At one of my places of work, Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections, I’m in the early stages of processing the papers of Keri Lynn Duran (1962-1995), an AIDS activist and educator. On Tuesday, I came across two pamphlets from the mid-90s titled “I think I might be gay…now what do I do?: A Pamphlet for Young Men” and the corresponding “I think I might be lesbian…now what do I do?” (you can see updated versions of these — lesbian and gay — online at Advocates for Youth).
My reading of these was quite possibly colored by the fact I’d spent the afternoon reading literature on AIDS prevention and clinical drug trials . . . but I was struck by the muted tone of the pamphlets. They were in no way irresponsible or shaming: the text was affirming of non-straight sexuality, encouraged young people not to be pressured into settling on a single sexual identity, acknowledged the homophobia they may encounter, and provided additional resources.
But what I felt was missing was, you know, joy.
I’m far from the first person to suggest that our cultural attitudes toward the sexuality of children and young adults yo-yos back and forth from the clinical to the hysterical, from “just the facts” to “omg! think of the children!” without a lot of room left for pleasure. For embracing human sexual intimacy as one of the great joys in life. (See, for example, Jessica Fields, Judith Levine and Heather Corinna for starters.) And I understand the urge — particularly in the age of lethal sexually-transmitted diseases — to take a public health approach and deluge young people entering sexual maturity with the information to protect themselves from these infections (as well as from unintended pregnancy, physical and emotional abuse, etc.). But in dumping all of this cautionary information on top of them, while freaking out every two seconds about their sex lives (it constantly amazes me how much adults in the media enjoy speculating about the sex lives of youngsters), we somehow forget to talk about how freakin’ awesome sex is.
And I’m not talking about how “hot” or “sexy” sex is — as in “girls gone wild,” performative sex. I’m talking about, you know, why all of us everyday folks (the people who don’t look like the models in Vogue or GQ) enjoy sexual intimacy with our partners. We don’t talk about why sexual intimacy is, at the end of the day, worth pursuing if engaging in sexual activity truly entails all the risks we tell young people it entails: a broken heart, a viral infection, an unplanned pregnancy, possible death.
I believe this is because our culture views young people as sexually insatiable. We assume they’re perpetually horny. And we assume that, being horny, surrounded by other equally-horny teenagers, they automatically (magically?) know how to access all of the enthusiastic, joyful, athletic (dare we say “innovative, bordering on the avant garde”?) sex they want whenever and with whomever. We somehow (I guess?) imagine that young people have access to the language to talk about their desires, their loves, what turns them on, who turns them on, how to act on those feelings even though I doubt that picture of adolescence is one most people remember from their own teenage years.
Or possibly we don’t invoke pleasure, joy, and desire in these conversations because we often still struggle to articulate them for ourselves — let alone feel confident enough to speak of them to young people with less experience and even more questions than ourselves.
This silence makes me sad. Growing up, it seems to me, is scary enough without adults constantly taking it upon themselves to remind young people just how scary it is. Again, these pamphlets were providing encouraging information to young people they assumed were already struggling. And none of their advice seems, to me, particularly misplaced. They’re not wrong in what they do provide. But . . .
I just wish the answer to “now what do I do?” (for all teens, regardless of orientation) could be a little less like a public service announcement and a little more, well, more confident in teens ability to grow into their adult sexuality with grace — stumbling along the way, to be sure (we’re all human, after all, teenagers too) — but with generosity, tenderness, energy, creativity, passion, resilience, intelligence, and joy. Backed up by the message that we’re available in the background to listen, converse, support, and provide information and resources whenever they might need them.
But really, we shouldn’t forget to mention the joy.