Written by Amy Schalet for The Conversation. Originally published on February 25th, 2016.
Last month, Tom Porton, an award-winning, veteran Bronx high school teacher, handed in his resignation after colliding with the school’s principal. Porton had distributed HIV/AIDS education fliers listing nonsexual ways of “Making Love Without Doin’ It” (including advice to “read a book together”).
What does it say when a teacher who encourages students to discuss nonsexual ways to express love causes controversy? And how do discussions at school about sex affect teenagers? Do adults lose teenagers’ trust when they are not allowed to speak frankly about how to create healthy intimacy?
My cross-national research on adolescent sexuality shows a profound discomfort in American society not just with teenage sex, but with teenage love. And the silence among adults that results – in families, schools and the culture at large – may take a particular toll on adolescent boys.
What does love have to do with it?
Political battles have raged for decades about whether and how public school students in the U.S. should be taught about condoms and other forms of contraception even though the majority of American youth lose their virginity during their teenage years.
The United States has seen more political strife and cultural controversy around adolescent sexuality than many other countries that went through a sexual revolution in the 1960s and ‘70’s. The Netherlands is an interesting comparative case: Like the U.S., Dutch society was culturally conservative in the 1950s. But Dutch society emerged from the sexual revolution with a more positive approach to adolescent sexuality, one that center-stages love.
American curricula tend to focus on physical acts and dangers – disease and pregnancy – often eschewing positive discussions of sexual pleasure or emotional intimacy.
Feminist scholars have critiqued American sex education for its overemphasis of danger and risk, noting the cost to teenage girls. Scholars have argued that the “missing discourse” of girls’ desire impedes their sense of power in and outside of relationships, leaving them poorly equipped to negotiate consent, safety and sexual satisfaction.
But scholars have paid less attention to the missing discourse of teenage love in American sex education, and its effects on boys, who confront a broader culture that provides scant recognition of, or support for, their emotional needs.
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