(The opinions stated here are strictly my own – and they are opinions. Keep this in mind because I will refrain henceforth from using the phrase ‘in my opinion’.)
Last week, I wrote about an article in a student newspaper that dealt with a girl’s first time having sex, written by the girl herself. It was posted on the website of a private all-girls school, grades seventh through twelfth, here in Los Angeles. The vast majority of comments I received – either on Facebook, via email, and in conversation – were in support of my reaction and subsequent post. Two people from whom I heard disagreed with me. One was a friend. The other was from an anonymous email address on Daily Cup of Jo, though the person then referred to herself as ‘Violet’. (I can only assume it was someone from the student newspaper itself, as ‘Violet’ is part of the publication’s name.) Both took issue with me on basically the same points, so I’ll address them simultaneously, but specifically reference the comment, since it’s public on my blog.
(And by the way, the article was taken down shortly after my post, through a series of events of which Daily Cup was tangentially associated.)
Violet: In your second paragraph, you state that a private school that prides itself on creating leaders has no business publishing an article about sex. The two things aren’t related. The school’s ability to produce well-rounded, intelligent women who are leaders in their community does not hinge on one article published by the school’s newspaper. In fact, the student-driven content and editorial policy of the newspaper, which allows students to make independent decisions, encourages girls to develop as leaders. The school newspaper, while it is distributed to visitors and parents, is by the students and for the students. There’s no way that it can provide an accurate depiction of student life by censoring articles that honestly and openly address the reality of teenage sexuality. You do worry, legitimately, that explicit sexual content is inappropriate for the school’s younger students. But this article was in no way explicitly vulgar, and nobody is being forced to read it. However you may feel about the piece, it was thoughtful and honest.
What I actually said was: “The subject matter of the piece – the true story of the author’s ‘first time’, i.e. losing her virginity – is so wildly inappropriate for a 7th-12th grade institution which prides itself on ‘preparing young women for leadership and contribution’, that I can honestly use the word ‘unbelievable’ in describing my reaction.” This school is an excellent one and DOES produce women who later become leaders, by exactly the methods Violet writes about – making decisions on their own, producing a student newspaper. Still, surely there is a faculty moderator who oversees their work, yes? And helps guide them in their decisions? And I don’t have an issue with teenage sexuality being discussed. It was thoughtfully examined in two previous articles on the same landing page of the paper. My issue, actually more my curiosity since I have no dog in this fight – my girls don’t attend the school – was with this specific article. It wasn’t thoughtful. It was basically, “I went to a wedding with my grandparents, I drank wine, I hooked up with an older guy, I went home with him and drank some beers after lying to my parents about having a sleepover with a friend, and then lost my virginity. He used a condom. It wasn’t a big deal.” Edifying it was not.
I then went on to write: “As a private institution for minor children, there is no First Amendment issue at stake. Holy moly!”
Violet then commented: There is clearly a First Amendment issue at stake. A number of laws have been passed by the state of California protecting both public and private high school newspapers. While you may personally disagree with the article, to forcibly sensor the paper when the article is not plainly inappropriate (i.e., no foul language is used) is arguably illegal. Please view this link for more information about rights in student journalism.
To which I’ll respond: holy moly, is that true?! Unfortunately, Violet failed to provide the link. Any constitutional scholars out there? Let’s assume she’s correct (she probably is): OMG! I find it nearly impossible to believe that any student can write anything they want, providing they don’t use bad words, in a publication associated with a school. But regardless, just because something is legal doesn’t make it a good idea. I abhor censorship and I have told my daughters on numerous occasions what an awesome country we live in because of the freedom to say or write whatever the hell we want. That doesn’t mean I want them to read it all before it’s age appropriate. If something appears in their school’s student newspaper, they might assume, and rightly so, that it’s appropriate for them, regardless of whether or not they’re only twelve and in seventh grade. And to be really annoying, let’s talk about illegal: underage drinking, sex with a minor…
Violet: Most importantly, the entire premise of your article relies on the unstated stigma associated with extra-marital sex.
Absolutely not true. By stigma, we mean shame. I’m not implying that at all. Let’s talk about sex for a minute. It’s a big deal, especially the first time. Post the onset of menses, it can get a girl pregnant. Fortunately, contraception continues to be an evolving, open subject and condoms are no longer hidden in the corner of every drugstore. The man in the story used a condom. Good for him. But some facts: according to a CDC study published in 2011, the proportion of pregnancies in the U.S. that were unintended was highest among teens younger than age fifteen, at 98%. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 49% of the 6.7 million pregnancies in the United States each year are unintended. Three in ten of these pregnancies result in abortions. In other words, contraception is great but not all women are using it successfully, 100% of the time. Shame? A stigma? No, no. I’m talking about the emotional and physical aspects of sex. To speak of it flippantly, as I believe this girl did, is to treat it casually. I don’t think there’s anything casual about a teenage girl having sex. I have three daughters. Count ‘em – one, two, three. I come from a long line of fertile Irish women. Five minutes after having Bun Bun, I walked by my husband while ovulating and got pregnant with Miss T. (They’re fifteen months apart.) So when Violet says – Your unstated assumptions reinforces the social stigma against confident female sexuality that is, sadly, far too prevalent in our culture. Especially as a mother of young girls, it is vital that you reconsider the way that you approach sex, and evaluate your views of adolescents – my response is: How the hell does she know how I approach sex with my daughters? (I don’t write about every damn thing in my personal life.) More to the point, they are MY daughters. (They’re Doug’s too, but this is my blog.) I don’t subscribe to the notion that after a certain age – say fourteen or fifteen – parents of teenagers are left powerless. According to my siblings and friends who’ve gone before me, this is the age when they need their parents more than ever, whether the kids know it or not. I work hard and deliberately connecting and communicating with my girls, even when they think they’d be better off alone. I don’t nag, but neither do I settle for silence. I was a teenage girl once myself, with a mother who did not, in fact, talk to me about sex – so I know about stigma and secrets and lack of confidence in sexuality. Got it. Been there. Not going to make the same mistakes.
In 1975, the FCC established a policy know as the Family Viewing Hour. In it, the major networks agreed to only show family-friendly programs from 8-9pm. The sex and violence would come later. Why? There are specifics, but generally, it was to give parents a break and families an opportunity to watch television together, confidently. The policy was overturned by a circuit court judge in 1977 and declared null and void, for obvious reasons (let’s talk censorship). Regardless, the family hour continued into the 1990s because it was a good idea and fed into the concept of ‘it takes a village’. Now, of course, television is a free-for-all and caregivers everywhere learn about parent-controls and program ratings. (If it’s rated M for vulgar language, nudity, and violence, chances are your five-year-old should skip it.) I mention this because my friend who emailed me reported that the girl’s article prompted a daughter at the school to discuss it (the article) with her mother. That’s good. Conversations with our teenagers about sex are important. But look around. There’s no shortage of opportunities to engage our kids in honest discussions about everything once taboo. Drive down the street and look at some billboards. Magazine covers. The internet. Most parents are doing their very best controlling the conversation when the kids are young, and participating in the conversation when the kids are older. But geez, can we get a break? At the very least, from our school’s student newspaper? If I had to address every controversial thing my girls see, they’d never get to school on time, much less be fed a healthy dinner. I can’t police it all, which is why I trust my daughters’ school to do some of that for me. Sure, not every girl read that article at the school, but I can tell you plenty of them did. Did all of them approach their parents to discuss? Probably not.
I’m almost done. A few more things. Violet wrote: Finally, I would urge you not to be so immediately disgusted with this article. As an adult, in a position of power, your comments on the writing style of a teenager who has placed their reputation on the line are unfounded and inappropriate. She’s right. I wrote: “On the other side of this girl’s poorly written ‘first time’/ cherry-popped article…” and that was snarky. Not only would I apologize to the girl for being insensitive, I would ask if she’d spoken to anyone to work out any possible feelings she might have about the aftermath of the night in question, the ensuing article, and the reactions to it. Hopefully, someone has.
And now, I’m going to be brutally honest and upset some people.
I can’t help but think this girl’s article somehow speaks to cowardice among certain adults. It was brought to my attention, I suppose as a way of showing me how much sexual activity is actually out there among teenagers, that boys at another middle school/high school had a party whose title was “Blow Job Week” (Semantically, I’m not sure why it wasn’t called “Blow Job Party”.) Apparently, different colored lipsticks were handed out for evidence later on. Where the hell were the grown-ups?! Why don’t we demand better behavior from our kids?! Why isn’t it okay to have higher expectations for our teenagers? Because we’ll be considered the un-cool parents? Because we don’t want our children to be upset with us? Because we want to demonstrate just how liberal we are, and comfortable with our sexuality? There were four comments after this girl’s article, all anonymous, all questioning the content of the piece. “Violet” is essentially anonymous. We’re afraid, aren’t we, but of what? Being the adults in situations that benefit from us having lived our lives? From having been teenagers ourselves? What’s wrong with a little wisdom? A little adult guidance? And about such an important subject, for crying out loud.
I’m done. Let me have it.