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Sexual Politics and Our Children

by Miles Mathis


Many readers appear to have found my commentary on sexual politics to be just as amusing and iconoclastic as my commentary on art, so I hope I will be forgiven for continuing to develop my opinion along these lines.  This essay will not concern sexual politics between men and women; it will concern how our new sexual politics is affecting our children.

In the last century we have had a unique opportunity to fundamentally change the way we raise children.  Just as our attitudes towards women, racial minorities, and the poor have undergone a sea change, so have our attitudes toward children.  We no longer raise children under the Oliver Twist rubric, expecting them to be slaves or ornaments.  We have attempted to treat children with more kindness and consideration, to listen to them, to learn from them, and so on.  But while our intentions may have been for the best, we have failed.  The pendulum has, for some reason or many, swung in the far other direction, and our children are now out of control.  We all know the famous examples: Columbine and other school shootings, gang warfare, street crime by teens, and so on.  But even disregarding this far end of the spectrum, average teens are more rebellious and more undisciplined than ever.   Fifty years ago, a high school or junior high in the US had some small number of “hoods”.  In the 60s we got the beatniks and then the hippies: we had a small amount of rebellion from a small sector, and this rebellion tended to be based on some statable scruple.  Protest was focused, that is—it wasn’t just bad behavior for the sake of bad behavior.  But after Nixon and Reagan, the rebellion spread.  It not only spread, it became unfocused.  More than that, it became unstatable.  A high school became a conglomeration of different sorts of rebellion, with almost everyone in some sort of splinter group of dissatisfaction.  But most groups couldn’t even say what the problem was.  Some groups, like the hippies and Goths, still toyed with political ideas, but the groups just as often split based on drug choice or clothing styles as on anything else. 

We have all read decades’ worth of commentary on this problem, and since Columbine the amount of ink spilled is truly fantastic.  There are a lot of people who really desire a solution, but no one seems to have put his finger on the problem.  The right tends to talk about family values and more discipline, while the left tends to want to spend more money on studies and conferences—which will allow us to share the pain of our teens and create a culture of support and understanding.  Both approaches seem to contain a kernel of good sense, but on closer scrutiny they dry up and blow away.  Both are an attempt to apply a pat, generalized answer to a question that is basically undefined.  Discipline is the only part of all this that has any content, but discipline works only when it has a definite direction.  If we are going to push, we have to push teens from one thing to another.  If we don’t know what is wrong or what is right, then discipline is just more cruelty.  All the rest, including “family values” and “cultural support,” is just windiness and nebulosity. 

We will never begin to solve the problem unless we admit that there is a reason why teens are rebelling.  Almost everyone on both political sides seems to assume that teens are rebelling out of boredom or contrariness.  It is deemed to be a cultural malaise, and the teens are just doing their own unfathomable part.  The right especially seems to think that teens rebel only because we are allowing them to.  They are just spoiled little snots, acting out.  Well, there is a good deal of that going on, but it is not the primary cause of the situation.  We may indeed need more discipline, but discipline alone will not solve the problem.  It will only cover it up for a while.

We assume that teenagers have always been rebellious and that toddlers have always been hellions, but it isn’t really true.  Children of all ages are often headstrong, and most require very positive discipline of some sort, but the teenage years were not always what they are now.  In past centuries, most of the difficulties of these years were caused by puberty.  Young people had to get used to new bodies and new desires.  They still have that, of course, but now they have much bigger real problems.  And here is where I offer the so-far-unseen problem.

It has recently begun to be reported on that the age of onset of puberty has lowered.  It has been reported on because it has become so obvious.  But the truth is that the age of onset has been changing for more than a century.  In the 19th century, age of onset was normally 14 to 16 for both boys and girls.  For many, puberty might not end until 17 or 18.  This began changing at the end of the 19th century, with medical and sanitary advances, better diets, and so on.  By the 1950s, it is estimated that the average age of onset had already dropped by a full year.  Since the 50s the rate of advance has increased, until now we see many boys well into puberty by 11 or 12 and some girls seeing primary signs of puberty (breast swelling) at 8 or younger.   All the causes of this are not known, but hormones in food and other intended and unintended contamination of water, air and food may be a primary cause.  This is on top of the obvious factor of better overall health. 

Why does this matter, you may ask?  Well, it only matters when it is combined with another grand societal change, which is the age of consent and marriage.  While biology was moving in one direction, culture was moving in the other.  In the 19th century, people (especially girls) might marry at 14, or even 12.  I am not condoning this.  There is certainly something perverse about marriage before puberty.  But the fact remains that, in most instances, the age of puberty and the age of consent or marriage were pretty much the same.  Statistically they were close. 

But they are no longer close, and this is perverse for an entirely different reason.  It is perverse because it creates, not just by expectation but by law, an extended period of extreme sexual difficulty.   The average age of puberty is now estimated to be about 12.5, for both boys and girls.  The age of consent in the US is, on average, 18.  This is a period of five and half years where sex is frowned upon, and often illegal.  To state it in another way, a primary human function (perhaps the primary human function) is placed in a state of taboo, semi-taboo, or illegality.  It is placed in this state of taboo in its very first phase.  As soon as young people become sexual, their sexuality is placed by society in a negative category, or several negative categories.  It remains in this negative category for almost six years.  If you do the math, six years is one third of the life of the teen living it.  If a teen is celibate from 12 to 18, then for one third of his or her life the teen will have been starving a natural function and appetite. 

But it is even more than this, for it is not only sex that is frowned upon, it is also marriage.  Teens used to be able to skirt the sex prohibition by getting married, but that is no longer true.  Up until the 50s or 60s, there was little or no stigma attached to young married couples.  Now there is, especially among teens from “good” families, rich families, or families with college expectations for their teens.  If someone presented you with a married couple from the US and told you they were both in their teens, you would assume either 1) that she got pregnant and they had to marry, 2) that they were both very rural, or  3) that they were both not very smart.   In the recent past, almost no one would have jumped to any of these conclusions.  As I have said in another paper, teen marriage is even more frowned upon than teen sex, since teen sex does not necessarily affect anyone’s college or career plans.  It is thought that teen marriage must. 

There have been other important changes, ones that are rarely mentioned.  One is that as recently as the fifties and sixties, high school girls were not prevented from dating college boys.  In fact, it was a cliché.  It was understood by all concerned that high school boys were too immature for many older teen girls.  A small gap in ages has been common for centuries, perhaps for all human history.  We find it a commonplace when we watch movies from the 50s, or when we watch movies about the 50s.  High school girls wanted to date college boys, and many of them did. 

In the rest of the world, it still happens.  Even in western Europe there is no stigma attached to high school girls dating college boys.  If anything it is a badge of honor, a minor feminine conquest.  It was common in the US until the 70s, when some parent used the age of consent law against a boyfriend, and now it is a thing of the past.  Dating is not strictly illegal, of course, but sex is.  Without the potential of sex, both sides think, “why bother.”  College boys no longer drive by the old high school, to see how Peggy or Sue is doing.  It is too dangerous: they could actually be arrested. 

Some may imagine that I am just reliving an old kvetch: I am still complaining because I couldn’t cruise the high schools when I was in college.  But I don’t remember ever wanting to cruise the high schools when I was in college.  Had I gone to college in my home town, I might have had the impulse to do so, but I ended up far from home, soon too busy with “serious” relationships to cruise any hot spot.  No, what clued me to the problem was considering the thing from the side of the girl.  After college I went back to cruise the college, and I found that the girls had changed.  They were weird and getting weirder.  The sort of girl I had always dated had gone into a funk, and since this was the only sort of girl I wanted to date, I had to try to figure out her funk.  

What sort of girl am I talking about, you may ask?  I am talking about the smartest prettiest girls in the class.   When I was in high school, these girls ignored the hell out of me, of course.  I had a strong feeling they were my type, but they didn’t happen to agree.  A few years later a few began to agree and I settled into a blissful, if short, span of years.  But pretty soon thereafter, something changed.  And it wasn’t me. 


There were no Goths when I was in school.  My high school didn’t have any Goths or hippies, much less gangsters or rappers.  I predated all that.  We had a few very tame punks and that is about it.  This was the late 70s and things were very quiet.  No guns, lots of virgins, lots of Bibles.  I went through puberty at 14 and had sex at 17.   Only three years of misery; perhaps less, because I wouldn’t have known what to do with a girl when I was 14 or 15 (just ask Cindy).   I needed some time to settle in.  Say two years of misery. 

Anyway, the serious rebellion didn’t hit the high schools in the US until the 80s.  It had been drifting in through the music for many years, first in a mostly principled way from people like Dylan and Mitchell, then in a slightly more dramatic and slightly phonier way from someone like Jim Morrison and finally through punk, from bands like the Sex Pistols.   But punk didn’t hit the mainstream in the US until the early 80s and by then it had splintered into a hundred directions.  All of these splinters were crying and screaming, but very few of them could really say what it was all about.  Why so angry?  Why so alienated?  Was it sex, politics, psychology?  Most people still can’t say, the punks and Goths and metalheads included.  One thing is pretty clear: it hasn’t really been about politics since the 60s.  Marilyn Manson may talk about Bush when he is giving an interview, but his audience often doesn’t care about that.  They are just bottled up and they need a release.

Why?  Well, the very form of that last sentence is a giveaway.  They need to scream and shout and hop up and down and knock eachother about.  They need to feel physical pain.  They need to be aggressive.  Why? 

Because they are sexually repressed.  They weren’t or aren’t allowed to have sex, and when they had sex they couldn’t allow themselves to feel good about it.  There was no positive release, just more created tension.  This is also why they are angry.  They should be angry at their parents for creating a society that is sexually broken, but many can’t figure out how to state that blame in sensible sentences.  So they just develop a generalized and unfocused anger.  They are mad at society and their parents, and they are mad at themselves and eachother for not being able to focus the anger, to be able to do anything constructive.  So they don’t do anything constructive.  They just “deconstruct.”  They deconstruct themselves with lots of unfocused and illegible psychology, and they deconstruct their surroundings with graffiti, modern art, raucous music and random violence. 


Girls are just as active in this deconstruction and violence and rebellion, and it is because girls have at least as much to rebel against.  Girls have gained cultural support in a thousand ways since the 80s, mostly institutional support from schools and governments in creating new opportunities.  But concurrently they have suffered more and more from sexual lines that make less and less sense.  They have more career opportunity but less sexual opportunity.  You will say that sexual mores have relaxed greatly since the 80s, but this is not true.  Only a given few of them have relaxed.  Others have tightened, as I said above.  We are somewhat more forgiving if two 16 year olds have casual sex, it is true, since if they use birth control and don’t have cooties, no harm done.  But we are more disapproving of serious relationships than ever before, since we think they must get in the way of college and career plans.  And we have forbidden any age difference in dating.  To return to the high school girl dating the college boy, I don’t think any adult understands the enormity of this, for the girl.   The college boy can always date someone else.  It is therefore not a great onus upon him, as I would be the first to admit.  No, the onus is on the girl, who must date a high school boy or no one.  Given the choice, many date no one, and this is a huge hidden societal problem. 

In the past it was the smartest and prettiest who were able to date the college boys.  Everybody knows this, since it is common sense.  They were the most in-demand.  Now, what happens if, overnight, you disallow the smartest and prettiest girls from dating the college boys?  The shallowest of these girls will just date the best guys in the high school, since they must be seen at the top of the given heap.  But what of the other girls?  What if the high school boys just don’t interest them, in all honesty?  What do they do then?  I’ll tell you what they do: they become Goths and punks, they cut and dye their hair and pierce themselves and throw everything back in your face.  That is what they do.  That is the real explanation behind the fact that the brightest and most attractive students are the ones most likely to become rebels of one sort or another.   Everyone knows that high IQ students are more likely to commit suicide, to be Goths or punks, to join cults, and so on.  This is one of the major reasons why, at least on the female side of the equation.  They are forbidden to act naturally, to do what they would do in a reasonable universe, so they act unnaturally and in an unreasonable way.   They are not allowed to date who they want to date, and should date, so they balk.  

When a horse or donkey or dog balks, a good trainer will assume that there is a natural reason.  You are asking the animal to do something he cannot do, or something he does not understand.  An animal does not balk just to be contrary, or because he is of a certain age.   An animal balks because he cannot go on, physically or mentally.  Man is an animal.    A high school boy or girl balks because he or she is being asked to do something that is unreasonable.  Being crammed together all day and all year in a big ugly building and listening to just-say-no lectures is not reasonable, let’s face it.   High school used to make a bit more sense, due to the fact that more reasonable information was being imparted and the fact that a majority of students weren’t sexually ready to enter the world years before graduation.  Smart students weren’t bored to death, since the classes weren’t taught to the lowest common denominator (or, I should say, it wasn’t quite as bad as it is now, qualitatively).  Many were satisfied being given a few years to gain confidence, since they hadn’t gone through puberty in 6th grade.   And those who were more advanced, in whatever way, could date older guys or girls.  The high school wasn’t in a sexual lockdown. 

Ironically, high schools are now having to build real fences, install actual detectors, and undergo physical lockdowns, and it is because they first created this legal and moral lockdown years ago—a lockdown most have forgotten exists.   Society created a sexual lockdown decades ago, with mores and actual laws, and the physical lockdown has become necessary because the inmates have finally decided to revolt.  With each passing year they revolt more and more.  But the lagtime in between the two lockdowns means that everyone, the kids and the parents both, have all but forgotten what the revolt is about.  The kids remember that they are being repressed, but they can hardly remember the law or taboo that is repressing them.  They don’t know that the world was different fifty years ago.  They believe their parents when their parents tell them it was always hard.  They blame themselves for being such bad kids.  But still they must revolt.

And revolt they must and should, for their parents didn’t have the sexual problems they have.   Their parents didn’t go through puberty at age ten or twelve, their parents got married at 18 or 20 or 22 and had kids immediately.   Their moms dated college boys if they wanted.  Their dads may be 3, 5 or even 10 years older than their moms and nobody cares.  Their parents had two or three years of privation in a milieu when almost everyone was deprived and knew it.  Kids now have five to eight years of privation while watching half the world snog and snuggle on the TV and internet.  Their parents watched Dick van Dyck and Mary Tyler Moore in separate beds.  They have to watch everyone doing it, from fake lesbians and fake heterosexuals on HBO to Homer and Marge Simpson on Fox.  

This and the kids also have to deal with the artifacts of their own rebellion.  Not only must the kids survive the primary fact of a long, and, some must feel, penal celibacy.  They must also survive being reminded of it every moment by their capturing heroes—the Morriseys and Morissettes, the Nine Inch Nails and Beastie Boys and Eminems.  Their light is turned on at six or eight by the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync, they are jaded at 14 by Sarah McLachlan or Natalie Merchant or Tracey Chapman, and finished off at 18 by Marilyn Manson, all before their first time. 

My generation had it easy: we only had to survive the light melancholy of Bread or Stevie Nicks.  Listening to Olivia Newton-John sing Please Mister Please was never likely to leave anyone suicidal.   My parents courted to Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra and “Somewhere my Love”.  Peyton Place was about as smutty as anything got back then.  This was when they actually had glee clubs.   I think “glee” has since been purged from the dictionary.   Kids these days never see or hear anything remotely like glee.  Even Sesame Street is too politically au courant to stoop to glee.  By age ten, forget it, kids are smoking cloves and reading the Marquis de Sade. 


There are two pretty obvious solutions to all this, neither of which is going to be easy.  The first is to delay puberty.  The only natural way to do this is to ban any hormones that induce it.  Anything that may mimic these hormones must be kept out of the body.  First we have to identify these substances and only then can we hope to filter them all.  Of course this will not affect changes due to overall health.  We can hardly malnourish our children in order to delay puberty.

The second is to better match our cultural timetable to nature’s timetable.  As the onset of puberty comes earlier and earlier, so must our expectations of sexuality and reproduction.  Study after study tells us not only that puberty comes earlier, but that younger mothers are healthier mothers.  Women who have their first child before 20 are less prone to all sorts of cancers and diseases, and their children are healthier, too.  The risks for all sorts of retardation and deformity continually rise with the age of the mother.  Knowing this, we still encourage women to wait until they are 30.  

I am not recommending a return to old-style “family values” but we must come to terms with the facts of biology.  I have no problem with women wanting both careers and babies.  But if we can make this possible for 30-something women, we should make it possible for teenage girls.   If a woman can have a full-time job and a baby or two, then why can’t a teenage girl?  Neither high school nor college is as time-consuming as a full-time job.  Why should women have choices and girls none?  Or, more to the point, why should women be praised for bravery and girls suffer a stigma?  It is not logical.

Just as pressing as reproduction is sexuality without it.   Girls who don’t want to have babies must nonetheless find a way to be sexual creatures.  A 16 year old girl—who may already be six years past puberty—must have just as much right to a sex life as a 26 old woman or a 66 years old woman.  We don’t want the girl preyed upon by bad men of any age, but how is a college boy a necessary danger?  If she is brought up properly, he is more likely to be good for her than bad.  We think we can skirt some problems by only allowing teens to date eachother.  But one partner in a relationship with some experience is often better than none.  It is two virgins that can do the most damage (as is a joke in Europe). 

The major solution, though, is to move college up two years.  Send the kids to college as soon as they can drive, at 16.  Let them grow up with a little bit of freedom.   And if they want to move in together or get married at 16, let them.  Encourage them to love eachother and maybe they will.  We now encourage them to treat eachother casually, and they do.  Which, of these, really makes more sense?

And if they want to have babies, we should encourage that, too.  If it doesn’t make any sense the way society is now set up, then we just have to change the way society is set up.  Sex and reproduction and happiness and satisfaction should be the priorities, and business should be the enabler of all these things.  As it is, business is the priority, and we deform everything else in order to fit this schedule of business.

For instance, if young mothers or couples cannot have babies in the current market, it is because they cannot afford child care or medical insurance or other such things.  But in many western countries, these things are already provided by the state.  Here in Belgium, people can’t believe that a rich country like the US would so effectively stigmatize and privatize a thing like having babies.  If the US does not want to permanently subsidize these things (babies) and does not want to raise taxes in order to do so, then it could provide assistance to young people as a loan, to be paid back later in life.   After age 30 or 40, sex may not be such a pressing issue in the person’s life, and he or she will have the degrees and experience necessary for a higher income.  Once the kids are out of the house, both the man and the woman may be more career-oriented.  They will need something to do, and that is the time for industry and advancement.  Maybe that is the time to pay for all those diaper services and vaccines and so on. 

It must be true that happier and healthier young people must mature into happier and healthier old people.  Young people who were not deprived of sex and children will turn into productive and well-cared for older people, who have plenty of grandchildren to entertain them at lunch and after work. 

As it is, it is nothing more than cruelty to continue to countenance the sort of sexual existence we have hoisted upon our children.  They may be rich and spoiled beyond belief, in many ways, but in the most important ways they are still worse off than Oliver Twist.   Not only will we not give them more gruel; we will not give them any.

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