Of the Central Role of Sexuality in US Social Inequality


 As my regular readers know, have completed my course work for my Ph.D. and am in the process of completing my dissertation in the next couples of months.  My focus of research has been the role of educational poverty in intergenerational poverty.  My dissertation proposes a radical idea, return our educational system to the enlightenment ideals of primacy of individuals reaching their full human potential. This is opposed to the current debate that pits those who believe the schools should be used to promote economic growth on one hand and those who believe the schools should be used to rearrange society based on group membership (race, language, income, gender, sexual identification…ad infinitum) to achieve uniformity. I propose both current approaches are destructive to both children and society. 

As part of my research, I have spent a great deal of time pouring over the research and statistical data dealing with intergenerational poverty. The vast majority of people who are in poverty today will not be so six months from now. However, there is a core group who are in poverty all their life, as were their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers.  I say grandmothers, because one of the key factors in intergenerational poverty is the lack of dads who stick around to provide financial and emotional support.  This core group of intergenerational poor is far larger in the US than it is in other industrialized nations. The question is why.

It is often discussed how bad the US educational system is so far behind the other industrialized nations, even though the US spends far more on education they most other countries. When we pull apart the data, what we find is if we statically reduce the core group of poverty were the same percentage it is in, let’s day Norway, we would find that the US has the finest educational system in the world.  The same is true in measures of infant mortality and violence and overall health. If we do not consider the disproportionate number of people who are in permanent poverty, the US stands to lead the world in most of these domains.

But of course the US lags in all those areas.  The US doesn’t have an education problem or a health crisis or gun violence problem. The US has an intergenerational poverty problem. And why is it so much worse in the US than other industrialized countries? One factor stands out in my research above all others. Sex.  OK, not really sex, but rather the rate of teen pregnancy. The rate of teen pregnancy exceeds all other advanced countries, some by as much as 700%. Compared to our Canadian neighbors to the north the US has a teen pregnancy rate 300% higher!

Why is this the cause of intergenerational poverty?  Simple.  I saw this as a social worker. I’ll anser via an illustration. An impoverished 15 year old girl has a baby. Her education is severely impacted, if not stopped. Her chances of gaining the necessary education or skills to advance out of poverty are massively reduced; the chances the father will provide long-term financial or emotional support are about zero. Her chances of having a second and third child are very high as she looks for stability in a domestic relationship and reliable birth control is difficult to come by for the poor. Each new child divides her limited financial and emotional resources into smaller parts for each child. She by her early twenties she  is stuck in a trap, overwhelmed by the demands of several growing children, yet she is just now mature enough to make long term plans, yet what plans can she make that will lift her from poverty?

I had case after case just like this. These young women enter their 20’s so far in a hole that they will struggle for a lifetime to dig out.  But, that is not the real tragedy. The real tragedy is that while this young woman was foundering, those few years, perhaps as few as five, her children were profoundly impacted by the chaos around their “child mom” trying to put her own life together. My experience, and research, says poverty in those few short years of early childhood and the attending other problems, has a lasting impact.  Among other things, her children are likely to suffer with are the same difficulty in forming stable relationships that their mother has, and like their mother, her daughters are very likely to become teen moms and to repeat the cycle.

Some of the kids will make it out of poverty; however, since the “educated class” of women are not having children until the age that the impoverished class of women are becoming grandmothers. And because the “educated class” of women are having half as many kids, we have a situation that even if half the girls born by teen mom’s do not become a teen mom themselves, the number and percent of that the population will continue to grow.  Thus the gap between the haves and have-not will continue to grow.

We will never resolve the other big social issues until we dramatically reduce our teen pregnancy rate!

Yet none of the politicians or pundits want to touch the real answers to this ever so sensitive question that crosses into issues of race, sex and religion.

Do American teens screw more often than other kids? Not really, however, the poorest children start sex very early, with age 13 becoming common. One study of urban elementary school students found 18% of 13 year old boys had already had sexual intercourse. Further, over half the boys said they expected to do so in the next year as did a quarter of the girls.  To make this all more complicated both boys and girls are reaching sexual maturity earlier and earlier.

So what should we do? Do we launch a massive “sex is bad” campaign? No. We’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. Beyond that it’s a lie, sex is not bad.  Kids see through the lie and it discredits the other things adults say about sex, like birth control and sexual safety.

Well we ask then why are girls getting pregnant in the US so often? Again the poverty issue comes up. Family warmth and school success are inversely related to very early sexual activity and high risk sexual activity and the same factors are driven up by having a mom who was a teen and poverty.  See the cycle?  Kids who can’t do anything else, can fuck, and girls who get very little positive attention know having a baby will get them lots of attention. I had a client tell me once “The only thing I know how to do good is make babies”. She was under 30 and had 5 kids to 5 different men. This points out the only issue here is not just access to birth control.

First and foremost we must undermine the sex in the closet culture. As long as teen sexuality is seen as inherently bad it will be impossible to have a meaningful impact on teen (and pre-teen) attitudes about sex.  The US is hyper sexualized on one hand, but highly puritanical on the other.  As long as depictions on TV and movies of murder are listed as OK for children under 13 with just a suggestion of parental guidance, yet a single fleeting image of an erect penis demands no child under 17 can ever see the movie, kids will continue to see sex as both dirty and desirable because it is so forbidden. Murder is not ever a part of a positive “grown-up” life, but sex is. Thus, I call for universal civic/social education in our schools, beginning at the early grades.

Sexuality is a part, but nowhere near the majority of positive social interactions; however sexual constructs, taught from the earliest years, impact all our social interactions. When I used to do lectures to parents on children and sexuality, I always said “sex education begins at birth.”  Children, not just teens, have a steady diet of TV depicting casual and very enjoyable sex, but the adults in their life never talk to them about how that fits into a healthy lifestyle.  I wish I had great sex as often as people on some of the shows targeted at teens!  So, we must present to children a whole social life landscape, including sex, of interrelated parts. By the time children are moving into sexual maturity physically (now around 13), the discussion about sex must be very direct. We should be teaching 13 year-olds that their ongoing sexual maturity is positive, but teach safe and sex positive outlets geared to self-exploration and pre-sexual behavior.  Teach how they can express sexuality in ways that do not involve other people’s genitals; focus on teaching and reinforcing what to do, not what they should not do. And, let them know the day will come that their mind as well as their body (and the law) will know it is time for full sexual relationships.

At the same time, just as getting “your shots” is a universal and normal part of growing up, we should make the implantation of an IUD (or something similar)  just a normal part of a girls first post-menarche doctor’s visit.   This does not mean they should have sex, any more than people should spend time around people with chicken pox after their vaccination.   By making it universal, it would end the idea that “oh she’s on birth control so she’s available for sex” mindset of teens.  Middle-class parents put their teen daughter’s on birth control all the time. They put their daughters on birth control so as to “regulate their period”, when in-fact that is very often a secondary consideration, or an outright cover story. Middle class, educated parents are far more likely to be proactive with their daughter’s birth control for several reasons, not the least being they don’t see their daughter being on birth control as a stigma. This disproportionate use of highly effective teen birth control by middle class teens further exacerbates the gap between the rich and poor.  It is absolutely true that poor children have more sex and earlier than do middle class kids, but their pregnancy rate is far higher than can be attributed to those factors alone. Access to convenient and effective birth control makes a huge difference in teen pregnancy rates; however, the impoverished teens that need it most, are the least likely to have ready access.   

Finally, the legal framework must be changed to remove the hodgepodge of state laws that send some people to prison for decades for doing things that are legal in the next state over.  Many of the US states already have a comprehensive 16 year old age of consent, I propose that be declared a human right and adopted nationwide. I would however, go further and clearly set into law that 16 years old is the age of sexual emancipation (adulthood). This would make it clear that their body is their own at a reasonable age. Sixteen year olds should have full guaranteed rights to make their own choices about birth control, sexual health issues and their own sexual behavior.  Further we need to de-criminalize consensual sexual behavior between kids of all ages who are age mates. Current laws simply make those 13, 14 & 15 year olds do so with no access to birth control. We know empowering teens to make their own choices leads to better choices and lower pregnancy rates (and the inverse is true as well).

Sexual emancipation of 16 year olds would also free high schools to treat upperclassmen as the full sexual adults they clearly are. As a capstone to the public school sex-positive social curriculum, for these students sexual education could and should deal with sex in more than just biological terms. It should be very explicit & visually graphic to drive the home the physical and mental health components of sex as part of their adult lives. There are “best practices” in relationships that have a sexual component, as well as factual knowledge about what to give and how to give it, they also need to know what to expect form their sexual partner. You might not know it, but real topics like this are being taught in high school today. It is a part of the AP Psychology course. I taught that course for several years, and as we used a college level introduction to psychology text, it discussed things like the sexual arousal pattern in explicit terms (and pictures). My students, as part of that chapter got several weeks of things like sexual erogenous zones of men and women and how the women have orgasm as compared to men. Once again, the poor do not usually get this class, it is rarely offered in poor schools and only the highest performing high schoolers get to take it (read that richest), but there is a president to teach this.

This blog is committed to the proposition that an open and sex-positive society is inherently a better place for eveyone.  I think this is the first time I’ve spelled out clearly how high the societal payoff is. 

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