No putting off new way of saying that sex must wait

April 18, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

"Just say no to sex." Sounds like a very tough idea to sell.

But as President Clinton's domestic policy advisers tackle the burgeoning problem of out-of-wedlock births -- too squeamish to pull the plug on welfare and frustrated by the failure of any other notion to "move the needle" -- it is an idea they may come back to.

This kind of persuasion, with slick ad campaigns and gruesome video lessons in schools, has had a measureable impact on teen smoking rates and on drug use.

Why not try it with sex?

"The analogy is to the school-based anti-smoking campaign of our youth, where there is a real effort to go to where young people are and explain to them in very direct, blunt and graphic terms what the consequences are of their behavior," says William A. Galston, a University of Maryland sociology professor on leave to serve as one of President Clinton's domestic policy advisers.

"I will never forget as a young person the film that I was pretty much forced to see of the cadaver of someone who died of lung cancer. And that's why I don't smoke.

"I have never forgotten, either, the driver's education courses, also school-based, that left me with indelible images of dead, twisted, young bodies in the wreckage of cars that they had been driving while they were drunk or drag racing."

Dr. Galston isn't proposing aversion therapy for potential teen mothers -- forcing them to sit in rooms with screaming babies. He is going for something more sophisticated, the kind of message developed in anti-drug campaigns. Don't just show kids that their brains will look like fried eggs on drugs. Don't just tell them about birth control and how to prevent pregnancy. Give them the courage and the skills to say, "No."

"It has to be training that is directed toward the real emotional dynamic at work here," Dr. Galston says. "Lots of young girls who don't start out with a lot of self-esteem are worried that if they don't have sex, they won't have a relationship. How do you convince 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds that they will enter into the premature and damaging relationships for all the wrong reasons? It is not just delivery of information. It is role-playing, a direct confrontation of these emotions."

Sex education is not enough to stop pregnancy. Studies have shown that providing teens with information about contraceptives does not increase the likelihood that they will use them. What Dr. Galston is looking for is a program that would help kids identify the peer pressure to have sex, help them develop the techniques to say no and provide older teens -- with more credibility than any adult -- to show that you can be a virgin and still be cool.

Can we honestly say that to our children? That virgins are cool. That virginity is a good thing. Or has the world moved too far forward for us to recommend to our kids something our parents considered an absolute -- and which we absolutely rejected?

"This is a function of liberalism," says Giulia Sissa of Johns Hopkins University. "It is as if we are ready to recognize a sort of extreme freedom on the side of our desire, and we are not ready to recognize the same freedom on the side of responsibility."

Dr. Sissa is the newly appointed head of the classics department at Hopkins. She writes and teaches about sexuality and gender in the history of literature and is an expert on the role of virginity through the ages.

Her thoughts on the nature of pleasure and how to teach young people to manage it cast Dr. Galston's theory of "Just Say No" in a different light.

"Rhetorically and intellectually, it is bad to pose pleasure against non-pleasure. As though public good was a question of giving up pleasure. If the alternatives are pleasure vs. public good, you lose from the beginning, because people will choose pleasure.

"When we talk about sex and sexuality, it is much more interesting and honest to talk about different kinds of pleasure, because if you try to persuade young people to simply renounce pleasure, you have lost. You have to persuade them that you can skip some pleasure now for more pleasure later."

Women, young women, are particularly vulnerable to this reasoning, she says, because for them, premature sex is not only about pleasure, it is about belonging, being cool, being part of a trend. Boys, Dr. Sissa suggests, do not necessarily dispense much pleasure when they have sex with girls.

"The potential for refined eroticism increases in time," Dr. Sissa says. "So, instead of trying to sell chastity or virginity as forms of renunciation, why wouldn't we tell the truth, that women can wait for better lovers?

" 'Later is hotter' would be a bold and honest argument."

The sexual liberation of the '60s, which some argue has brought us to this point of girls having babies before they themselves are raised, was not, of itself, a bad idea. The notion that desires are legitimate and need not be denied or suppressed was an extraordinary leap forward in honesty for society to make, Dr. Sissa argues.

"But freedom is also sometimes the idea that you don't want something. That your body belongs to you and you control it. That you are not the slave to your desires, that you are the master of them. That you are truly free then."

Free, perhaps, to just say no.

Young women are having babies before their own growing up is complete. And they are doing it without a husband, without a partner -- a statistical guarantee that mother and child will live in poverty.

Susan Reimer examines illegitimacy in a series of columns that ++ continues today.

Thursday: Teach your children values. That is a solution, we are told, to illegitimacy and the poverty and crime that result from it. But which values? And how do we know when the children have learned them?

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