Teaching sex ed

In “Blame it on the brain” I touched on how emerging research on the “teen brain” should make us reevaluate how we address the problem of risky behavior among youth. One especially sensitive area is sex ed. My interest, however, lies not in discussing various forms of contraception or the responsibilities of teen parenthood, but in getting young people to think deeply about emotional intimacy and healthy relationships. This aspect of teen sexuality is often overlooked, and this oversight leaves young people without any guidance on how to develop meaningful, intimate bonds even beyond their teens and early twenties.

In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, sexuality educator Debbie Roffman cautioned that young people today are getting no guidance on how to build healthy, intimate relationships. So rather than talking to teenagers about the dangers of STDs (most of the ones she encounters are already aware of them), she gives workshops on how to manage this new stage in life where they will have many opportunities to be physically and emotionally intimate with others.

The interview with Roffman was part a piece called “Sex Without Intimacy: No Dating, No Relationships,” which introduces listeners to the “hook-up” culture of youth today. As the title suggests, young people are much less apprehensive about getting physically intimate than they are about getting emotionally close to others. The notion of going out on a “date” (dinner and a movie, say) strikes many as a quaint, old-fashioned custom. Two articles from the New York Times’ Modern Love column—one by a young woman, another by a young man—give first-hand accounts of what it is like to navigate a world where sex without romance is the done thing.

The flip side of the coin is that more and more people are beginning to conduct intimate relationships online—through email, chat, or Skype—without knowing how to conduct that relationship in person and sustain it in real life (IRL, in tech parlance). (There is also a Modern Love column on this dilemma.)

I think it would be interesting to bring in the transcript and play the audio to the Morning Edition program, and also have the students tackle the articles in groups as a way for them to open up about the topic. The two articles on sex without intimacy are particularly interesting to read side-by-side because they both end on ambivalent notes, with the woman trying to convince herself that this carefree approach to relationships is something she should enjoy before buckling down to adulthood, while the man concludes that the messiness of relationships is something he should get used to precisely as an adult.

What I would like to point out about the third article is that the author’s experience is not qualitatively different from those people us who tried to maintain long-distance relationships back in the day of snail mail and expensive long-distance calls. There is a certain intensity that is forced upon the relationship when the time you get to spend with each other only comes in long stretches (rather, than say, two to four hours spent on a date).

Another text that I was thinking of bringing in for a workshop on sex and intimacy comes from Junot Diaz’s Drown. The piece that teachers like to discuss is “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” and I suspect that’s because it’s short and amusing. The story I think would be especially relevant, however, is “Aurora,” which tells of the narrator’s dysfunctional relationship with a crack addict. It’s a bit longer but would allow for a discussion on why people enter into and stay in toxic relationships. It might be better saved for a more mature group, however.

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