Friday, July 24, 2009, by Judy Berman
When it comes to sex, today's teen girls must have it easier than their mothers' generation... right? In an essay for RH Reality Check, Heather Corinna takes apart one of the so-called "post-feminist" era's most pervasive assumptions. Her conclusion? Teens don't have any fewer sex-related issues to deal with than their parents did; theirs are just different.
"The very expectation that young women today should or do have it so much easier, in and of itself, can be a pressure."
And if anyone should know, it's Corinna: As a founder of the excellent Scarleteen, she has been helping girls (and boys) access good information about sex and reproductive health since 1998. The site's frank, comprehensive, nonjudgmental approach to teens' most intimate queries has made it an invaluable resource at a time when so many school sex ed programs fall short.
"I can understand why it can seem like young women have it easier when it comes to sex and sexuality," Corinna writes, citing improved access to birth control, abortion and information, as well as increasing acceptance of LGBT youth and a livelier cultural conversation about sexuality, as examples of this generation's advantages. "But," she continues, "all those benefits can also pose some not-so-beneficials, and some very real challenges. Young women now have some extra bags to carry that we before them may not have had to."
To illustrate her point, Corinna tackles the idea that learning "no means no" has stopped young women from falling prey to unwanted sexual advances:
[M]any grow up also experiencing that while no may mean no, they don't always have an easy time saying it or feel the permission to. Too, many young women are more frequently, and at earlier ages -- which for some is due to sexual development happening earlier historically than it ever has for women before -- finding themselves in the position of responding to sexual invitations and situations. Statistically, the earlier young women become sexually active, the more frequently they report those very early experiences are coerced: saying no in a highly loaded situation, no matter what generation we belong to, tends to be something that is a lot more difficult the younger we are. As well, the younger women are when they become sexually active, the older their partners tend to be, and the less likely it is that contraception or safer sex practices are used.
Corinna goes on to remind us that there have been few advances in birth control since the early '90s -- and the improvements that have been made to existing methods may be teaching girls to be disgusted with their bodies. "[T]he use of hormonal methods for menstrual suppression is becoming more popular," she writes. "With more older women talking about how awesome not having a period is, women in their teens having a hard enough time already accepting the adult changes in their bodies get another message that those changes are as awful and gross as they feel." The only momentous, fairly recent birth-control development -- emergency contraception -- has it downsides, too. Many teens don't have access to it (although, thanks to a judge's order, it will soon be available without prescription to 17 year olds), and those who do may feel "those same sorts of pressures to provide sex to wanting partners my mother's generation experienced with the popularity of the pill."
At the same time, the endless supply of information constantly bombarding teens may be causing problems of its own. Girls receive so many contradictory messages about sexuality that confusion is inevitable. "Let's bear in mind," writes Corinna, "most of us my age also did not grow up hearing about the virginity pledges on the same night we casually flipped the remote past an ad for Girls Gone Wild." Meanwhile, in our media-saturated culture, the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards is having a greater effect on younger girls.
Even in the realm of education, "more information is not always better information, nor information that's really about them, which is accurate, information they can contextualize soundly or even know how to look for in the first place." And without proper guidance, "navigating it all can sometimes leave young people feeling like they know less, rather than more. Very few young people have had education in determining credibility or bias in media, after all."
Where Corinna really nails it is in her analysis of what older generations' assumptions may be doing to teens: "The very expectation that young women today should or do have it so much easier, in and of itself, can be a pressure. Many older women expect younger women to be apt at managing all of these issues and more in ways that they themselves were not and may still not be." When we assume that kids already know everything they need to know about sex -- that they've learned it from the Internet, or TV, or even school -- we ignore the likelihood that they are dealing with the same kind of confusion we once did. And that can lead not only to isolation, but also the perpetuation of myths over real knowledge.
Although I find myself convinced by Corinna's multifaceted argument, I'm curious about what Broadsheet readers -- and especially parents of teens -- think about teens and sex: Do kids today have it easier or harder than their parents' generation? Or are their problems just different?