A church friend of mine has a daughter going off to college in the fall. When I ran into him recently, I asked how the summertime preparations were going. I expected him to tell me they’d spent an afternoon trying to help her register for classes or a day at Target looking at tiny fridges and plastic storage tubs. Instead, his face darkened as he related that his wife had taken the girl to see a doctor who had, at the mother’s request, put the soon-to-be freshman on the pill.
“I’m sick about it,” my friend told me. “I think it just sends the worst possible message.” But the mother is adamant: Her daughter will not have her young life interrupted, possibly derailed, by pregnancy. She feels strongly that it is the responsible thing to do.
I didn’t want my face to show it, but I was shocked. Perhaps my friend thought—or hoped—I’d say, “Ah, don’t worry about it. That’s the right call. Everyone’s doing the same thing. It’s gotta be done.”
“Oh gosh, sorry,” was all I could muster, before making my excuses and exiting stage left.
I then did the only thing I could think to do to clear my muddled brain; I rushed home and told my wife the whole thing. She was as shocked and saddened as I was.
Naturally, we then turned our thoughts to our own daughters, the oldest of whom is just ten. Would we ever put our daughter on the pill to “protect” her from the consequences of dorm-room sex? No, we agreed, to my relief, though not to my surprise. To us, sexually transmitted disease (which can put future fertility at risk) and the emotional wreckage of so-called casual sex are twin terrors far worse than teenage pregnancy.
So, what would we do instead? I have to admit I’m not sure, but my strong inclination is that the hard work of preparing our daughter to enter the highly sexualized atmosphere of the modern college campus must start now, though she’s just ten. She will listen to us now, after all; she may not when she’s 17. So we will spend the next few years educating her about the purpose of sex and its proper relation to the marriage bond. We will counsel restraint and, hopefully, cultivate prudence. After that, I’m afraid, there are only three things left to do: pray, maintain communication, and hope for the best. It seems a passive strategy, but maybe the only viable one short of locking her in a tower.
Throughout history parents have struggled with how to manage the temporary hormonal derangements of young adults hell-bent on satisfying their natural urges. But our grandparents at least knew enough not to muddle the message by giving tacit blessings to teenage experimentation. Today’s parents—many of them anyway—see little value in counseling restraint and cultivating prudence in matters sexual. Why would they? Several generations in a row have absorbed the message that restraint and prudence are for suckers. The dominant culture is remarkably consistent: Holding back is always unhealthy. Express yourself. Take what you want. Do what comes natural.
Why should parents who have indulged their children on every front for 17 years suddenly insist on prudence and restraint when it comes to sex?
“I don’t want to be a hypocrite,” you’ll hear them say. “I don’t want her to end up repressed like I was.” Yes, there have always been those who do not practice what they preach. But for most of human history there was broad agreement on the basic value of a clear and consistent emphasis on the downsides—personal and societal—of pre-marital sex. It was a no-no not because some people have always been judgmental prudes who hate for kids to have fun and enjoy themselves, but because wisdom comes with age, and grownups know that sex is a complicated business, especially so when approached without reverence, in the manner which, at least in recent memory, has been called casual.
Let’s say this: There is no such thing as casual sex just as there is no such thing as safe sex, no matter how vehemently certain elements of society claim there is. Sex has always had a clear biological purpose. Separating the act from its purpose—or worse, denying it outright—is a dangerous business. Sex is consequential. It has emotional (and, sometimes, physical) effects on individuals that far outweigh the psychic pain of self-denial. People, being people, invest the act with significance.
I went to public school in the 1980s where I learned about every method of birth control then available. I recall one “health” teacher, a kindly older woman, comically dumping out the contents of an overstuffed bag full of creams, condoms, jellies, and sponges, as well as the tell-tale oyster-shell pillbox containing a month’s supply of oral contraceptives. The function and application of each of the various implements was then analyzed and discussed in excruciating detail. The whole thing was played for laughs, but only to ease our mutual discomfort at the awkwardness of a roomful of virile teenagers taking clinical instruction about anatomy and intercourse from the Dowager Countess. But then came the punchline, delivered with the solemnity rightfully accorded the truth: The only sure way to avoid getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease is to abstain.
Heads nodded. Yes, we get it. Can we please get out of here now?
Here’s the thing, though—we did get it. I personally got it as deeply and completely as I got anything in high school. Sex is appealing, but sex has serious consequences. Don’t just go ahead and do what comes natural. Pause. Reflect. Give yourself time to consider the consequences.
Was more—or most—of the pressure to be responsible put on the girls? Yes.
Was that fair? Probably not.
Was it effective? You bet. (It was in my case, anyway.)
I’m pretty sure that kids at my high school still get the rundown on every method of birth control currently available—and probably a lot more detail about the joys of satisfying one’s natural urges and discovering one’s identity through sex in all its variations. I rather doubt they are hearing the line about abstinence. That would simply be too out of step with the overall themes of self-satisfaction, self-exploration, equality, and personal empowerment that have come to dominate our cultural attitudes on the subject. But while cultural attitudes change fairly quickly, biology doesn’t. Neither does human nature. The illusion of safety often leads only to riskier behavior. Pope Benedict XVI knew this when he—rightly it turned out—said that the distribution of condoms in Africa had made the HIV/AIDS epidemic there worse, not better.
Sending a kid to college with a handful of birth control pills and a headful of “safe sex” nonsense is like putting the same kid on a motor scooter, handing her a flimsy helmet, and pointing her in the direction of a busy highway. Yeah, all things being equal, it’s safer to wear a helmet than not, but chances are better than good that she’ll end up in a bad accident because the highway itself is no place for a motor scooter. That flimsy helmet is no match for the force of what she’s likely to be hit with.
All that is achieved through putting a 17 year-old on the pill is the nullification of the one good thing that could conceivably come from an ill-advised decision to have pre-marital sex—a baby. And that’s a pity, because while talking about sex with teenagers is painful, life is beautiful.