The pity of teenage sex

By temperament I am inclined to live and let live, but even I have my limits. And I reached them with the first programme of a short series called The Joy of Teen Sex, which is running on Channel 4 at 10pm. I dithered for a bit, and then I asked my wife if she would watch it with me. Having some 40 years of marriage counselling experience between us, including direct sexual counselling, we regard ourselves as battle-hardened. We have a myriad of grandchildren in their teens, and early adult, years – and grandparents can sometimes help where parents fear to tread.

I have to choose between writing this column in the decent obscurity of a learned language or asking you to read between the lines. I must settle for the latter, although I would not be surprised if some readers thought I could not possibly be saying what I appear to be indicating.

Many of you will recall the same channel’s series, Embarrassing Bodies. Often uncomfortable, and in danger of being voyeuristic, the programmes, in my view, were worthwhile. I understand that enquiries about many conditions leapt as a result, and no doubt a large number of viewers got help instead of suffering in silence. While The Joy of Teen Sex (presumably a play on Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex) had a similar sort of format, it had certain key aspects which made it quite unacceptable, not only to me but to any society which still believes that sexual values continue to exist and that the stable family is a fundamental building block of a stable society.

As you would expect, the importance of contraception and the avoidance of infection were made clear. But a rather effective method of avoiding problems – abstinence – was not mentioned except in the context of the legal age of 16. And this was inevitably so because a major part of the agenda was to help teenagers to enjoy sex in all its variety. One must, said an adviser from “The Sex Advice Shop”, “embrace it and meet it head on”. Under the circumstances an unhappy choice of phrase.

I don’t imagine that any of the participants were under age, notwithstanding young appearances and often a mental age which seemed rather low. But their sexual histories showed that many had been sexually active, and I don’t mean just one or two partners, since their early teens. One young man boasted of more than 100 partners but, apparently, by 16 the average is around three. (added 9 February, from Dr Petra Boynton’s website: “In fact reputable research finds most teens have not had intercourse before they are 16.” further critical comment)

Not, in fact, that much of the conversation was on the subject of sexual intercourse. Perhaps that plain Jane activity was rather old hat. Attention seemed to be largely focussed on variations on straightforward sexual congress. The advantages, dangers and techniques of buccal intercourse were discussed in full detail. And one young homosexual man, who was a “virgin” because of a fear of participating in an act which would have earned a jail sentence a few years back, was helped mightily by a young lady who instructed him in practice exercises. He went off, brimming with confidence, to look for opportunities to lose his “virginity”.

For those still mystified you will never need to ask again what lesbians do. You will have seen it all.

Perhaps the weirdest moment was the graphic insertion of a Prince Albert. You may not have known (why should you?) that Prince Albert was rumoured to have anchored his obstreperous organ in order to avoid embarrassment in public. However to see this done by the use of a piercing ring right in front of you, made eyes water: both the recipient’s and yours. By comparison the young lady who thought an of array twinkling studs to be more attractive than hair seemed quite aesthetic.

Now, it is true that the participants must have been chosen because they had extensive sexual histories. So one cannot infer that all or even a majority of teenagers are so engaged. But I imagine a young man or a young woman, with all the uncertainties and mixed emotions which are present in the teenager, watching that programme in their own bedrooms and wondering why they are not sharing in this wonderful and joyful activity in which, apparently, their peer groups are all engaged.

Given that teenagers often find their sense of security through imitating what they believe to be the majority, I suspect that this series will make its own contribution to our leadership of Europe in both teenage pregnancy and sexual disease.
On the other hand, there will also be a few who will find some of the images and descriptions (no, I am not going to list them here) sufficiently revolting to be put off for life. The borderline with shame is always narrow when sexuality gets out of context.

So there is a big injustice being done here. Our society is selling our young people grossly short in encouraging them to believe that the gift of sexuality is no more than an exercise in selfish hedonism. At least pornography is obviously disreputable, but this programme is camouflaged as helpful and caring to the young. Its success is likely to be measured not in making teen sexuality safer but in the number of lives damaged and the number of future marriages which will be cast on the trash heap as a result of displaying teenage casual sex as normal and respectable.

No doubt Channel 4 would argue that this programme was in the public interest. But there is a difference between what the public is interested in and the public interest. As for me, one episode was enough. Thankfully I need watch no more.

(This post varies somewhat from the column published in the Catholic Herald. In particular, the paragraph on Prince Albert did not appear there.)

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The pity of teenage sex

  1. st.joseph says:

    I watched 2 episodes=thinking it might somehow tell me there was some reason for showing it.I watched ten minutes of the third and felt such disgust and grossly ill , and thought how irresponsible Channel 4 is. But then we knew that already!

  2. claret says:

    Why is anyone surprised by what Channel 4 produces ? It is not too difficult a scenario to imagine their editorial briefings.
    Produces to ‘Researcher’ Harry : “Harry have we had anything on sex over the last few weeks?”
    “Er No Boss.”
    “What a shocking admission. Right , get onto to straight away. Schoolage sex, now that would be a little bit different from our usual offering and a few mugs won’t be hard to find who want to boast about their pathetic sex lives.”
    “Are there any restrictions on what we can use boss?”
    “The only restrictions I am interested in are the ones that put limits on us because I love to ignore them, and no-0ne bothers anyway.”
    “Right Boss . I’m off to find some young people to exploit. Get them on the telly for their ‘Jeremy Kyle moment’ and give them a chance to boast and show off and we can be sure that they’l l agree to say anything we want. As easy as falling off a log.”
    “Harry you have got he right idea. We won’t rest here until we have the full expose to put out as education. Now lets grab a bite to eat, I’m starving.”

  3. RMBlaber says:

    I will refrain from making any extended comment about the irresponsibility of Channel 4. The TV channel that gave us such cultural masterpieces as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Anatomy for Beginners’ wouldn’t know what responsibility was if hit its Chief Executive on the jaw.

    In reply to Quentin, I will just say that I would rather teenagers engaged in oral intercourse than vaginal or anal intercourse, given that vaginal intercourse is liable to lead to teenage pregnancy, in the absence of the Pill and the condom, and there is a risk of sexually transmitted infection even with very strong condoms in the case of anal intercourse. Abstinence would be better still, but persuading teenagers (especially non-religious teenagers) to be abstinent may well be an uphill struggle.

    This is one area (not the only one!) where religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has a clear moral, and I would say pragmatic, advantage over secularism. Yet Christians struggle to communicate their message to the modern world. The Jesuits were prepared to ‘enculturate’ the Gospel for the Indians of Goa and the Chinese and Japanese, and they were successful in winning converts. The problem came when Rome got to hear about their methods, and ordered a change of policy. The result was martyrdom, and Christianity being driven underground for centuries.

    The time may have come for the Jesuits to begin again – even if some of the methods they employed in the New World in the 16th Century were (to say the least) a little questionable! Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam?

    • st.joseph says:

      There is a very grave danger from oral sex too.
      Teenagers are unaware of this,but it is beginning to be made known more now.
      You are right, abstinence is the answer, from infections.
      And of course not the ‘only’ answer.

  4. st.joseph says:

    Further thoughts
    on the Phoenix case.
    In the Family & Life Personal Update News Letter, which can be found on their
    http://www.familyandlife.org. Latest edition January 2o11. Says under the heading of;
    Bishop Olmsted Smacks down Abortion Hospital; to quote a part of it.
    “Hospital administrator Sister Margaret McBride,who approved aborting the baby,was told she had thereby excommunicated herself. It is reported that Sr McBride
    has accepted that she did wrong,and the excommunication has been lifted.
    She has since moved to other duties which do not involve having to make similar decisions.
    It makes interesting readding!

  5. Superview says:

    I haven’t seen the programme, but given Quentin’s broadmindedness and counselling credentials I take it to be fairly described by him. There are several nasty traits in the television media, and one of the worst is exploiting vulnerable or stupid people for entertainment, especially so when they are young. As far as the explicitness on television of the sexual material is concerned, the obstacles to it have simply fallen away as the influence of Christian religion and its puritanical doctrines has all but disappeared. There was a time when regulators had a script and they effectively reigned in the adventurous and iconoclastic terrestrial programme makers, but satellite TV has produced a more or less unregulated free market. Although still an active viewer, in that I feedback, and where necessary complain, to programme makers, I confess that in the main it is about poor journalism where facts are wrong or a programme lacks integrity. As Quentin illustrates, to adequately critique programmes of the kind in question you have to watch them, and who wants to? Well, I suppose one answer is that parents of teenagers – and grandparents! – should, and then, if what they see is unsatisfactory, have the nous to try and influence what happens next.
    In fact, where otherwise comes an authoritative voice of concern about the quality of programmes on topics of this kind? From Bishops and Archbishops? Is it likely that any Catholic prelate could speak with any authority and have any influence after the child abuse scandal and cover-up? In reality, it is many decades since such influence held any sway, and in our, virtually, completely secular world (which, for the most part, I welcome, not wishing to be governed by Bishops or Ayatollahs) it is the laity as citizens whose presence should be felt. Which is why it has been so prescient of the Catholic Church to put away any preoccupation with clericalism, and to focus on the development and formation of mature and responsible men and women whose role in the world is a beacon to all who seek to live good lives. If only.

  6. John Candido says:

    I have not seen ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’ so what I am going to say here is an educated guess, based on the observations of others. Quentin has observed that…

    ‘Now, it is true that the participants must have been chosen because they had extensive sexual histories. So one cannot infer that all or even a majority of teenagers are so engaged. But I imagine a young man or a young woman, with all the uncertainties and mixed emotions which are present in the teenager, watching that programme in their own bedrooms and wondering why they are not sharing in this wonderful and joyful activity in which, apparently, their peer groups are all engaged. Given that teenagers often find their sense of security through imitating what they believe to be the majority, I suspect that this series will make its own contribution to our leadership of Europe in both teenage pregnancy and sexual disease.’

    This program is most likely a secular version of sexuality, which could be editorially formulated with commercial interests in mind, as well as what the academics, which are a part of this program, call what is in the public interest. As Quentin has noted there needs to be an awareness of ‘there is a difference between what the public is interested in and the public interest’.

    Programs such as these emphasise sexuality as an overriding biological act, which is only one of its parameters. These programs can be divorced from other important dimensions of sexuality such as due mutual respect between people, young peoples’ emotions, the emotional maturity of the participants, the value of abstinence for those who have freely chosen this way of life or have had this forced on them by sundry life circumstances, a discussion about commitment between people, or indeed any questions about what is or could be sex’s proper use or context.

    There would probably be nothing in such a program about the value of a single way of life for any person, regardless of whether or not such a way of life is religiously based or not. It needs to be stated throughout society that a single way of life can be a quite joyful existence with lots of personal freedom, time, solitude, friendships, and the capacity to devote oneself to good causes. Awareness needs to be fostered that solitude is not loneliness, and that it can have a very beneficial effect on people in terms of increased time for thought, reflection, prayer, reading, and meditation.

    Within such a program, probably no discussion would be entered into about the real possibility of living a life of abstinence as a free choice, and that such a choice is not a sign of eccentricity, weakness, or madness. It is for such reasons, as well as others, that I would question the overall balance of this program. Having said this, I must add as a qualifier, that there is no reason in the world that an academic, secular, treatment of sexuality, cannot be knowledgeable, authoritative, productive, the result of rigorous research, sensitive, balanced, and informative.

    As children have a natural affinity towards innocence and sincerity, there is no reason that adults or teenagers cannot live lives consistent with these values, given a normal and happy upbringing with good, supporting role models. Where children are brought up with love, acceptance, and made to feel special and unique; self-esteem and a healthy level of confidence naturally abounds. It is not only a family that makes an individual, but a multiplicity of settings and contexts. The village, community, relatives, friends, schooling, one’s faith tradition, hobbies, and pastimes, all play a role in personal development. It is within such a formation that children grow towards a healthy appreciation of their own sexuality in later years, regardless of whether or not their sexuality in question is either gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, or intersex; meaning a person who is a hermaphrodite.

    In the light of today’s science of biology, psychology, sexology, and genetics, the church’s teaching on sexuality needs a thorough going review. If the church’s magisterium is to be of help to well-known sexual minorities, the youth of today, all adults, and the position of the church as a mature witness of modern scientific truth, to the wider secular population, there is no alternative to embracing scientific truth as generated by academia. To fail to do this is to condemn the youth of our community to sexual falsehoods, amongst other errors.

    I have been personally involved in a quiet service of support and Christian friendship, with several mentally ill men, for around twenty five years. I was once a volunteer of a protestant Christian drop-in centre, which partly catered for youth, adults, and the mentally ill. I have left the centre many years ago, but I have kept in contact with some of the men that I knew through my involvement with this centre. One Catholic man who is over 65 years of age, whom I have known for about 20 years, recently told me that with through prayer and the grace of God, he has finally conquered something important, that he has been working on for about 40 years.

    My curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask what it was. He told me that he had finally overcome his tendency to masturbate, which he referred to as the greatest sin. ‘The Greatest Sin’, happens to be the title of a scurrilous and grubby little pamphlet that emanated from America, about the evils of masturbation, if my memory is correct. It was written by a grossly misinformed priest. All youth should be told that their powerful sex drive is the result of a natural overabundance of the male hormone called testosterone. Its presence in such levels is probably the result of evolutionary forces, which sought to promote the continuance of our species. Once they attain middle age, testosterone levels tend to subside, leading to a greater capacity to control their sexual urges.

    This is a clear example of the church’s sexual teaching doing unnecessary harm, in terms of it generating unnecessary guilt, distress, and anxiety towards many vulnerable people, regardless of whether or not they are mentally ill or not. The church’s teaching on masturbation is totally devoid of scientific justification and needs to be expunged by the magisterium if they are to be believed as having any integrity, or to have even a modicum of relevance within the modern world. The church makes a display of their claim that they and science have no conflict. When it comes to the modern research within psychology, biology, sociology, sexology, and genetics, it simply cannot cope with its impact on doctrine.

    The continuing inflexibility of the magisterium on the non-infallible encyclical called Humanae Vitae does not help its claim to be a relevant and authoritative source of Christ’s teaching. The world, including many Catholics, has moved on. The contraceptive pill, despite its side effects, has had an enormous impact on the control of women’s fertility, and the empowerment of women within modern society. The scuttling of Humanae Vitae is a mature and responsible act in order to help families to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which would not be in the interest of both the child and its family.

    As any implement can have a multitude of constructive or destructive ends; so too can sexuality. There is a dichotomy about sexuality as there is a potential dichotomy about any other entity. Sex can be used as an expression of genuine love, or it can be used as an expression of selfishness, anger, pecuniary interests, and the control and exploitation of others.

    The community issues of pornography, and prostitution, needs a harm minimisation policy much like the assumptions that underpin the legalisation and regulation of drugs such as heroin, much like the regulation of alcohol within a post-prohibitionist society. Pornography and prostitution are the commercial use of humans for the dissemination of sexual images and the sexual use of humans for money. For most Christians it is an abuse of true and loving sexuality, as practised within the privacy and context of a committed marriage.

    Within our secular and democratic community, there of course is a spectrum of many different views about pornography and prostitution. I believe that the legalisation and regulation of pornography and prostitution are entirely consistent with civic Christian values. While I might not agree with them personally, I think that within a democratic society, we cannot impose our religious views on other, where they are considered to be unacceptable to others.

    In my opinion, it is far more advantageous within a civic sense to legalise and regulate such activities. In the case of prostitution, legalisation and regulation will mean a greater control of sexually transmitted infections (STI) such as Aids, a greater capacity of society to protect sex workers from physical assault, and a far better way of enabling sex workers to leave such work if they should choose to do so. This is an example of harm minimisation within this context.

  7. st.joseph says:

    In the beginning of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans it is possible to see a rejection of the unatural acts of ‘practices’ with which we dishonour our own bodies. (1;24)
    (Rom1;26-27).These texts demonstrate that they have been declared intrinsically wrong and disordered acts ever since apostolic times.
    They are unnatural because they disregard the intrinsic finality of the act.
    These acts which are condemned in Scripture as a serious depravity and presented as a sad consequence of rejecting God.We must struggle to live purity ,and self -control .
    It is easy to blame Humanae Vitae-but this teaching comes from the Bible.
    H.V. will have no effect on teenagers ,who haven’t even heard of the word chastity.
    As catholics we have the sacraments to cool our passions and receive the Grace for self -control
    The deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside conjugal relation s,contradicts its purpose.,that is the full sense of mutual self giving and human procreation in the context of true love.
    ‘One must take into account that in certain cases of masturbation,there may be factors such as adolescence and ignorance, psychological imbalance,or habit which influence behaviour to the point where there may not be serious fault.’
    (The Moral Dignity of Man ) Catholic Moral Teaching on Family and Medical Ethics.

    We know what the contraceptive mentality has done for women’s freedom-not so good for the babies who are aborted by the millions.Thats the consequence of ignoring Humanae Vitae!
    Human Sexuality would be understood better by young people ,if Pope John Paul 2nd
    Theology of the Body was taught in the school .

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