Politics & Policy

Sex in High School

What not to do and how to teach it.

Boldly, Carol Platt Liebau recently wrote a book about sex in America called Prude. To mark Valentine’s Day, National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez asked Liebau about her book and our over-sexed culture.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Isn’t declaring yourself a “Prude” a sure-fire way to never get a heart-shaped diamond on Valentine’s Day?

Carol Platt Liebau: Well, it certainly isn’t a recipe for romance! Our culture understands a “prude” to be someone who is “sexually conservative and no fun” — as Columbia University’s online health counselor defined the word in response to a question from a self-described “thirteen year old clueless girl.” Who could blame a guy for being a little leery of someone who describes herself that way?

But as I point out in the book, the word “prude” derives from the old French “prude femme,” meaning “a good or virtuous woman.” It’s revealing that, these days, the term “slut” has become a widely accepted, affection term of familiarity among girlfriends, but being labeled a “prude” is nothing short of a social disaster.

Lopez: How is popular culture letting girls down? Is it doing the same to boys?

Liebau: America’s popular culture has been letting girls down by teaching them, over and over, that the most important attribute they can have is “sexiness” — that it’s more noteworthy than character, intelligence, or talent. “Sexy” has become the ultimate accolade, which is why everything from hair mousse to shades of lipstick to chefs to cameras are touted as being sexy. When sexiness is the standard for what’s deemed to be interesting and important, then of course you’re going to see more girls doing everything from wearing revealing clothes to engaging in over-the-top sexual behaviors.

All of this has a spillover effect on boys, of course. When girls are encouraged to be coarse, there’s a coarsening effect on boys, too, because boys live up (or down) to the standards girls set for them. Certainly, when girls behave in vulgar or crass ways, it erodes boys’ innate desire to cherish, respect and protect them — which has always been one of the marks of a civilized society. What’s more, bad behavior by girls enables and normalizes bad behavior on the boys’ parts, so there ends up being more of it all around.

Lopez: You also point out that “young women in America have never had it better.” So why whine about the culture when there’s plenty good about it?

Liebau: “Whining”?! I hope not! Certainly, as I point out in Prude, by a whole host of measures — including school attendance and academics — girls are routinely outperforming boys, and writers like Christina Hoff Sommers have explained brilliantly why young men need our concern and attention in the areas where they’re falling short.

Given how far, how fast girls have come, it becomes easy to dismiss the impact that the aggressive sexualizing of American culture has had on them. But it’s important to remember that many girls can grow up to experience great professional or economic success and still suffer deep and long-lasting physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage from having given too much, too soon.

Lopez: What is do-me feminism? And doom-me? Have feminists doomed American women?

Liebau: American women aren’t victims — and feminists don’t have the power to “doom” them without their own complicity. Nonetheless, pernicious attitudes with their genesis in radical feminism have infiltrated popular culture to a startling degree. Chief among them is the concept of “do-me feminism,” which is the idea that somehow it’s “empowering” for girls to act like the worst kinds of men when it comes to sex. In this formulation, sexual activity devoid of emotion or commitment is the goal — and the hallmark of true female liberation.

The problem is that “do-me feminism” sets girls up for failure when it comes to their dealings with the opposite sex. As long as girls are innately more invested in relationships and emotions than boys are (as studies — and common sense — indicate), they will be at a grave disadvantage in a sexual landscape where optional, emotion-free, commitment-less sex is deemed the ultimate in “coolness” and liberation.

Ironically, do-me feminism has made it more difficult for girls to obtain the attention, affection, and connection they want from boys, even as its influence has made it harder for them to refuse what many boys want — sexual activity. By convincing girls that it somehow makes sense for them to offer their bodies quickly and easily, do-me feminism has essentially persuaded them to surrender their most effective means for securing the kind of male attention that they most desire.

As I argue in Prude, the whole concept of “do-me feminism” has done women a terrible disservice. Although they are — and certainly should be — considered equal before the law and in the eyes of the culture, men and women simply aren’t the same. Girls are being led to believe they’re in control when it comes to sexual relationships. In truth, however, they’re living in a profoundly anti-feminist landscape where girls compete for attention on the basis of how much they are sexually willing to do for the boys.

Lopez: What’s the alternative? Are there solid pop-culture models?

Liebau: Dr. Drew Pinsky, one of the experts who spoke to me, pointed out that that solid pop-culture models for girls are few and far between. Instead, he advised, girls are often better off finding someone in their own lives — whether it’s a mother, a big sister, a teacher — who’s worth looking up to and emulating.

Lopez: Is teen pregnancy still a problem? Is Jamie Lynne Spears?

Liebau: Any parent criticizes Jamie Lynne Spears at her peril — who knows what her own children will do? But there’s no doubt that her much-publicized pregnancy is just another example of the mainstreaming of the kind of sexual decision making that has an unfortunate impact not just on young women individually, but on a society collectively.

When it comes to teen pregnancy generally, rates rise and fall. Too often, it seems, we’re willing to take pregnancy rates as a proxy for healthy or positive trends generally when it comes to teen sexuality. Part of my point in “Prude” was to try to demonstrate that girls can have sex and escape either an unwanted pregnancy or an STD — but promiscuous sexual behavior still isn’t a good idea for a whole host of reasons.

Lopez: What’s the best Valentine’s Day lesson a mother could give her daughter, a father his son?

Liebau: I wish I knew! But every parent is the expert when it comes to advising his or her son or daughter in light of the child’s own unique personality and needs. Certainly, the advice my parents gave me — that it’s important to resist mindlessly ”following the crowd” when it comes to any kind of behavior, and that I was deserving of respectful treatment by members of the opposite sex — never comes amiss.

Lopez: You write about Best Friends, PALS, and other programs — how prevalent are these abstinence-based programs and what is their secret?

Liebau: Best Friends, PALS, and some of the other programs I discuss in my book aren’t as prevalent as they need to be. A lot of the time, “abstinence” programs take a purely negative physical and/or economic approach to persuading young people to wait — in other words, “don’t have sex or you could become pregnant or contract an STD, be unable to go to college,” etc. The most effective programs are those, like Best Friends and PALS, that offer young people something both deeper and more transcendent — programs that teach sexual integrity as just one more component of good character overall.

Lopez: Are you optimistic about culture?

Liebau: Absolutely! Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to figure out how to restore the notion of sexual innocence to girlhood. It’s discouraging to live in a world where porn stars publish bestselling autobiographies and pole dancing is touted as a new, mainstream form of aerobic exercise. The fact that someone at a Florida Hooters thought, even for a minute, that it would be a good idea to hold a “Little Miss Hooters” contest for girls five years old and under — competitors to be dressed in orange spandex short and clingy “Hooters” t-shirts — boggles the mind.

But there is hope. In a free society, where we can think, speak and act as we wish, none of us is powerless. We live in a capitalist country, where the people who purvey this stuff have to be mindful of consumer sentiment. One heartening example? An eleven year old girl in Washington State convinced Nordstrom to stock more modest fashions for girls — just by writing and objecting to the skimpy styles that were all she could find there.

Cultural change can happen — without the heavy hand of government. Whether one agrees with it or not, think of how completely smoking has been stigmatized, even in places where it’s still legal. MADD swayed public opinion on the acceptability of drunk driving very quickly. And nowadays, environmentalists have successfully convinced companies that it makes sense from a PR standpoint to market themselves as green. Even detergent makers are using smaller plastic bottles in a well-publicized attempt to present themselves as “earth-friendly.”

Change for the better can and will come, but only when a critical mass of Americans decides that the tangible and intangible costs imposed by gratuitous sex in the public square are unacceptably high — and that it’s more important to protect young peoples’ innocence than it is to exercise the “right” to be exposed in public to titillating words and images.

This isn’t about controlling what people do in the privacy of their own homes — that isn’t anyone’s business. Rather, it’s about trying to restore some sanity to the public space and the popular culture that all of us share.


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