This site focuses a lot on youth and youth media makers or folks who are creating media with and/or for youth. Yet, this week our editor Emily shared a link that reminded me our parents need media literacy and to be involved in media justice too! The article was published at USA Today columnist Stacy Kaiser who is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and mother. Her article, A few things parents may not know about teens and sex, but should…., was really interesting and many of us wanted to laugh, but knew we couldn’t because, well these ideas are being taken seriously and impact us all!
The article was written because Kaiser read about how youth are reporting delaying sex and more youth are reporting not having sex until later in their teen years. I wrote briefly about this and some questions and communities the research does not include or address. What Kaiser’s goal in creating her message was is that parents need to know what is really going on with youth trends around sex. She shares some information she has come across through her work as a therapist, a parent, and I’m sure as someone who reads and is connected to some extent with research and ideas that are published.
What many of us, and I say us as including Emily and those folks who responded to her post, find odd is that there are many stereotypes and misinformation that is being shared and applied to an entire group of people: youth. Now, I want to make clear I do not doubt any of these scenarios have occurred, I just doubt how often and what demographic of young people are participating in these activities. The activities Kaiser outlines include: rainbow parties connecting colored lipstick/glosses young women put on and perform oral sex on boys; sex bracelets that resemble rubber colored bracelets many non-profit organizations use to show support for their cause now are used to announce what activity a young person will participate in; and young men cutting holes into the pockets of their pants so that they can fondle themselves or someone else can do so to them.
Now, this article was published this week, however, it could have been written over a decade ago! It kind of reminded me of the ad where the mom is rapping in front of a group how bad drugs are to demonstrate she is comfortable talking about sex for the young man leading the training. The first time I had heard about “rainbow parties” was about ten years ago at a training I was conducting with providers working with youth. The training was for providers all over the state of Maryland, and the person who had shared the story was also in a very suburban and what some may call isolated area of Maryland. As a result, the demographics of the clients she saw were of the same age between 12-18, but they were also from specific class status’ (upper class/wealthy), racial demographic (racially White), and she was speaking about this issue from a heterosexist space.
The second part about wearing bracelets kind of makes me chuckle. Not in a, “that’s so funny youth are doing that,” but in a “grown men have been doing this with bandanas in certain communities for decades!” Not to mention I’m sure we could figure out other ways that people have done such things with other accessories. I think of the stories I have heard over the years about how students who attend private schools try to show their personality when required to wear uniforms. Students at these schools would express themselves with nail polish, socks, and jewelry. Of course, many of these may be stereotypical of a gender expression we would assign to someone who identifies as a woman, but I think today there are more inclusive forms of expression. I also recall a 5 year old episode of “Without A Trace” highlighting a young woman who went missing after she started to wear a nail polish color that announced she was looking for a partner for her first sexual encounter.
Finally, excuse me for thinking that cutting a hole in the pocket of your pants is genius, but I’d like to think that this generation of young men, are not the first ones to think of this. That would be like arguing that this is the first generation to participate in “hook ups” or the first generation to experience teenage pregnancy, economic collapse, and an increase in war veterans coming home with disabilities which impacts sexual and reproductive health as well. We are not. You are not.
So when is something a trend, and when is something and activity people participate in because it’s happened so often?
What is happening is that youth are more vocal and active around their own bodies and claiming the power that you each have over your bodies as your own. This is phenomenal! At the same time I think it scares and intimidates a lot of parents and caretakers.
I think this article, above all else, shows us how disconnected some older folks are or can be when it comes to working with youth regarding sexuality, sexual health, and choices we have. It also highlights heterosexism as the first and third examples are in a heterosexual scenario that not only isolates and ignores youth who may identify as anything other than heterosexual, but it also results in young women being seen as the problem as they are the ones who are performing/initiating in each example.
Let’s tease these out a bit more. The heterosexism many readers already understand and many of us already work to challenge in our everyday lives. Yet, have we thought about asking our parents, caretakers and mentors to also challenge themselves? I have often found myself intimidated by folks who are my mentors or parents and afraid to disappoint them. Yet, when we believe in something, and want to share and produce new knowledge, sometimes it means challenging folks who have trained, support, or cared for us. Sometimes standing up for and by our convictions and values does not always have a nice ending, there are consequences to our activisms. Those endings can be sticky, uncomfortable, and some may feel sad. My experience has shown me that when I do stand by what I believe no matter what situation I end up feeling better later on because I did what was right and came genuine to me. My hope is that for those of you reading may this also be the experience you have when encountering such challenges, no matter what your perspectives.
Back to the heterosexism: we know that these scenarios isolate queer youth or those that don’t identify as heterosexual. This is in no way the best or most effective strategy. Had Kaiser wrote her article using gender-neutral language, which we know she can do as the entire second example of wearing bracelets is gender-neutral, I think the effectiveness would have been greater, and included a larger audience of readers. Yes some boys put on lipstick and lipgloss, some may wear bracelets, and skirts not pants. Plus, some people with a penis do not identify as boys or young men, so the idea of them cutting a hole in their pants may not connect for some, nor would wanting folks to touch them if it is something they do not feel is genuine and definitive of who they are. It could have been a fabulous opportunity to have had a conversation that was more inclusive versus divisive.
I also read the article as blaming and putting more responsibility on the actions of young women. I’m not sure if others had this similar reactions, but it really came off to me as a “girls are making poor decisions” while boys are “getting serviced” or are being “crafty.” This continues to perpetuate the idea that anyone who identifies as a young women are ignorant, impressionable, and need to be “saved.” It totally doesn’t give anyone who identifies as a young women the power and support they need to make the best decisions for them at any moment. It also does not allow for people who identify as young men to be in any situation other than one of power and privilege. What if a young person is being assaulted or harassed? Would they feel comfortable sharing that a girl made that hole in the pants pocket and would they be believed?
I’d like to think that if this article were to be updated messages such as this one by students at Wesleyan University who created the video below about sex and sexual health:
In order to "balance the budget" the House of Representatives recently announced the intention to strip all federal funding to Planned Parenthood. This is unacceptable. It's time to face reality: many young people have sex, and need to know how to stay safe and healthy. Even those who have chosen to wait still need to know how to be safe and healthy when begin their sexual activity. This extreme ideological measure threatens our youth's ability to choose their own future.Their video is called: "I Have Sex" — students speak out against ideological attack on Planned Parenthood.
In many parts of America, Planned Parenthood is the only place young people can go to learn about safe sex, access contraceptives, or have a simple question about "down there" answered.
With all the rhetoric centering on "government waste," Congress's refusal to close multi-billion dollar corporate tax loopholes and instead eliminate essential, multi-million dollar sexual health programs is beyond hypocritical.
We are starting a student movement to make sure elected leaders know: Americans have sex, and we stand with Planned Parenthood.
Or perhaps parents could also discuss how refreshing it is to have a young woman of Color modernizing messages about “girl power” from the 90s and agency in 2011 as Willow Smith is doing with her music and representations in her videos. Check out her latest “21st Century Girl.”
Tell me what you think: have you spoken to your parents about such experiences or have they tried to talk to you? What would media literacy and justice look like for our parents and mentors? Do you think they are ready to learn from us?