Some three million young people will head off to college next month for their freshman year. If one of them was my son or my daughter, here's what I'd want them to know about sex.
Parents, feel free to copy and hand this to your teen of any age. Or print and leave it laying around the house.
To all incoming freshmen at the University of Anywhere:
* If you want to have sex, don't get drunk. If that makes sex less appealing, wait until you can arrange a sexual situation that's appealing when you're sober.
* Even if you're sober, do not have sex with someone who's drunk. Not only will it be less enjoyable, you have no way of predicting what they'll say the next day–or the next year. If the only way you can arrange to get sex is to get someone else drunk, that's pathetic. Stay home.
* If you have penis-vagina intercourse, you need to be 100% responsible for birth control. This is true whether you're drunk or sober, gay or straight, whether you climax or not, and even if the intercourse only lasts 10 seconds. There will be a million unintended pregnancies in the U.S. this year, and nothing—nothing—can destroy your life like having one.
* No matter what you do, if it involves a penis or vulva, use plenty of lube. Even more than you think is necessary. No one ever died from too much lube.
* Pee before you have sex, even if you don't really need to. Trust me, you don't want to stop to do it in the middle of sex.
* Very few heterosexuals actually enjoy vigorous penis-in-anus sex. These days it seems a lot of young men want to try it and a lot of young women are acquiescing. True, you get to violate taboos and play with erotic power, but there are far safer and more comfortable ways to do that. Unless you both find it easy and really enjoyable, leave it to the pros.
* I know that some people say "no" to sex when they really mean "I'm not sure, ask again," or "I'd like to, but I'll feel better about myself if I say no first." Since you can't tell a real "no" from a "maybe" no until it's too late, you must assume that every "no" means "no." If you do this you may miss out on some consensual sex you could have had, but you're also less likely of being accused of non-consensual sex.
* Real sex is not like porn. It's actually much better: when you do it right, it's more relaxed, friendlier, funnier, it lasts longer, involves kissing and hugging, and then you get to hang out together when it's over.
* The first few times you have sex with someone, do the simpler, more basic stuff. Save the complicated positions, games, and toys for when you're already sexually compatible with someone and can easily talk to each other during sex.
* Before deciding to have sex with someone, find out if they're kinda crazy. Obviously, you can't do this if one or both of you are drunk, or if you don't talk to each other first (and listen to what they say), or if you're in a big hurry, or if you're in a group situation where everybody is acting kinda crazy. Having sex with someone who's kinda crazy can be fantastically enjoyable–but what they do afterwards can ruin your life for years. That's what kinda crazy people do.
* Never use sex to hurt someone, either physically or emotionally. Don't use sex to get revenge or to punish someone or to prove something. Most people who use sex in these ways end up hurting themselves.
* Take your body seriously. If sex hurts, STOP.
Young people sometimes act like there's a scarcity of sex out there, making it essential to do it whenever there's an opportunity—even if it's a terribly unsatisfactory opportunity. Trust me—there will always be another chance to have sex. Passing up sex that could be unpleasant, dangerous, or the focus of legal action is one of the most adult things you'll do at college—and possibly the most important.
I recently received the following inquiry:
I just found out my 9-year-old daughter has been looking at hard-core adult porn ("Ramrod butt busters," "Sweet on teacher," etc.). She spent a weekend at my sister's, who let her use her laptop. When my sister and I reviewed her internet history, it was obvious; then I looked at my daughter's iPad, and was shocked all over again. I don't want to shame my kid about sex, but I want her to be safe. The thought of her absorbing this stuff makes me sick. What should I do?
Should 9-year-olds be looking at porn? Of course not. Porn is a product specifically made for adults, and young kids can't possibly consume the product in a healthy way. They're bound to find the images confusing at best, frightening at worst. If they feel guilty about watching the images, they may obsess on them, strengthening the negative effects.
And yet as truly distressing as this is, the issue of how little Mary processes these adult pornographic videos may be, unfortunately, the least of Mom's problems.
Here are a few nightmare scenarios Mom should consider for a moment:
* Mary sending porn URLs to other kids;
* Mary showing some porn to a friend;
* Mary sending a nude photo of herself to a friend (or receiving one).
Each of these could get Mary into enormous trouble. Mary could be arrested for distributing porn to a minor, or for creating and distributing child porn. There are children all over the country who have been busted for various porn-related reasons. Mary could be next.
Neither our law enforcement nor our social work systems are up to speed on how kids use digital media. And so laws designed to protect kids from sexual exploitation are now used in ways that ruin kids' lives. In many states, minors caught sexting are considered both perpetrator and victim of child pornography, and often taken into custody. Since in most states it's illegal to show minors porn, a clueless judge or social worker can consider any kid who does so guilty of illicitly enticing a minor. Yes, that would be crazy—but remember, America is the country that charges schoolchildren with sexual harassment for hugging their classmates.
The above outcomes would be disastrous for poor Mary—but things could get even worse. Imagine that Mom's sister is nervous, angry, or piously judgmental. She could report Mary's porn-watching to county Child Protective Services. Or imagine that Mary's iPad goes into a repair shop, and a tech person sees the porn history and reports it to the police. On top of either scenario, the authorities could question Mom or Dad about their porn-watching.
The ultimate tragedy following any of these?
Mary could be taken away from her parents and put into protective custody. Or Mom could lose custody of Mary for some indeterminate amount of time. Or Mom/Dad could be arrested for neglectful parenting for watching legal porn—if some welfare staff person or judge decides that this had somehow encouraged Mary's interest in porn.
Fortunately, each of these scenarios is highly unlikely. But none of them is impossible, and most have happened many times in the last few years.
America's sex offender registries are already bursting at the seams, now boasting tens of thousands of people whose non-violent "crimes" were never intended for inclusion. That trend is nowhere near peaking. I wouldn't be surprised if eventually there are so many non-violent juvenile "offenders" that an entire new criminal Registry is created for them. When one of them sues both the government and Harvard for discriminatory non-admission it will be a whole new day.
As scary or confusing as it might be for a 9-year-old to look at hard-core sexual imagery, there are far worse things. One is being taken away from your law-abiding, loving parents. Another is having your loving parents taken away from you. A third is being put on a sex offender registry or being formally labelled as a potential child molester.
Sorry, no simple answers today. Just a reader's question with some very upsetting implications.
In the 1960s and 1970s, laws criminalizing the use of marijuana and other common street drugs created an entire generation of criminals. It helped radicalize a generation of college students—and their middle class parents—who had never had anything but respect for the law.
We're about to see something similar, except with even more disastrous consequences for those young people caught in the traps of America's War On Porn.
For help on how to talk to kids about porn, see my blogpost "Your kid looks at porn—now what?" at http://goo.gl/pG4jGN
For my DVD or download on "Helping young people develop porn literacy," go to http://www.martyklein.com/books-cds/cds/
Not "myths," but lies.
Katie Couric recently embarrassed herself during an interview with psychologist David Ley about pornography. When he calmly described to her what a range of scientific studies say about porn's effects on behavior and our brain—that it's minimal—Couric raised her voice, rolled her eyes, and said she was sick of science. "Can't we use some common sense here?"
Actually, no. Common sense clearly tells us that the Earth is flat. Want some science with that, Ma'am?
In contrast, Couric believed the fact-less, emotional rantings of her other guest—because they fit Couric's existing beliefs. Like all morning TV hosts, her job is to say bland things, not to think. At least Couric didn't lie; she's just uninterested in facts.
Some people do lie. Here are some popular lies about sex that are easy to believe because they make "common sense"—and because some people are making a lot of money and maintaining large support bases promoting these lies.
* LIE: Porn causes rape
In 2000, broadband brought porn into almost every home in America. Result: the rate of sexual violence decreased. And each year since then, as Americans consume more porn, the rate of sexual violence has continued to decrease. (Source: FBI & U.S. Department of Justice.)
Too much rape in America? Absolutely, positively, without question. A consequence of people watching porn? Obviously, clearly, not.
* LIE: Abortion leads to depression, breast cancer, or infertility
Anti-choice activists claim that women who get abortions fall apart, both physically and mentally. They don't. Most feel they made the right decision (source: University of California study); rates of depression are the same as in the general population (source: U.S. Surgeon General); rates of breast cancer are the same as in the general population (source: American Cancer Society.).
Thirty-five states require a woman getting an abortion to listen to a lecture about what a mistake she's making (no lectures are required for heart transplants or brain surgery). Many of these lectures are filled with lies; for example, South Dakota requires doctors to tell patients that having an abortion will lead to an "increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide"—based on a single, completely discredited study.
* LIE: Consumers of adult porn eventually desire child porn
This one is simple: Assuming you don't already watch child porn, exactly what images of adult sexuality could you watch—no matter how taboo—that would make you search for pictures of adults having sex with children? The answer for you is almost certainly "none." And that's how it is for pretty much everyone.
There are people—actually, a very small percent of the population—who want to see child porn. They look for it, they find it, they consume it. Very few of them want to look at adult porn.
And porn companies? They make tons of money creating and selling a legal product. None of them is so stupid as to create a product that isn't just illegal, it's radioactive. And so porn companies are the last ones to encourage people to watch child porn. They want you watching adult porn, and they're pretty good at promoting it.
* LIE: Condoms aren't reliable
The abstinence-only sex ed crowd, the sex-will-kill-you morality crowd, the contraception-is-against-god's-will crowd all agree: they'll do anything to keep you away from condoms.
They'll even lie about how poorly condoms work. James Dobson, head of the powerful "morality" group Focus on the Family, even famously said: "If the public can be convinced that condoms offer nearly certain protection from pregnancies & STDs, [proponents] can argue that the only thing holding people back from free sexual expression is outdated, irrelevant religious restrictions."
But plenty of people lie about condoms. In 2003 the Vatican stirred international controversy with its false claim that the HIV virus can pass through condoms. (source: America's War On Sex)
Do condoms work? When used consistently, the effectiveness rate is 98%. (source: Guttmacher Institute.) They're a modern miracle available in every town in America.
* LIE: Strip clubs are centers of crime
Dozens of cities across the country have banned strip clubs or limited their operation. This is more or less unconstitutional unless legislatures do one of two things: prove that strip clubs are a public health or safety problem, or declare that there's an emergency.
No city has been able to prove, with data from its own police department, that strip clubs attract more crime than other similar entertainment venues. And so the country is littered with emergency ordinances declaring that strip clubs present problems–without demonstrating them. Similarly, when states like Texas and Illinois single out strip clubs for taxes that don't apply to any other form of entertainment, they never demonstrate any actual problems.
Ignorant legislators pontificate about family values, self-labelled feminists claim that clubs objectify women (so do the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, but who's criminalizing that?), and rape crisis centers greedily line up to collect their share of the booty, but no one offers actual data.
That's because it doesn't exist.
* * *
Who's spreading these lies?
Some are people who mean well, trying to make the world a better place. They just don't know the science, or don't care about it. Some are lazy journalists—they repeat "facts" they've heard (e.g., 1 in 5 American women are raped, the average kid starts looking at porn at age 8, most porn actresses were molested as children, etc.) without checking.
Other people who lie about sex, however, are activists (often religious zealots) who deliberately manipulate the public through category creep. They create phony statistics by, for example, including unwanted kissing in "sexual assault." Or including all prostitutes as "victims of sex trafficking."
When you hear about how sex ruins lives, beware. Not of the sex, but of those promoting the latest moral panic about it.