Schoolies Week is upon us, and in the build up to the end of year celebrations the usual outrage about the sexual behaviour of young people is making the news. Understandable concern for the welfare of young women and men is certainly a part of the story, but there also seems to be a focus on the fantasy of the sexually promiscuous teenager. What are we so interested in here? Could it be that we’re jealous? Are young people bearing the brunt of our repressed sexual desires?
There is a great deal of envy present in the discussions of sexual behaviour and Schoolies Week. I’m no advocate for getting written off and having unprotected sex you won’t remember with someone you don’t even like, but I think there’s more to the concern over Schoolies than a straightforward desire for harm reduction.
There’s a kind of double bind in our reporting on the issue that is not unlike the double bind many of were given as children and in turn pass on to our own children. As adults we tend to hide our sexuality from children. We censor it in our homes and our art. The new Twilight film is rated MA, despite being marketed to girls, because of sexual content that has been obviously foreshadowed over the last two films. We say look but don’t touch and then we say don’t look at all, but if you do, you’ll have to lie to get in.
The double bind message to young people goes something like this: This is the most sexual time of your life. Don’t do it, but don’t miss it. It will never come again.
Young people need to be protected from exploitation while they experiment. But to do this we would have to understand and condone the need to explore and to find out what you really desire sexually. This requires both courage and freedom. For many of us, sexual pleasure is severely limited either by fear, shame, constraint or a lack of self-knowledge. When we look at the images of Schoolies Week, it’s easy to project our own adult fantasies of uncontained eroticism.
We’re so often wrong in our projections about teen sex. In the current flurry of interest over teen sexting, media researcher Nina Funnell found that rather than feeling pressured by partners to send naked photos of themselves to each other, as most reports and so-called experts assumed, young people reported sexting for the sheer pleasure of it.
Sexuality is a wild and creative energy that can’t be confined by defining categories of good and bad ways of expression. The beginning of your sexual life is necessarily a time for experimentation. If it’s not, then what you get is either a kind of deadening paint by numbers activity or a sexual life dictated by the needs and desires of other people. This is also unsafe sex.
One of the hardest things about having really good sex is knowing what you want. You can only find this out with practice. One of my friend’s daughters who is now in her 20s said the best advice her mother gave her about sex was to try lots of different things and to pay attention to what she liked. She said this really helped her to find her way with her own sexuality and to make good sexual choices.
Knowing what you want then calls you to ask for it and to be awake enough in your own body and to the body of your partner or partners, that you can really feel what’s happening. This is why alcohol is so incredibly destructive to sexual pleasure, and why it’s so often used as a lubricant by those who are interested not in sex but in power and control. There is good reason for us to be concerned about the combination of excessive drinking and sexual activity.
But in our desire to warn young people about the dangers of binge drinking and unconscious sex, we need to be careful not to demonise all sex and to create artificial categories of acceptability. To really do this well we need to stop labelling sexual acts and choices as good or bad, as empowering or disempowering. Why? Because it creates a climate of blame. And blame is never safe.
The problem with the kind of demonising of teen sexuality we’re seeing in current media coverage, particularly of young women, is that it also has a serious impact on safety. When we generalise about bad sexual behaviour, we separate women once again into good and bad girls, and we separate them from their own pleasure and from each other.
If we want to encourage an open and safer sexual life, then pleasure needs to be our focus. Concentrating on pleasure is incredibly powerful and transformative. Take a look at the criticisms of what happens on Schoolies Week, and try substituting a desire for pleasure rather than simple safety or control as the solution.
The more control there is around sex the greater our breakout will be. But breaking out doesn’t necessarily mean pleasure. We’re going to have sex because it’s ok because it’s Schoolies, isn’t a direct path to pleasure, but a denial of the right of good sex to be a part of our everyday lives, especially when we’re young.
So much of the harm that needs to be eliminated for all of us when it comes to promiscuity can be reduced by taking care to feel good ourselves and to give pleasure to others. Because real pleasure isn’t easy to attain, and if our attention is taken up with really giving and receiving pleasure, then the harm of exploitation, violence and unconsciousness is lessened.
So-called sexual promiscuity can be a way to find not only pleasure but a sense of sexual self in a culture where it’s all too easy to lose our sexuality. Feminist writer Jacklyn Friedman wrote about her own promiscuous journey as a kind of pathway to self-discovery. By keeping her focus on pleasure she finds a way through the complexity of sex, attachment and desire to a place of greater choice and understanding that also subverts current sexual norms for women.
Really exciting, intimate and loving sex is incredibly culturally subversive. It requires self-love and self-knowledge, creative exploration, time and a dedication to pleasure. These are not current top cultural priorities.
Think about how you feel when you’re having mind-blowing sex. It’s like everything gets put into perspective. You’re in your body rather than being an observer of it. You forget where you end and another begins. There is flow and connection. The space is fundamentally non-exploitative and anti-consumerist.
This isn’t a regular or familiar sexual experience for many of us. We fear revealing ourselves to someone else, losing control or we simply fear our own desires. So many of us repress our own dissatisfaction with the sex we’re having. We pretend it’s not possible to have really great sex, that we just don’t have the right partner, or that sex is supposed to decline as we get older, or that we don’t really care that much anyway.
This repressed dissatisfaction leaves us more likely to project our sexual desires onto others. And young people bear the burden of our culturally driven sexual projections. The more complicated our lives get, the more separate we are from our sexual selves, and the more young people are bearing the weight of our imagined desires.
But why let teenagers carry the burden of our own sexual fantasies and frustrations? If we’re going to lessen our obsession with teen sex and encourage real sexual expression for all of us we need to start with ourselves. What do we really want? What are we missing?
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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