Frank L. McNamara Jr.

On teen sex, ‘practical’ goes awry

By Frank L. McNamara Jr.
April 20, 2011

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ONCE AGAIN we return to the long-running morality play featuring condoms vs. abstinence as rival antidotes for the twin specters of STDs and teen pregnancy.

The grip of the bourgeoisie is vise-like; “practical” adult opinion in and out of government regards sex among the young strictly as a health issue. In that spirit, the Provincetown school board voted last June to offer free condoms to students of all ages without their parents’ consent. (Amid an outcry, the district reconsidered somewhat.) Earlier this month, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter launched a major condom-distribution campaign whose website offers to mail condoms to people as young as 11 years old. With the coming of the spring rut to high schools, adults and other educators across the country may follow a similar, if less conspicuous, approach.

But the young, who will live either up to or down to the standards set for them, deserve better than this well-meaning but flaccid approach.

Apart from the questionable efficacy (Will kids use them? Do they work?) and the fact that condoms have nothing to do with education, their free (another problem) distribution to high school students transmits two contradictory messages.

The first is amoral: sex in high school is tacitly okay, a recreational sport about which adults are agnostic, so long as it is “safe.” The second is irrational: sex for high school kids is, well, not okay, but we adults trust neither you kids to abstain nor ourselves to lead.

Sounded together, the two say: “We are giving up hope in your good behavior in order to be free from the fear of your bad.” And the kids see through this, and there is engendered in them cynicism and disdain for confused and cowardly adults and their incoherent ethical norms.

Consider: Would any teen with an IQ higher than that of a small barnyard animal take seriously an adult prohibition against, say, tobacco products, were a school to supply ashtrays, filtered cigarettes, and spittoons, on the rationale that because kids are going to indulge anyway, we should give them the accoutrements to make the illicit activity cleaner and safer?

And what if the “sex-in-high-school-is-wrong-but-it-will-happen-so-why-fight-it” approach were taken toward alcohol use, racism, sexism, homophobia, guns, bullying, or, God forbid, climate change?

The problems with this approach are not merely abstract. Adult exhortations to “safe sex” can translate in young minds to invitations to have sex, as students interpret adult quiescence as a green light to experiment. This opens the way for many young people (girls especially) to be coerced and exploited by those who do not love them.

Legally, condom distribution exposes student and school to liability. Sexual intercourse and sodomy with a person under 16 is criminal in Massachusetts. Consent is not a defense; a victim that young is conclusively presumed to be incapable of giving it. The crime is gender-neutral, and contains no age exemption for putative defendants; whether the perpetrator is male or female, 14 or 40, it is still a felony. Further, anyone who aids in the commission of a felony is as punishable as the principal felon. Imagine the headline: “School Officials Indicted As Accessories To ‘Kids Gone Wild’ Orgy.” Then imagine the collateral civil litigation.

Many still measure sexual activity among teens by traditional moral calipers, and its wrongness is not open to debate. When school officials distribute condoms, they lose this valuable constituency and diminish their own standing to enforce moral conduct in other areas of student life (for example, bullying).

If the debate over condoms in schools seems to go on year after year, that may be because parents, regardless of creed, expect schools to reinforce basic ethical values of honesty, compassion, unselfishness, loyalty, discipline, courage, good manners, and generosity. These expectations are strongest in those “ground zero” areas of teenage existence, of which human sexuality is surely one. A school abdicates its responsibility and squanders an important teaching moment when it transmits a blasé “it’s-okay-just-use-a-condom” signal, behaving as if it either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the many destructive physical and psychological forces that scar kids venturing prematurely into this complex arena.

Frank L. McNamara Jr., a lawyer in Boston, is a former US attorney for Massachusetts.