A young woman I know recently went for the physical exam required to enter college. The nurse in the doctor’s office began taking preliminary information. Along with the usual questions, she asked whether the young woman smoked: “Yes, a few cigarettes a day.” The nurse warned her that smoking was dangerous to her health, as did everyone else she talked to in the course of the physical.
A curious thing happened when the nurse asked the prospective student whether she was “sexually active” and on birth control (No to both.) At first, the nurse didn’t believe her and implied that every late teen must be having sex. She assured the college student that medical exams are confidential. And she tried to draw her out: “of course, sexual activity is your own personal decision.”
Every act we perform is a personal decision, but it is remarkable that our health professionals have absorbed—and begun to transmit—the current double standard between sex and, well, everything else.
Smoking is not a good thing. And especially for college students, neither are drinking, illegal drug use, or promiscuity. Our medical professionals, college administrators, and public officials are concerned and willing to speak their minds about all the other ways that young people mess up their lives. On sex alone, any criticism is regarded as judgmental, inappropriate, and an illegitimate intrusion on students’ and everyone else’s personal rights.
This whole situation beggars belief. We know, as clearly as we know that smoking significantly raises your chances for lung cancer, that pre-marital sex is a disaster for American society and for individuals. Start having sex early and often and, beyond doubt, you will eventually face pregnancy, abortion, venereal diseases, emotional problems, and a lifelong wrong idea of what sex is.
The medical professionals themselves recognize at least some of these truths. One reason they ask about “sexual activity” is that there are health consequences that need to be monitored. Everyone knows about AIDS today, but few know of the epidemic of other sexually transmitted diseases that plague American society. Pelvic exams are now common for incoming college students so that these diseases may be caught and treated early. The young woman who was not sexually active convinced the nurse she was telling the truth: She was told that, as a result, she did not need the exam.
To judge from the remarks, as opposed to the practice, of medical professionals, however, these threats are merely notional, especially if students can be instructed in contraception—above all, condoms—early. The fact that condoms fail often enough, even for mature adults, is not seen as a particular problem. Abortion always waits as a backstop for the sexual revolution.
The only way to make sense of all this is to understand that our high culture has decided to treat young people like animals. Not long ago, I debated Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College who is far from the worst case on these issues. He agreed nominally that it would be a good thing for college students to refrain from sex at a time when the consequences for them could be catastrophic. But he made a telling biological argument: “You do agree that menarche is occurring earlier and earlier in our teenage girls?”
In other words, because women are physically mature and ready to bear children earlier, we cannot expect them or their boyfriends to do anything but let nature take its course at younger and younger ages. If this fact were used to argue that early marriage and motherhood are dictated by biology, it would ignite a feminist firestorm. But freewheeling sex gets a free pass, as we have seen in the feminist non-reaction to our president’s escapades, despite all the harm it does to women.
Teenagers have always been in hormone overdrive. It used to be thought one of the tasks of civilization to prevent the course of nature from resulting in human train wrecks. The task is not an easy one, nor is it comfortable to place oneself athwart the path of adolescent drives. The whole contraceptive mentality of the past thirty years really comes to roost here. We would prefer technology to save us from exerting ourselves, generation after generation, in dealing with one of the oldest and hardest human questions.
But we have seen what the technological approach to sex means. Divorce, infidelity, and abortion are the abundant blooms of late-20th century life. These are sad enough when they run through the adult population. That our medical professionals and the keepers of the nation’s intellectual life are now blithely passing that heritage to children would have mystified any past civilization.