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The Science of the Sexual Self

Let’s talk about sex, baby. Go ahead and call it what you will—getting freaky, doing the dirty, hanky panky—but the essential fact remains that sex is, and always will be, an integral facet of human life. Yet while there is no shortage of creative euphemisms for the act itself, it seems there is a glaring shortage of accurate and adequate discourse on a subject so central to the lives of college students.

Notions of sex in the United States often resemble an intricate labyrinth of fabrication, opinion, and misconception. Sex is as much a natural, biological process as it is an urban legend, riddled with the misinformation and bias that the system of public schooling in the U.S. so deftly facilitates.

Comprehensive sexual education has been stymied repeatedly by policies guided by religious and moral dictums, the result of which has been not, as was intended, reduced rates of teen pregnancy and STDs, but widespread confusion among adolescents regarding the risks and benefits of engaging in sex.

So how do the myriad myths and fallacies surrounding sex get debunked? How can we arm adolescents with the information necessary to have a healthy and happy sex life? Just ask Boston College Professor Jackie Lerner, of course!

Jacqueline Lerner, Professor, Lynch School of Education.

Photo courtesy of Prof. Jacqueline Lerner

Professor Lerner, a member of the Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology Department of the Lynch School of Education, has conducted extensive research on adolescents and their transitions to adulthood.

Lerner’s work is grounded in an emerging theory known as Positive Youth Development, or PYD, which views adolescents through an affectively optimistic framework of potential contribution to society. As Lerner explained, at the core of PYD is the perspective that “we have to understand what goes right in development during adolescence.”

This concerted emphasis on right rather than wrong, on benefits rather than risks, and hope rather than fear, is imperative when it comes to understanding how to effectively inform adolescents about sex.

As Lerner expounded, much of the field of adolescent research prior to the emergence of PYD placed disproportionate weight on the notion that adolescence was a time of inherent stress and storm, of unavoidable turmoil and distress. This paternalistic mindset viewed adolescents from a “deficit model… as problems to be managed instead of resources to be developed.”

It’s no wonder, then, that current methods of sexual education often fall perilously short. When the assumption is that adolescents are unstable, dangerous deviants, efforts become focused not on honing skills but on preventing unsavory behavior—in short, preventing sex, and thereby promulgating ignorance on a subject of huge importance.

According to Lerner, sex in the adolescent development mindset is not viewed solely as a risk behavior, rather, it is viewed as (Jesuits, cover your ears) “a normative part of development.” Not only is sex normal, in the PYD context, sex should be regarded and accepted as a positive part of development.

Furthermore, statistics given by Lerner support this: After age 16, sexual activity in the context of a healthy, reciprocal relationship is not a risk factor, but an adaptive adolescent behavior. The fact of the matter is that adolescents will engage in sex regardless, and the “ignorance is bliss” mentality that blindly chastises teens to abstain is doing them a dire disservice.

As Lerner points out, fear from parents and communities revolving around the idea that giving information to adolescents about sex will encourage them to engage in it has been shown to be false: “Sexual activity doesn’t start earlier for those that have sexual health information … having information is associated with more positive outcomes, things like advocating intimate relationships, ones that are healthy and nonviolent and noncoercive.”

It’s clear that a shift needs to occur in conventional thought regarding the dissemination of information about sex. If such pains are taken to instill what Lerner calls “21st century skills” of survival in the work world, why are the equally, if not more important skills of surviving in the interpersonal world of relationships so deliberately neglected?

Adolescents are groomed to be high functioning adults in just about every context, save for sex—and that needs to change.

According to Lerner, adolescents must be given the information and tools to understand how to view themselves as sexual persons, with the necessary agency and power to advocate for oneself within the context of a relationship. Instilling this confidence and competence to set goals for “sexual selfhood” is key to promoting positive and healthy relationships.

In college especially, says Lerner, “We feed information to college students about a lot of the things that we think can cause them harm … if all we do is 'prevent,' we shut the conversation on 'promote.'”

So how best to promote? As a Jesuit institution, if BC claims to educate the whole person, that means not only the academic, vocational, and social, but the sexual, too. Although the limitations of the Catholic institution are legitimate, the need for frank conversations about sex is absolute and unequivocal.

When it comes down to it, says Lerner, “more of these conversations need to happen … because it’s not rocket science, it’s you science."