on a lot of the basics, one point of disagreement was the question of teenaged girls being sexual active outside of relationships. Okay or not okay? The spectre of the blow job party came up, as well as the question of girls’ self-esteem.
Now I certainly don’t doubt that in many, maybe most, cases where teenaged girls are having sex outside of a relationship, bad shit happens. Often self-esteem can be harmed, not to mention much bigger problems. However, I’m not sure that as a parent, I would simply discourage my daughter from having “casual” sex as a teenager, because I don’t think that casual sex is the culprit.
The problem, particularly with blow job parties and the like, is assumptions. Like so many sexual topics, assumptions tend to come up based on gender here. It’s a “blow job party,” rather than a “cunnilingus” party, because men are seen as sexual subjects and girls as sexual objects. I don’t think there’s any problem with a teenaged girl deciding that she is interested in performing oral sex on a boy. The problems come up when the boy makes assumptions about the girl based on the kind of sex she’s interested, when the boy assumes that she’s “up for” other sexual activities without asking, when the girl gets a reputation because of our gendered assumptions about girls who give blow jobs, when other boys assume that she’s “up for” sex with them without asking, when teachers write this girl off as “bad” and don’t spend as much time educating her as other students.
In my life, I have had good sex in and out of relationships. I have had bad sex in and out of relationships. I haven’t found a correlation. Of course, many people do. But not everyone finds, as an adult, that relationships are the best structure for them. Not everyone wants to have relationships as a teenager. Many teenagers are not well-adjusted enough yet to be sexually active (I certainly wasn’t!) but I don’t believe that those who are should necessarily look for a relationship before looking for sex. What should teenage girls look for before engaging in sexual activity? What should parents encourage?
- Enthusiastic consent. Girls should look for a partner who wants to do what they want to do, and who respects what they want to do. A partner should always ask before initiating any sexual activity, and girls (and boys!) should know that it’s a good idea to say “stop” if they’re not sure or if a partner tries to go from one activity to another without asking. It’s okay to take some time to think about it, too, if you don’t know whether you want to do something.
- Privacy. It’s hard to find privacy as a teen, but because reputation in high schools is so fucked-up and based on gendered assumptions about people, it’s a good idea for teenagers to make sure those they have sex with are respectful and know not to discuss others’ sexual preferences. No one has the right to talk about your sex life without asking you if it’s okay.
- Communication. This goes hand-in-hand with enthusiastic consent. You don’t have to be in a relationship to communicate. Parents can encourage their children to talk about sex as soon as they start having it, and to question cultural assumptions about sex. If a girl is interested in performing oral sex on a boy, for example, that’s great. If she’s not interested in that, though, but is curious about manual stimulation, that’s fine too. If she’d like to be touched but isn’t ready to touch someone else, there might be someone who’s interested in that. Sex doesn’t have to be a one-for-one exchange, and no one ever needs to be guilty about not wanting to do a particular thing. Parents can teach this at a young age, letting teenagers know that as they become sexually active, they may have to educate their peers, as well.