Trigger warning for discussions of sexual violence, victim-blaming.
This morning I came across a post at a CNN blog about a new study (which has not yet been peer reviewed) on teen sex and sexual health. The aspect of the study making headlines both at CNN and elsewhere is this: “Girls take more chances during first sex.”
Even though teenage boys are known for their risky behavior, it’s girls who are more likely to engage in unprotected first sex, according to research presented Monday at an American Public Health Association meeting in Denver.
Nicole Weller, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, analyzed government data and found adolescent girls were 30 percent more likely than boys to have sex without contraception during their first sexual encounter. Weller said that surprised her.
“It does because of the history of boys engaging in risky behavior across the spectrum and then seeing that females are having first unprotected sex is telling a different story,” Weller said. For example, teenage boys are more likely than girls to drink and smoke.
This framing immediately alarmed and horrified me, as it may some of you, for reasons that the Guttmacher Institute thankfully pointed out before I could:
But Laura Lindberg, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, said boys may still have a lot to do with it. She said teenage girls are less likely than boys to want to have sex when it happens for the first time and may not do as good a job advocating for birth control. Lindberg added that contraception at first sex is 80 percent condoms, meaning birth control largely depends on the boy.
In other words? Lots and lots of girls are being raped during their “first sexual encounters.” And while some rapists do in fact use condoms, they’re not exactly the most reliable in that area. Nor, barring a few exceptions, are rape victims usually in a position to negotiate safer sex, when they’re unable to negotiate the act of not having sex at all.
And horrifically, CNN was the only source I found that seems to be reporting this relevant tidbit. Though they didn’t report that other studies have shown that a gob-smacking 10% of young women’s first intercourse is involuntary — in other words, that we’re not talking here about just a handful of cases. Further, while CNN did at least take the time to point out the likely connection between first intercourse being unwanted and first intercourse being unprotected, that didn’t stop them from using stigmatizing language about those “first sexual encounters” as “taking chances” and “risky behavior.”
I can’t quite wrap my head around that. We’re talking about young women being raped, and calling it risky behavior. We’re talking about young women being raped, and asking questions about condom use. We’re talking about young women being raped, and the biggest concern at the front of our minds is about STDs. We’re talking about young women being raped, and we’re asking why they don’t know any better?
Of course, a rape victim getting pregnant or contracting an STD through the assault matters, and compounds the trauma of the rape itself. But when we’re talking about a rampant epidemic of sexual violence, STDs and unwanted pregnancies should really not be alone at the top of our list of concerns.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m sure that some of the young women who didn’t use protection during their first sexual encounters were consenting. Absolutely positive, in fact. And yes, their health matters, too, as does the health of young men and youth of other genders who aren’t engaging in safer sex practices. Further, with the information I have in front of me, I cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the higher likelihood of young women to not use protection during their first sexual encounters is directly related to so many young women’s first sexual encounters being non-consensual. I’m aware that correlation and causation are not the same thing.
But I know how to make an educated guess. I know that other studies show a really strong correlation between sexual violence and teen pregnancy. I know that reproductive coercion is common, and that it is sexual violence. I know that while there’s even so much as a strong question in our minds — as there right now really, really should be — that unprotected first sexual encounters and non-consensual first sexual encounters are significantly overlapping, it’s unconscionable to go around portraying women’s unprotected first encounters as irresponsible and talking about how “risky” they’re being. And I know that as much as sex education is needed, “sex education” as we currently know it in the United States is not a solution to this problem, but is rather just being used as a cop-out.
And yes, “sex education” is exactly what’s being proposed as a solution — even though several news sources offer conflicting reports that exposure to sex education didn’t change the fact that young women’s first sexual encounters were more likely to be unprotected.
But while regular readers probably know me to be a huge proponent of sex education, I don’t support it as the sole solution to this problem. Certainly not sex education as we most commonly understand it. Real sex education that delves into issues of meaningful consent, bodily autonomy, and sexual rights may indeed be useful. But even that is not a magic bullet. Neither, even, is greater, more reliable access to condoms and other contraception, though that matters, too. Because none of these things are likely, at least on their own, to help the huge numbers of young women who are or have previously been abused. In that post from two years ago, I wrote:
[O]n the left there are cries for more comprehensive sex education and access, and on the right there is moral panic and proclamations that promoting abstinence is the only way. What the conservative opinion ignores/obscures is not only the unrealistic nature of their plan, but also the fact that engaging in sexual activity is not always a choice, and that refusing to talk about sex means also refusing to talk about what healthy, consensual sex actually is. And while greater access to and education about contraception is certainly needed, those of us on the left generally fail to note that greater access and education won’t help a teen who has been sexually traumatized and feels as though she does not own her own body. It seems that we may be focusing a good bulk of our efforts on an only partial solution, particularly in many communities of color where teen pregnancy rates are highest and sexual violence rates most disturbing.
Moral panics about “risky behavior” — which are really just a form of rape apologism and victim-blaming — aren’t helping. Research into why teens who have unprotected sex do so and a dedication to addressing the many varied forms of sexual violence plaguing our communities just might.