Op-ed: Continuing the Plan B Conversation: Plan A
Most sex education programs I have seen do focus on “practical knowledge,” human reproduction, adolescent development, contraception, STDs, maybe even Plan B and abortion. This continues to be very controversial in the U.S. Why? What is generally missing is the context for sex, the psychology of relationships. Whenever we look at human behavior, context is key. Sex happens in relationships. When we discuss sex very narrowly, outside the context of relationships, we distort it and we can make it mean whatever we say. It is relationship that makes sex good and pleasing ... or bad and regretful; even criminal.
Let’s just establish from the beginning that our sexual capacity in essence is good, very good, a great, great gift to humankind.
I like to use the metaphor of a diamond for sex. If I walk around with a diamond in my pocket, or casually hold it in my hand, it doesn’t look very special, it doesn’t shine. If I’m not careful, I might even drop it in the street where it falls in the dust or mud, so one would pass it by without notice. A diamond needs a crafted setting to show off its facets, attract light and sparkle. Just as a diamond needs a setting, sex needs a relationship. What kind of a relationship?
We know a lot about relationships, mostly how they break down. So what makes a healthy, lasting relationship? A good metaphor for a relationship is a beautiful ribbon between two persons, one on which we don’t want to load on too much crud or else it might soil and break.
In light of the “Me-too” movement, we urgently need to teach our teens the elements of a healthy relationship (read: non-manipulative), one that lasts and grows stronger. I would like to offer a paradigm I learned 30 years ago from a clinical psychologist, Prof. Thomas McGrath, SJ, who taught graduate level psych at Fairfield U. He said all non-manipulative relationships require four things:
- love words (we need to be told we are respected and loved)
- love touch (there are lots of them)
- love service (sacrifice for the other. You can say you love your mom, but if you won’t take out the garbage, it’s just words.)
- I’m sorry (for when you mess up one of the first three)
Since we are discussing teen sexuality, I want to focus on the “love touch” part. All humans need to be touched: babies in orphanages who were never held, did not thrive; think of the best hug you ever got and what it meant to you. We teach kindergarteners “Good touch, bad touch.” That is because there is an appropriate love touch for every relationship: a parent and a child, a teacher and a student, a coach and an athlete, two friends, a new business associate, a doctor and patient, even a clergy person and a congregant. “Love touches” run the spectrum from the safe distance of a handshake, to a pat on the hand or shoulder, to a hug, to a kiss on the forehead ... all the way to sexual intercourse. You can fill in the blanks.
Now, of all these “love touches,” sexual intercourse is the most intimate, the most complete (as well as the most risky) that human persons are physically capable of; a union of persons. It is very important behavior, full of meaning … unless we empty it of its meaning. So important that it alone provides for the continuance of the human race. What makes us comfortable when touched is the respect that the other shows to us. There is an appropriate love touch for every relationship. I submit that the “ultimate love touch,” i.e. ... sex, belongs in the safety of the ultimate human relationship, the one where commitment and love join hands, hearts and bodies.
Dear Claire, in my conversations with students, I have met many teens today who do decide to wait until marriage. They are there. They are the quiet ones. They don’t talk about it. Moreover, they don’t wait for marriage “to guard their purity, or fulfill some other antiquated idea of female (or male) sexuality.” They understand the dynamic of relationships which last and grow. They see sex not as something bad, rather as something very good, even sacred, reserved for the ultimate human relationship. They wait for the best and safest sex to give to their lifetime lover. This is Plan A, the diamond in the beautiful setting.
There is an appropriate love touch for every relationship.
Maryann Knag, MAT, MAR, is a former public secondary educator and a scripture scholar, who has been a Darien resident since 1971.