I was at the checkout counter at Walmart when the teenage girl in front of me read a headline on the October issue of Teen People: “Real-life Nightmare: “I Was A Virgin and Got an STD.”
Sounded like a scary B-movie title to me but, perplexed, the teenager turned to her girlfriend in line and, asked, “How can that happen?”
Her friend simply shrugged and returned to paying.
“Oral sex, I bet,” I leaned over and whispered.
She looked at me. “Really?” she asked, and started flipping through the magazine to find out for herself.
Sure enough, there on page 96, was the story of “Susan Smith,” who had taken a virginity pledge when she was 14 but, at age 17, “let a guy I knew from church give me oral sex. I knew I could get a disease if I gave him oral sex, but I didn’t think I could get a disease if he did that to me.”
Wouldn’t you know it, four years later, she discovered she had contracted herpes.
The teenager in the checkout line turned to her friend. “Did you know you could get an STD from oral sex?”
Her friend looked at her and said, “What’s oral sex?”
I didn’t know whether to be charmed by her innocence or appalled by their ignorance.
Then I picked up the magazine myself and was even more appalled.
After several pages of hair and make-up ads – and one disturbing ad of a teenage model draped over a horse pouting at the camera in her tight Jordache jeans — were the results of Teen People’s third annual sex survey.
This year’s focus is on virginity: “saving it,” getting “cheated” out of it, getting STDs while still having it, and thankfully, in one case, having no regrets about losing it. Not that I’ve got anything against virgins (some of my best friends are…no, wait a minute…) but what disturbed me most was that the entire six-age feature was focused exclusively on girls.
This was Teen “People” right, not Cosmo Girl? Yet, the only mention of a teenage boy losing his virginity was in an article about “Arielle Wilson”: “I’m a 21-Year-Old Virgin and I’m Proud of It!” Apparently, her current boyfriend isn’t a virgin but understands her choice.
Big of him.
I’m not surprised that a feature on sex in a teen magazine published by Time Inc. would be so pro-virginity. What does bother me is that no one seems to care when, why or how boys have sex. The girls are still the ones whose reputations are on the line. They’re the ones who are expected to maintain sex’s emotional integrity — “It’s just that for me, sex isn’t casual – it’s a shared expression of love,” says Proud Virgin. Good for you, Arielle, but what about the girl who is simply horny and wants to get laid. As long as she’s responsible and takes care of her health – something I frankly think we need to spend more time teaching our kids, rather than sitting around judging their choices — who cares if and how she loses it? Well, it seems, everybody, for one.
Of course we should also teach young girls – and boys – that there are more ideal circumstances under which to have sex for the first time. I’m all for not sleeping with a guy “to make him like me” or waiting for “the right person” or waiting for “when it feels right” — reasons girls in the Teen People give for waiting — but let’s not set our girls up.
The survey’s 17-year-old Dominique Thomas said she felt “cheated” out of her virginity because she decided to have sex with the guy she loved who ignored her afterwards. Hey, guys can be jerks and, while I don’t excuse his behaviour, the notion that there is some perfect set of circumstances under which girls should lose their virginity is not only unrealistic, it’s cruel. If it doesn’t happen that way, they end up feeling “cheated” instead of recognizing that sex is a huge learning curve and while, self respect and protecting yourself is important, no matter how long you wait or how perfect the circumstances, nothing can protect you from getting hurt.
Certainly guys seem to survive if their first time wasn’t “perfect,” whatever that means, anyway.
As fellow sex columnist Dan Savage says in a great Canadian documentary directed by Andrea Dorfman called Sluts, (coming soon to the Life Network), “I never get letters from boys worried about their reps or how many girls they’ve slept with.”
Yes, sex is emotionally complex. But simply deciding to “wait” doesn’t save you from its emotional complications or its physical consequences and perpetuating that myth doesn’t do anyone – boys or girls – any favours.
Neither does viewing “waiting” as a virtue, rather than a choice, which ultimately – despite its efforts to seem otherwise – the Teen People survey clearly does. All is does it continue to perpetuate stereotypes: girls who wait are virtuous, those who don’t will be punished (clearly the girl with the STD wasn’t a true virgin or she wouldn’t end up with herpes) unless, of course, they do it for all the “right” reasons and boys, well, will be boys.
But as Savage also points out in the Sluts documentary, we are a deeply hypocritical culture that worships the adolescent body as the sexual ideal – see aforementioned Jordache ad – but then terrorizes young people – especially young girls — for being sexual.
And honestly, that’s an aspect of our culture that I can’t wait to lose.
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