An Open Letter to Teens about Sex

Teenage Couple Sitting In Playground

By Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.

The following is a letter to teenage children about sexuality.  This letter is for all teens, regardless of their age, sexual orientation or political persuasion.  It was written in a spirit that I hope will be seen as free from any particular political agenda, liberal, conservative or otherwise.   My hope is that the values expressed in this letter will be something that many of us can agree upon.  However, if we differ, my hope is that it will at least lead to meaningful conversation.  -MFM.

In our current culture, it is generally assumed that engaging in sexual activity is something that will naturally occur during adolescence.  The teen years are seen as a time of exploration.  Boys and girls will start to date.  Sexual activity is part of the process of exploring social relationships and development a sense of one’s body.  There is a general feeling that there is nothing harmful in engaging in sexual activity.   If two consenting individuals agree to do it, then no one is hurt.  After all, sexual activity is pleasurable; it feels good.  Why raise questions about what consenting people do with their bodies?   This is no one’s business other than the people involved.

In the past years, there has even been a new trend.  Rather than first dating and then, perhaps, engaging in sexual activity (or whatever type), many teens and young adults engage in the practice of “hooking up”.   In “hooking up”, sexual activity is entirely separated from interpersonal relationships.  It is even something that occurs prior to dating.  In more traditional times, couples would date; develop a steady and lasting relationship; get married; and then engage in sexual activity.   Later on, couples would date, form a relationship, engage in sexual activity; marriage was something that didn’t necessarily enter the equation.  With the onset of “hooking up” the relations between “dating” and “sexuality” are reverse.  Couples “hook up” for casual sexual encounters, and then, maybe, if they like it, begin to date.  Or people join together as “friends with benefits” – friends who engage in sexual relations, but without any romantic commitment.

So what?  What’s the harm?  Why not engage in sexual relations?   It’s old fashioned to think that there should be any moral issues about sexuality.  Again, if two people agree, well then, why not?

I don’t want you to think that sexual relations are a bad thing.  Quite the contrary.  Sexuality is (or at least can be) a wonderful thing.  Sexuality involves the joining together of two people in what is among the most intimate physical, emotional and even spiritual ways possible.   Sex is not a bad thing.  It’s not something that should not be talked about.  It’s not something we should hide under the covers.

And in fact, it is because it can be so special that we need to think carefully about it.   There are serious practical reasons why it is important to tread carefully when it comes to sex.  You know what they are.  Sex can lead to pregnancy; pregnancy before you are ready brings forth serious questions that have serious consequences:  Do I have the child?  Do I have an abortion?  If I have the child, what will be the relationship between the mother and the father?  Who will raise the child?  Children change lives.   To have a baby when you are young is to affect the entire course of your life.  You can’t get that back.

This is why, if you choose to have sex, contraception is important.  Contraception guards against unwanted pregnancy.  And condoms help guard against the other practical problem of sexuality – sexually transmitted diseases.  You have heard about “safe sex” (which does not exist) and “safer sex” (which does exist). If you choose to have sex, please practice “safer sex”.  Use a condom.

But these are not the most important reasons why it is important to think long and hard about your sexuality.   Here is the reason.  There is very common belief that we have in our culture.  It is, in my view, an erroneous belief, a false assumption, if you will.  It is this: The goal of sexual activity is pleasure.  This is a belief that runs very deep in our culture.  Pleasure is good, is it not?  If a person is careful to practice safer sex, why deny oneself the pleasures of sex?

Sex is About Intimacy With Another Person

To be sure, sexual activity is pleasurable.  But that doesn’t mean that the goal of sex is simply to experience pleasurable sensations.  If it were, you wouldn’t need another person!  You could experience those same pleasurable sensations by masturbating!  In fact, you could probably “pleasure yourself” better than someone else could “pleasure” you, because you know better than someone else what feel good.

So, what is it that we desire when we experience sexual desire?   If it’s not simply pleasurable sensations (orgasm, climax), then what is it?

It is the desire for the other person.  Yes, another person.  And not just the person’s body.   A person is not just a body.  A person is a conscious being.  And when you have sex, you don’t just want the person’s body.  You want the light that lies within and shines through the other person’s body.   In sex, you want to connect with the other person through their body. 

Imagine kissing something who doesn’t kiss you back.  He or she just kind of stands there, lifeless and unresponsive.  This would be horrible!  It would be horrible because you are aware that the other person doesn’t want to kiss you; that they don’t desire or value you.   And so, when we kiss or are kissed, it’s not simply the sensation on our lips that we crave.  We crave the kiss because it is the bodily expression of what lies within the other person — including how that person feels, judges, evaluates or experiences us.

Sexual activity is about intimacy – it is about coming to know, respect and care about another person.  When people are sexually intimate, they not only know each other’s bodies in the most intimate ways possible, but they come know and value the experience of the other person – what  a person likes, doesn’t like, what pleases, what doesn’t please, and so forth.

That is why sexual activity and love are so closely related.  To love someone is to know that person, to care about that person, to respect that person, and to be responsive to that person.

Knowing, respecting, caring and responding.  These are the qualities that make sexual activity a meaningful, intimate and even spiritual experience.   If sex is not practiced with these values, it borders on exploitation.  Would you want your partner to want to have sex with you simply for their own pleasure?  Without knowing you, caring about you, respecting you or being responsive to you?   You would most likely feel used.  That is why people tend to describe “hooking up, “friends with benefits” and other forms of “casual sex” as empty, shallow and hollow.  That’s why many people feel dirty, used or exploited after a “one night stand”.

If sexual activity is about intimacy with another person, and not simply about pleasure, then it is not such a simple thing at all.  Think hard about what you may be giving up – or giving away – when you engage in the most intimate of acts with someone with whom you are not intimate.