"We talked about it for a while, because we knew that the first time was going to be something we'd want to remember forever... It wasn't rushed... He was my first love and I'll always look back at that moment as absolutely perfect." So described Tina her first time on Glee.
Wednesday's was an historic broadcast: a young woman, still in high school, recounts pacing herself, deliberating and ultimately truly enjoying sex with her first, though not life-long, love.
As notable was the scene in which Glee's lead gay character, Kurt stops his dazed boyfriend in his tracks, later telling him he is too much of a "romantic" to lose his virginity in a drunken back-seat hump.
Why did it takes us so long to arrive at a positive media portrayal of first sexual experiences -- planned, protected yet ignited by romantic passion? And why has the Glee episode sparked such a controversy? After all, the so-called sexual revolution took place more than three decades ago, and a majority of our young people experience sexual intimacy of some sort before leaving high school.
My research on adolescent sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands suggests that our discomfort around adolescent sexuality is rooted in the particular way in which the sexual revolution played out in America, and the lessons that children of the 1960s and 70s took away as they became parents themselves.
When I moved back to my native New England, after coming of age in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 80s, I was stunned to discover that teenage pregnancy was not just a problem of the past, before reliable contraception, and to hear social commentators blame social breakdown on teenage sex. Plenty of sex took place among older teens in Holland, but families and communities remained strong.
When I started interviewing "regular" people in the two countries, I discovered that it was not just political pundits in the United States who looked back on the sexual revolution with misgivings. The American parents I interviewed often recounted engaging or witnessing excess, whether in sex, alcohol or drugs, and they wanted to see their children avoid a similar lack of control or meaningful connection.
Take Deirdre Mears (I have changed all names to protect interviewees' anonymity), a self-described ex-hippy, who says: "I don't want my children to have as many one-night stands or casual relationships as I had because I don't think they were valuable in retrospect." Likewise, Cheryl Tober and her husband had multiple partners, but she does not want her children to know they did.
When Cheryl's 16-year-old daughter Stephanie told her, "Mom, I think I'm ready," Cheryl disagreed: "You are too young to understand the consequences," she said. When Stephanie later had unprotected sex with her boyfriend, Cheryl wanted her daughter to "fac[e] the music"; her teary-eyed daughter had to request emergency contraception -- after telling the pharmacist what she had done.
The Dutch parents I interviewed, by contrast, tend to embrace the gains of the sexual revolution, citing the shame and secretiveness of the period that preceded it. Marga Fenning, for instance, is glad that young people today "ask and tell everything at home." She adds: "You know I do not think it was good at all, the way things used to be, that everything had to be done secretively."
Marga's 16-year-old daughter Rachel has told her she does not think she's ready, but she'd like to go on the pill to be prepared if that changes. Marga thinks that is "sensible." And although she has told Rachel she thinks she is too young for intercourse, she lets Rachel's boyfriend sleep over in her bedroom, a privilege she did not grant her teenage son who asked to have a casual acquaintance spend the night.
Why have parents on both sides of the Atlantic responded differently to the sexual revolution? One reason is that Americans who came of age at that time seem to have experienced a more profound sense of loss of personal control than their Dutch counterparts, who rarely recount stories of regret, no doubt in part because reliable contraception, notably the pill, was easily accessible and effectively used.
Equally important is that American parents came away from the sexual revolution, questioning whether teenagers can fall in love and form meaningful relationships, while Dutch parents, like Marga may have decoupled sex from marriage but they did not decouple sex from being in love. And as sex education curricula with titles such as "Long Live Love!" show, this coupling pervades Dutch society.
For years, too many Americans have drawn the wrong lessons from the sexual revolution: that their own past experiences prove that teenagers are incapable of managing risks or loving others. It is vital to reconsider those guiding assumptions about young people: Recent research on contraceptive behavior shows, for instance, that teenagers are better condom users than their baby-boomer elders.
We also need to reconsider the assumption that love is something that teenagers cannot feel just because they are too young to form the life-time commitment of marriage we associate with love. To come to terms with the sexual revolution, we need cultural narratives of love -- its thrills and obligations--that are suited to teenagers' life phase and can guide their hearts along with their bodies.
If last week's Glee episode is any indication, we may be finally arriving at such a narrative. Two couples in love -- one heterosexual and one gay -- dance around potential virginity loss against the backdrop of Westside Story's melodies. And when both couples finally decide to make love at the end of the episode, they do so without a rush, without the daze of alcohol, and without reason for regret.
"Amy Schalet is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a specialist on adolescent sexuality and culture in comparative perspective. Her new book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex was released on November 1, 2011 by the University of Chicago Press."
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