This morning I sat drinking coffee with a brother Jesuit, watching a Discovery channel special on ice cream. The other Jesuit asked me, during a commercial break, if my experiences teaching adolescents had given me an insight into their thinking, their way of seeing the world. Seeing that I was going to respond, he said, "Let me guess: Sex, Sex, Sex."
Immediately, I had to think: I really do not think that this generation is more obsessed with sex than any other. Surely, young women and men today are bombarded with sexual images. Is this because they are looking for it or simply because we live in a society that lacks any inhibitions? Are we projecting onto those I have dubbed the "Control-F Generation" our own issues?
Here's my take on the issue. I think what we often see and experience as an obsession with sex is actually only a symptom of a much-larger issue. I do not think kids today are constantly lusting after sex; rather, I think students are having sex because they are obsessed with being loved.
Think about the social milieu confronting kids today. They are told to perform well, that they need the best grades, the coolest extracurriculars , the most generous service, the highest test scores, and they need to play some type of sport or instrument in order even to be considered for college. Ironically, this is all done in a context where so often students are not allowed to fail, where "no child is left behind," and everyone makes the team! It's funny that we expect kids to be winners when no one is allowed to lose.
These kids are driven to succeed, driven to matter. Yet, I wonder, do we allow them to do so? Perhaps it is the case that one can only matter where there is a real risk of failure. Do we allow our students and our children to face this risk? Do we let them go "double or nothing" or do we encourage them always to be safe, to be secure, to take no risks, to settle for the happy middle?
Our students, it seems to me, really want to do well. Yet so much of their lives is pre-programmed and scheduled that it seems to them that all they really have to do is fill in bubbles and answer the right questions and do the right things and they will be successful. We've set up a developmental framework where students equate success with love! It is not uncommon to hear sentiments such as "I know I don't like piano lessons, but my parents want me to be well-rounded. I would rather play the drums...they are pushing me because they love me" or "My father won't pay for college if I don't go to X University or major in XYX."
So in an environment where it is hard to take real risks, to take ownership of one's decisions, how does the Control-F generation find a way to matter? One way, I think, is through sexual experimentation. Of course, this is not a new thing: people have been thinking about and having sex forever (that's why we are here). Nevertheless, I think that the If rates of having sex are higher today than they were fifty years ago, perhaps it's not due to greater interest, but to the fact that kids are left alone today far more often than they were fifty years ago (An empty house with a bored teenager may soon find many filled beds). If students cannot find meaning through their actions, then they will find it through their bodies. If they cannot find acceptance and approval through their own hard work and on their own merits, they will find it in and through their bodies.
To my eye, the single trait I see represented most among my students is a desire to know that they are loved unconditionally. They are so used to performing that they fear that if they mess up, if they let someone down, that they will no longer be loved. In some ways, they are coddled so much that they aren't really permitted to fail in any meaningful way and are, consequently, unable to learn that they can be loved even after they have failed. Their hunger for acceptance and meaning drives them, consequently, find meaning wherever they can: in the embrace of another. Even if it is only for a few seconds, they feel that they matter...that they are loved.
Consider this: if you give the middle finger to someone on the road in the USA, it means something. To be "flicked off" produces a physical feeling in many of us. The gesture of the other's body is meaningful. How much more meaningful, then, to put yourself in another's body or to welcome another into yours? Sex is meaningful and in a context where we have disabled the ability of many of our young adults to create or find meaning, they will seek it out in the most intimate and sacred of places: the act of sexual intercourse.
I'm sort of writing this stream-of-conscious as this is something I'm just beginning to think through. As always, I welcome any feedback: if I am on to something, this might be helpful and if I have missed the mark, I'd love to hear other voices.