Sex, Ethics, and One Billion Adolescents

By Daniel C. Maguire
Professor of Ethics and Moral Theology
Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

hen invited to speak on adolescent sexuality, I said in jest: "how can I do that when I never had any?" Of course that is false. To be human is to be sexual, but my adolescent sexuality was wrapped in taboos woven from sturdy Catholic threads. Because of the attitudes I had absorbed and the social strictures from the controlling culture, I lost many opportunities for pleasure---and avoided many problems. I am, in a word, a periodpiece, since this is not the reality faced by most adolescents today.

I studied my moral theology in seminaries in the United States and in Rome. There was no special section on "adolescent sexuality." One expert on sexuality writes that parents find the budding of sexuality in their children "terrifying." Moral theologians seemed to have shared this panic and so, with few exceptions, they passed it by. Had they spoken to it, their thought probably would have been of little help today. Adolescence is a cultural mutant and there is much in it today that is new.

Certainly the numbers are new. The estimate is that there are one billion adolescents on planet earth. In the south one quarter of the population is between 10 and 19 years of age; in the north, the figure is 11 to 14 percent of the population. The numbers alone present stark challenges to ethics, medicine, and demography. Beyond the numbers, the circumstantial reality is new. "Human actions are right or wrong according to their circumstances," said Thomas Aquinas. One billion adolescents face some circumstances that make their sexual health and sexual morality a daunting new reality that demands serious and creative attention.

The New Adolescent Context

  Puberty is arriving earlier and in many places marriage occurs later. Records from family bibles at the time of the American Revolution indicate that girls' average age of menarche was 17. A hundred years later it was 15. Speaking still of conditions in the United States, Debra Haffner writes: "Today, the average age is 12." Some studies report instances of even earlier menarche. Add to this delays in the age of marriage. "The average age of marriage has increased from 20 for girls and 23 for boys in 1950 to 25 for girls and 27 for boys in 1998. More than half of teenagers today begin to have intercourse while they are in high school, and most will have several sexual partners before they get married." These changes are not limited to the more affluent United States. In a study on adolescent sexuality in Nigeria and Cameroon, Andrea Irvin writes: "Throughout the world, adolescence has been undergoing significant changes during the last several decades. Age at onset of puberty has been declining in most regions as a consequence of improved nutrition, while age of first marriage has been rising, especially for females in early-marrying societies."

The revolution in communications, including film, television, and the internet has led to a revolution in the availability of highly eroticized materials, easily accessible by adolescents. Notably new also is the "missing parent syndrome," with indications in the United States that as much as "40 percent of young adolescents' time is unstructured, unsupervised and unproductive." Adolescents today are often the children of parents who matured during "the sexual revolution" of the 1960's and 1970's, and studies indicate that the age of a mother's first intercourse is related to the age of the daughter's first intercourse. Single parent families are now more common the United States and elsewhere and the indications are that girls from single-parent families tend to have sex at younger ages.

Urbanization, industrialization, access to privacy by way of automobiles, changed attitudes toward authority and toward religious rules also have created new challenges for adolescents as their hormones begin to swarm.

Certainly many aspects of the sexual context of adolescents are not new, and, unfortunately, are not changing. Health educators in many part of Africa and elsewhere "report that many girls find out about menstruation only after discovering with horror that they are bleeding. Ignorance and embarrassment about sex are very present in many societies. Parents' discomfort is communicated very early in life and discourages children from asking questions." In the United States adolescents are more likely to get sexual education from peers rather than from adults. The historical Christian influence on this uneasiness about sex has been a major force in the West, causing what has been called "ecclesiogenic psychoneurosis" in matters of sexuality. (Uta Ranke-Heinemann wrote what is a blunt textbook on the pathology of historical Christian sexual attitudes in her Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church. (Doubleday,1990). This negative attitude toward sex seems stronger in some parts of the West, as in the United States. This contributes to what I have called "the surprised virgin syndrome," involving the lack of honesty in preparing for the onset of sexual activity. "It just happened!," as though the onset of sexual ardor were not among the most noticeable of human experiences. This false consciousness leads to more frequent teen pregnancy. The Puritanical United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. Significantly, "research in many European countries demonstrates that high rates of adolescent sexual activity can be associated with low rates of adolescent pregnancy, when contraceptives are used widely, consistently and effectively."

The result in United States studies is that three quarters of teens say that their first intercourse was unplanned and a majority of them say they wish they had been older when they had their first intercourse. The broad discomfort with sex discourages communication between teens and parents. This is tragic since studies show that healthy candor about sex between parents and children helps to postpone the time and the circumstances of first intercourse.

Macho, sexist attitudes in men, rooted in the belief in the inferiority of women lead to what I have called "the hostile inseminator syndrome." How do you make love to an inferior? Carelessly or even violently is the empirically verifiable answer. This is not new and is not disappearing.

Adolescent Sexual Ethics

Ethics is the art/science which seeks to bring sensitivity and method to the discernment of moral values. When it is done in Christian circles, with explicit reference to the values of the religious tradition, it is called moral theology. To call ethics an "art/science" is to say that it is somewhat art-like, involving imagination, affective and intuitive insight, and cultural variants. To say it is somewhat science-like means that it, like science, collects, compares, and analyzes data. It does not always enjoy precision or perfect clarity. Aristotle reminded us that in moral matters you should look for as much certitude as is available. Many ethical debates are fueled by a desire to have more certitude than is available. That humbling thought is relevant to the subject at hand.

Moral evaluation is the hallmark of the human mind. The study of ethics tries to bring method and refinement to this natural human quest. In this brief format, I will touch on just a few elements of ethical methodology that can help in evaluating adolescent sexuality.

The first question in ethics, and the most often neglected is what? Clear definition of the subject at hand is the beginning of ethical wisdom. Anyone after puberty has some working definition of what sex is. For some, "having sex" is just one of the myriad pleasures available to us. It does not exist in a genre of its own. Thus a couple might take a walk together, share a beer or a game of tennis, or they might just have sex...putting all these activities on a par. In this simplistic and reductionistic view, as long as the participants consent, there is no other consideration. Conservative Catholic theologians, on the contrary, define "having sex" as the actus maritalis,meaning that coitus is moral language that says that the participants are heterosexual and married. Any other form of sex, premarital, masturbatory or homosexual, is wrong. This arbitrarily limits the possible moral meanings of sexual activity. It ignores positions such as those of Catholic Philosophers Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete of the Jesuit Seattle University: "A rich spiritual life is not necessarily hindered by, and may actually be enhanced by, premarital sexual relations."

I see sex as more complex, more polyvalent, and more lovely than the two simplistic views just cited.

What is Sex?

The most basic question in ethics is what? The first question in sexual ethics, is what is sex? In humans, like everything in humans, sex is more than it appears to be. At a purely physical level, it releases unconscious springs of playfulness and relaxes tensions and frictions born of the struggling, deliberative part of our lives. Sex is fun. But sex is serious fun. In fertile heterosexuals it can make babies. Its biological intimacy makes it a conduit for disease. And sex is serious because it is packed with psychological and liturgical power. In frivolous encounters, this force may not ignite, but it is there, "winking at the brim."

So I, as an ethicist, define sex as a natural liturgy. A liturgy consists of symbols, and we use symbols all the time. From hand shakes to bows and waves,to nose-rubbing, kisses, hugs, and smiles, we speak not just in words, but also in symbols. The word symbol comes from the Greek SYN, with or together , and BALLEIN, to throw. A symbol throws together more meaning than we can say in mere words...unless those words are poetized, and thus symbolized. A liturgy is a coordinated group of symbols. Some liturgies are conventional and contrived. They are made up and they vary from culture to culture. Irish weddings and Nigerian weddings are based on localized convention and thus are different.

Natural liturgies do not vary. They are inborn. Some of the externals will vary, but in substance, they are intrinsic to our humanity. Before showing how sex is a natural liturgy, I will illustrate the point by describing another natural liturgy. For humans, a meal is a natural liturgy. There are two aspects to a proper meal: one is physical (food is essential) and the other is symbolic. The symbolic aspect, somewhat surprisingly, is more important than the food. You don't invite people to a meal because they are hungry or low on proteins. You invite them to show love and respect and this brings you directly into symbols. Crystal, silverware precious china, candles, music, changed lighting. It's as though you were setting up an altar. (It is not surprising that many religions use a meal as their central liturgy. It is already a liturgy; they simply add religious motifs.)

Even the food in the meal liturgy is wrapped in symbolism. The food is not served unceremoniously in a vat, or given intravenously. It is garnished in lovely symbols and presented with elegance. The main business of this dining liturgy is communication of love and respect. Love and joy are necessary even for digestion. If you had to dine with someone you despised, your digestion would rebel.

Now to the natural liturgy called sex. Like a meal, sex involves both physical realities and powerful symbolism. Though one or another encounter may not show it, sex is powerful. It really does "make love" and you do get "involved." Sexually charged love is especially bonding, and, when frustrated, leads to the breaking of hearts or worse. One encounter or another may not show this, but there is power in the sexual meeting.

Interestingly, the physical facts of sex aptly symbolize what sex tends to do psychologically. There is not just physical nakedness; there is emotional nakedness. We trust our partner with full exposure of our passions and needs. We shed our emotional clothes and cosmetics and present ourselves as we are. Sex is a huge act of trust, a hopeful abandonment of our normal defenses.

Physically sex involves penetration, envelopment, and openness; this symbolizes the emotional interweaving that occurs in sexually charged friendship. The lover may remain only an experience, but she or he tends to become a way of life. Sex bonds, and bonds powerfully.

This leads to our first conclusion regarding adolescent sexuality: the immature may not be able to cope with the power of sex. The regrets mentioned above of those who had sex at too young an age may be instructive. They had acted superficially in a matter that harkens to our more serious depths. There is a spirituality in sexual activity. Spirituality is a response to the sacred. Reverence for the partner is an ingredient of good sex. Young teens may not be spiritually mature enough for sexual expression. There is, of course, no typical adolescent. We are limited to speaking about what is generally true, as is usually the case in ethics. Thomas Aquinas taught that the truly reasonable is the truly good. It is not reasonable to engage in activity for which you are physically ready but not psychologically, spiritually, or, given its possible consequences, economically ready. There are many reasons why postponing the time of first intercourse is desirable. Note well: this is a consideration, not a taboo. Ethics is a matter of drawing lines, but the lines ethics draws are sometimes porous. As Aquinas wrote, practical moral principles are valid "in pluribus," in many or most cases, but "in aliquo particulari," in certain instances they experience deficiency and do not dictate the solution. Still it is the path of wisdom to discover what is generally true and where the perils tend to lie.

There are other considerations, other lines to be drawn, other reasons why delaying the time of first intercourse is wise and helpful. The developing field of adolescent medicine stresses that adolescents are subject to fluctuating hormones and mood shifts. Early adolescents typically are resisting authority and testing boundaries. There is an understandable narcissism in those who are attempting to understand themselves. Add to this the insecurity of adolescents about their appearance and peer acceptance. None of these factors are helpful in making a mature decision to commence intercourse. Caution or reflection is not a teen forte. Statistics show this:"Four to ten teenage girls who have sexual intercourse during their teen years will become pregnant, and one in four sexually active teen men and teen women will get a sexually transmitted disease."

Another major ethical concern is with effects, often called consequentialist analysis. The effects just mentioned augur against premature entrance into full sexual activity.

All of the considerations just mentioned are the natural targets for comprehensive sex education. Total reliance on "abstinence only" sex education is naive and ineffective. It proceeds from our cultural inability cope with adolescents as sexual beings. Abstinence is fine. As I said at the outset, it spared me many problems in my adolescence. Resistence to comprehensive sex education is based on groundless fears that it leads to increased sexual activity, as if in this age we had to call sex to the attention of adolescents who would otherwise not think of it. A survey carried out by the World Health Organization Global Programme on AIDS showed that sex education resulted in either delayed sexual activity or decreased overall sexual activity. It also showed that it led to safer sexual practices among sexually active youth.

The Taboo on Masturbation

Masturbation is a natural outlet for sexual energies. It makes no one pregnant; it passes on no sexually transmitted diseases. It is not just the Catholic Church that has been phobic on the subject. The first psychiatry book published in the United States featured the masturbatory hypothesis suggesting that much mental illness was due to masturbation. It went to the point of recommending drastic surgery to forestall it. Catholic theologians in the recent past went to absurd levels in condemning masturbation. When fertility testing required sperm, they rushed for embarrassing alternatives to masturbation. They suggested intercourse with one's spouse in a private medical setting using a perforated condom. Their hope was that this would be normal intercourse since there would be some insemination (the contraceptive taboo). Of course, condoms are not treated to be kind to sperm and this was medically unacceptable. Next they repaired to what I have called "the ouch option," use of a needle syringe to go into the scrotum to retrieve the sperm. This, of course, would produce the sperm as it is in storage, not as it is on delivery and it also was unhelpful.

I was present at a meeting of The Catholic Theological Society of America in the early 1960's when Fr. Bernard Haring was asked what was his preferred method for acquiring the sperm for fertility testing. The questioner was asking about the two above listed "options." Fr. Haring replied: "Massaging the penis is effective," and moved on to the next question. There was shocked silence! One does not often get to attend the death of a taboo.

Judged morally, masturbation is not a disorder but a release of sexual energy. Where there is no harm, there is no sin or guilt. Masturbation is a commendable outlet for adolescents who are highly charged sexually and yet not really ready for "going all the way," as the idiom has it. Treating masturbation as sinful is part of the assault on teenage freedom.

Adolescents' Reproductive Ethics

In my recent book Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions (Fortress Press, 2001), I report on a three year project involving representatives from ten of the world's religions and experts in medicine and demography. This book will be followed by a university press book containing all the original papers of the participants. (See Summary of Sacred Choices).

To report briefly on our research: we show that in the religions studied,including Catholic and Protestant Christianity, a conservative reading of these traditions is possible and has some plausibility. However, there is also a more moderate reading of these traditions which allows for contraception and for abortion when needed for serious reasons. In Sacred Choices, I move beyond the debate which says that only one side in the abortion debate is right, the other being wrong. The religious traditions are rich and admit of various readings, all of them faithful to the tradition, but leading to different conclusions. Most of the faithful think of their religions as a seamless garment. Instead, they are all patchwork quilts.

The political conclusion of this is that reproductive choice, including the right to a safe abortion, is an issue of religious freedom and a human right. It merits protection in law. Where that protection is lacking, there is a violation of human rights. Laws prohibiting all abortions are bad laws, and it is a principle of Catholic jurisprudential theory that lex mala, lex nulla. A bad law imposes no moral obligation. A law that adopts the most conservative religious position and imposes it on the whole citizenry is a bad law. Even a bad law imposes the obligation of caution and concern for public order and indeed, no society is graced with all good laws. Still the prudent circumvention of those laws is part of the process of reform. Law at its best works out of the sustaining ambiance of a moral consensus, but law tends to lag behind moral evolution of thought. Thus there is an interim period during which creative stress caused by dissent must begin to catalyze change. There are no tidy rules for that and most so called "Catholic countries" are in that strained situation now. Somewhere between timidity and temerity lies virtue.

Adolescents share with adults the human right to contraceptive services,including emergency contraception, and the right to abortion, without fear of violence from parents or others, when that moral option is deemed necessary.

The Art of Epikeia

An important virtue given to us by the ancient Greeks is epikeia. This virtue frees us from the letter of a law and binds us only to what could be seen as the mind of a reasonable lawmaker. Law, again in the Thomistic tradition, is a dictate of reason and law of its essence is also ad bonum commune so that the unreasonable law that does not serve the common good is no law at all. It is, as Saint Thomas Aquinas says, "iniquity rather than law." There can be abundant application of this in nations where the most conservative religious positions on moral matters have been ensconced in law. South African Catholics are now following this Thomistic wisdom and are applying epikeia to go against the teaching of most of their hierarchy and of the Vatican that condoms may not even be used to prevent infection if one's spouse is HIV positive, a position that is as dangerous as it is absurd.

Adolescent Homosexuals and Lesbians

Not all adolescents are heterosexual. The lack of candor and comfort regarding sex in most cultures falls most heavily upon adolescents who begin to experience their sexuality in ways that the dominant society abhors. Frustrated as parents may get with their adolescents, there is strong evidence in the literature that parental influence is crucial. When there is good and steady input from the parents, the time of first intercourse is more likely to be delayed. Gay and lesbian adolescents rarely have good and steady influence or input from parents whose sexual orientation is different. The pain is tremendous. One third of adolescent suicides are gays and lesbians who fear to talk to their heterosexist parents or who have been rejected by them.

The sexual ethics of gay and lesbian adolescents is like the sexual ethics of heterosexual adolescents. By my definition, marriage is the legal union of persons who are bonded in a permanent, sexually exclusive friendship. Nothing in that definition requires hetersexuality. For all the vagaries in our human sexual history, we remain the marrying animal. Romantic love is a thrust toward union, complete and toujours. This thrust is not heterosexual-specific. Mature relationships and mature permanent, marital unions tend to be good for us all, gays and lesbians included.

Neglect of the issues surrounding adolescent sexuality is a cowardice unworthy of this season.

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