Americans love to talk, talk, talk about sex. But for all our talk, do we know much about it? Amber Madison is a case in point. Her parents thought she “was never too young to start hearing about sex,” gave ties that looked like penises as Christmas presents, and censored no sexual reference. But despite all this sex-talk, she felt in the dark. So she did what any precocious college student might do about a topic she knows little about: She started giving advice herself while gaining field experience. The result is Hooking Up: A Girl’s All-out Guide to Sex and Sexuality.
The book is a mishmash of conflicting impulses. Madison knows everything about the mechanics of sex, but not much about its import, or the effect it has on the emotional lives of young women. And though she’d be quick to deny any hint that she finds anything useful about the old-fashioned advice given to good girls of the 1950s — to refrain from giving up sex too easily — she can’t quite deny it.
With such limited guidance growing up, Amber felt the need to search for answers elsewhere. When I called her up for an interview, she told me, “People ask me, ‘Why are you a sexual expert?’ . . . I don’t believe I am; I don’t think I could write a book about everything you need to know about sex in your twenties.” She later said, “I don’t even know if I know what the ultimate goal of sex is . . . I have no idea.” After pausing, she ventured, “To reproduce?”
Just as The Vagina Monologues pays tribute to female sexuality while scarcely mentioning childbirth, Madison’s book is structured around chapters like “Pleasing Yourself: The Big O” and “Pregnancy: The Big (Uh)O.” Beyond discouraging teen pregnancy, Madison makes it a point to cheer on sexually active teen girls, and ripen apprehensive ones. Her stated goal in writing the book: helping shy teens feel more comfortable to explore reservation-free sex.
Madison is an all-out cheerleader for sexual liberation, but she is also oddly ambivalent about the implications of embracing of what moralizers used to call “the pleasures of the flesh.” Sometimes she stresses that “sex is a big deal” other times that “sex can mean nothing.” She acknowledges there is an “element of vulnerability when people are having sex,” then says that sometimes “there will be no element of vulnerability.” She says the desire to be liked or loved is a “part of any healthy relationship,” but also a “sign of insecurities [that turn sex into] an outlet to make a girl feel temporarily better such as drugs or alcohol.” She states, “You can wait as long as you need to . . . and if you’re with [the right] guy … that won’t be an issue,” but later questions if it is “feasible for most people to have a relationship without sex.” She finds “being sexy” and “dress[ing] up in lingerie [to be] a very empowering thing” — and encourages a girl who feels objectified by her partners to “say she’s not comfortable.”
She offers a checklist to aid young women in determining whether they are having comfortable, not objectifying, sex: Only do it because you want to, when you feel you can trust your partner, when you aren’t feeling pressured, aren’t trying to “fill a void,” are feeling “empowered,” aren’t treating it like an “investment,” have sufficient emotional support lined up, and are generally feeling supremely confident. Of course, all of these guidelines have caveats and disclaimers that come with them, which increase the margin of error and begin to make that special day feel like the pre-flight checklist for a NASA launch.
Madison is wrestling with a real problem: Many young adults do feel uncomfortable about premature sexual encounters and many — especially young women — wish they had waited longer. In a 2000 survey conducted for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 63 percent of teens (and 72 percent of girls) who have had sex “wish they had waited longer.” But Madison tells them not to worry: “You will have many chances to make up for a crappy first time or a crappy first boyfriend.”
In person, though, she isn’t so sure. Speaking by phone, Madison agreed that risky relationships “definitely dull a girl’s sensitivity to what’s good for her; if she’s always used to being in emotionally damaging relationships, she can become somewhat immune to it.” And it’s a fact that the probability of continuing sexual relations increases significantly after the first encounter. A study performed by Duke University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year “reveal[s] strong habit persistence in teen sexual behavior,” which has “two sources, . . . The first is a ‘fixed cost’ of having sex which relates to a moral or psychological barrier that has been crossed the first time one has sex. The second is a ‘transition cost’ whereby once a particular relationship has progressed to sex, it is difficult to move back.”
Sexually active teens may notice the sting of regret lessening with each encounter, but those feelings manifest themselves in other damaging ways. Robert Rector and his colleagues at the Heritage Center for Data Analysis found that, “when compared to teens who are not sexually active, teenage boys and girls who are sexually active are significantly less likely to be happy and more likely to feel depressed,” and further, “significantly more likely to attempt suicide.”
In her own way, Madison recognizes the danger of early sexual behavior and is trying to provide girls, especially, with some strategies to avoid getting hurt. But her advice is rather like directing girls down a dark alley, and handing them a flashlight for protection. She never confronts the fundamental question: If these premature sexual encounters so often have damaging effects on young people’s mental well-being and ability to love and be loved, can the answer really be to make the young people “more comfortable” with such encounters? Or maybe those old-fashioned ideas that Amber Madison’s parents never mentioned in all their sex talk had something going for them from the start?
– Mary Rose Rybak is a writer living in Arlington, Virginia.