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'Gateway Sexual Activity': Why Americans Need to Be Honest About Sex and Morality

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In Tennessee, a newly enacted sex-education bill, which takes an unabashedly pro-abstinence stance, prohibits public schools from promoting so-called "gateway sexual activity." Unfortunately, the grown-ups who argued in favor of the bill were too polite to define exactly what "gateway sexual activity" is, prompting the opposition to sneeringly dub the legislation "the no holding-hands bill."

What's fascinating to me is that the Nashville debate reveals in microcosm the confusion that reigns in the American political discussion about sexuality as a whole. To oversimplify, the Left thinks the Right are prudes and the Right thinks the Left are perverts. What both sides have in common, however, is they are far more comfortable with ambiguity than with clarity. And that's why neither camp is ready to have an honest discussion about sexuality.

Maybe it's a remnant of the Puritanical roots of this country's founders, but it seems that when it comes to all other forms of human behavior we Americans can at least agree about what it is we're disagreeing about. Discussions of human sexuality, in contrast, are mostly left vague. Even the highest court in the land is famous for its shameful lack of clarity when it comes to the subject of s-e-x. As Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in his 1964 opinion about the definition of pornography, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

As a rabbi, I find the reluctance to talk clearly about sex rather odd. In Talmudic tradition, human sexual behavior is discussed with the same unflinching analysis as matters of commerce. It's part of life. The rabbis never shied away from a discussion because it might reveal something dark about our basic nature. To the contrary, they brought these matters into the light to look at them in full view. Hence we find some pretty earthy admissions implicit in Talmudic law such as the prohibition of physical contact between the genders. According to Jewish law, men and women don't greet each other with a peck on the cheek. They don't exchange friendly hugs. Many legal interpretations prohibit shaking hands. I know, it's fashionable today to scoff at such perceived extremism. But for all its sophistication, the fashionable response fails to own up to the fact that sexuality is not a switch that we can turn on and off whenever it's polite or convenient. Sexuality is an underlying reality. And that is the crucial fact that is being overlooked by both sides of the debate in America.

Contrary to the opinion of the well-meaning legislators in Tennessee, there's no such thing as "gateway sexual activity." Holding hands doesn't lead to sexual behavior. Holding hands is sexual behavior. It's just that in our sexually overloaded society, it may not feel like it anymore. In 1963 when the Beatles sang "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the girls swooned. Today, top-40 radio lyrics coldly describe the most private behaviors without so much as a hint of excitement.

I respect what they were trying to accomplish in Tennessee, but allow me to humbly suggest that if the pro-abstinence camp wants to really make a difference, what they need to do is go home now and teach their own teenage sons and daughters how powerful a force their own sexuality is and that the power of sexuality is not limited to one very specific mechanical act. Sexuality can be holding hands; it can be a smile; it can be a glance.

As an aside, it baffles me when I see how culturally acceptable dating is among religious Christians who preach abstinence. I find it remarkable that you can you tell a teenaged boy and girl that it's alright to act like boyfriend and girlfriend in every way -- emotionally, socially, yes even physically -- but just make sure you don't end up crossing the line.

It reminds me of an old joke. A cop pulled a guy over for rolling through a stop sign. The cop asks the guy why he didn't stop. The guys answers, "Stop or slow down, it's the same." So the cop starts hitting the guy on the head with his nightstick and says, "You want me to stop or to slow down?"

Americans on both sides of the political spectrum will be able to intelligently discuss matters of sex and morality when we give up the finely crafted nuances and admit the truth about human nature. Tonight, every parent who cares about their kids' future should go home, go into a room together with their spouse, close the door and hold hands. And it should mean something.

When it does, we'll be able to have a conversation.