Ethics, and One Billion Adolescents
By Daniel C.
Professor of Ethics and Moral Theology
Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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.
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
New Adolescent Context
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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
Taboo on 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Art of Epikeia
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.
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.
this page to a friend!
and the Sacred (Maguire)
Do Americans Hate Children? (Maguire
of "Good Sex"
Liberation of Women in Religious Sources (Scovill)
-- The Magdalene Sisters
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