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We’ve Confused License With Freedom

Tue., Nov. 11, 1997

‘Are you still a virgin?”

I posed the question a few days ago to a teenager of my acquaintance. The kid grimaced in discomfort, made the face of someone about to confess a mortal sin and replied, “Yes. Please don’t tell anybody.”

I found the attitude and the answer troubling. Granted, teenagers - especially boys - have never found virginity an easy cross to bear. But … “please don’t tell anybody”? Isn’t that something you say when you’re confessing shameful behavior?

Wasn’t there once a time when a kid could admit to chastity without feeling as though it were a character defect? Is this really what we fought the sexual revolution for?

You remember the sexual revolution, don’t you? Rallying cry of the sybaritic ‘60s and sensual ‘70s, a jihad waged by the hedonistic young (and not so young) who happily dropped both inhibitions and underwear in the crusade to overthrow the old order. Not that the old order wasn’t in dire need of overthrowing, characterized as it was by dual standards, sexual repression, closed minds and open hypocrisy.

But listening to my young friend, you have to wonder if the new order is, on balance, all that much better.

That’s always the problem with revolutions, of course. It’s difficult to make the transition from the fiery emotion of shoving aside the old to the hard work of shaping the new.

In the case of the sexual revolution, our failure to make that transition - or even really to try - has left us with a society that preaches from two sides of the same mouth, praising abstinence while at the same time lifting lust. Nothing wrong with a little lust between consenting adults, mind you.

But the issue is not adults. It’s children. It’s the things children are told, allowed to see or just exposed to by dint of living in this sex-addled age. True, parents are limited in their power to control access. But the fact is, many of us don’t even use the power we do have.

Which is why, from a tarted-up little beauty queen to the latest buttocks-grinding hot mama on the MTV video, kids are increasingly the fuel for and targets of a mass media machine that presents sex as a consequence-free encounter between nodding acquaintances.

In the age of AIDS, this is not simply irresponsible and stupid. It is downright abhorrent.

Yet this is where the revolution has left us. Freedom without responsibility.

Indeed, consider recent news stories about the HIV-positive crack dealer in New York state who is accused of having had sex with up to 75 young women and adolescent girls in the 14 months after his diagnosis. Most observers seem rightly repulsed at the thought of this man, in singer Pat Benatar’s memorable phrase, using sex as a weapon. But you know the part that also stops me?

Seventy-five women and girls. Fourteen months.

Those are numbers that ought to trouble us, even absent the specter of AIDS. Numbers that almost certainly point to exceedingly casual relationships and, in some cases I’ll bet, no relationship at all beyond that which can be forged while rutting around beneath the sheets.

This is freedom?

Hell, no.

This is suicide, a death of the spirit, a killing of self-worth, a slow slide on a shallow curve. Until we reach the upside-down place where the kid who holds out for something more is the one who feels shameful and wrong.

We have swung from repression to obsession in the space of a generation. Now we need to swing back. Not, certainly, to the days of ignorance, silence, and “if you do it, you’ll go blind.” But to some midpoint, at least, which allows space for a child to be a child. A place that respects that special moment in life and guards it against the pressures that push children toward experiences for which they are physically and emotionally unready.

The revolution never made that place. Instead, it left adolescent virgins feeling the need to apologize for their innocence.

Which tells me that the makers of revolution fought for freedom without truly understanding it. Because freedom is not pressure, apology or the fear of being ostracized. Freedom is the right to make your own decision. It is the right to say yes.

And also, the right to say no.

xxxx


 
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