May 24, 2002

WHAT'S WRONG WITH TEEN SEX? The U.S. News cover story is about a perennial bogeyman, teen sex. This reminds me of something.

In his African history classes, my brother asks the students: "What do you think they call 'deadly African killer bees' in Africa?"

The answer, of course, is simply "bees."

In the same way, what we now call "teen sex" and treat as somehow aberrant or frightening was known for nearly all of human history simply as "sex." Most people were married -- and more were having sex -- in their teens, and often their early teens. And they managed to deal with it, and with the other aspects of adulthood, pretty well. A Roman youth was old enough to serve in the Legions at 14, and to marry, sign contracts, etc. The Bar Mitzvah preserves a similar tradition from that era. And much closer to our own times, George Washington was bossing a survey team in the wilderness at 16, British midshipmen were commanding sailors in battle at even younger ages, and even in the 20th century lots of soldiers were teens.

It is not teen sex that is the aberration, but our increasingly absurd modern effort to treat teenagers as babies. I say increasingly absurd because teenagers are actually sexually mature at an earlier age than they were in those older days.

This doesn't mean that teen sex is necessarily a good thing -- as with adult sex, that depends on the circumstances, and the individuals, and also on what part of the teens we're talking about. But treating it as something scary, aberrant, or unnatural is part of an overall pathology about sex that is both unfounded and -- when, as it now usually does, it comes from baby boomers who felt quite differently about the subject thirty years ago -- pretty hypocritical.