When I was 11 years old, copies of the now defunct Australian teen magazine Dolly started mysteriously showing up in my family’s living room. At the time, I thought my mother was buying them for her own entertainment, and passing them on to me when she was done the way she did the other magazines she read. But with a couple of decades hindsight, I now realize the magazines were purchased for my benefit.
At that point, I was already educated in the basics of sex and puberty. But the magazines provided answers to the questions that would plague my adolescence. How to a form a relationship? When was the right time to have sex? What did it mean to desire and be desired, and how did I fit into that? What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me…)
The answers the magazines gave me weren’t always the most constructive, but their presence in our house sent a clear and important message: that in our family, sex and relationships were subjects that could be discussed openly and without fear.
Not much has changed, if a new study out of Harvard University is to be believed. The report, titled The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment, argues that frets about a “hookup culture” of allegedly rampant casual sex are misplaced. In reality, only 8% of US 18- to 19-year-olds have had four or more sexual partners in the past year, and the vast majority of 18- to 25-year-olds report dating in exclusive relationships or not at all. According to a widely-reported 2015 study on sexual practices across generations, young people born in the 1990s are more likely to have had no sexual partners since the age of 18 than either Gen Xers or Babyboomers before them.
That doesn’t mean that the spectre of “hookup culture” doesn’t shape young people’s expectations when it comes to sex. But these concerns are as likely to be emotional as they are practical – about what a good relationship looks like, how to avoid getting hurt, how to deal with breakups, and how to begin a relationship in the first place.
“Media images of love,” the authors write, may be more toxic than media images of violence – “in part because we are not taught to view them as aberrant.”
In movies, books, and on TV, sex is portrayed as a powerful force that transforms children into adults and ugly ducklings into sexy swans, and love as an instantaneous, unmistakable attraction that is driven as much by pain as by pleasure. In practice, these narratives lead us to measure our self-worth according to our ability to “catch and keep” a romantic or sexual partner, or to stay in a relationship that is abusive or otherwise harmful because our abuse is coupled with fevered declarations of love.
I observed the same sense of sex as what British sociologist Ken Plummer calls “the Big Story” in the men and women I interviewed for my 2015 book, The Sex Myth. As Sarah, 25, described it: “Everything in the media, literature, popular culture points to sex. If you’re not married or in a relationship, it’s expected that you’ll be hooking up with people and dating. That’s just what you do. You have a love life and you talk about whatever your latest chapter is.”
But while the topic we were ostensibly speaking about was “sex,” as in the Harvard report, the reason the subject mattered to us was because it was deeply tied up with our emotional lives. Whether we were women or men, queer or straight, sex was the lens through which we had been taught to evaluate our desirability, our capacity to connect with other people, and the status our existing romantic relationships. Talking about it openly and exchanging vulnerabilities served as a way to make sense of our experiences; to understand ourselves and how we fit in with other people.