Mark Regnerus is Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Research Associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers tells the definitive story of the sexual values and practices of American teenagers. The book is based off interviews with more than 250 teenagers across America (and later today we will take a closer look at two of them). Below Regnerus expresses his frustration with the current state of affairs.
I’m not really into politics. But I’m into the study of sex and the study of religion. So I guess I’m into politics, unwillingly so. It’s interesting to me how rapidly a discussion of sex and religion can turn political. That’s actually not ideal, and betrays many intellectuals as “reductionistic” about religion. Somehow it must not be about real religion. After all, since many of us are not terribly religious ourselves, how in the world could other people be?
One would think that after so many Philip Jenkins (clearly the most prolific OUP author) books we should be clear that religion is an animating force that gives direction to many people’s lives, if not always their sex life. That brings me to the central topic of my book—how exactly does religion shape the sexual attitudes and actions that American teenagers have and take. But whenever I talk about this book, somehow the issue turns back to George W. Bush and his administration’s policy on abstinence education. This is quite ironic, really, since I can attest that most teenagers learn far more about sex outside of the classroom than inside it. The computer has become a sex educator bar none. This is the growing tragedy of porn: in contrast to Hollywood chatter about film reflecting life rather than the other way around, the direction of influence once was remarkably clear here, especially among teenagers and young people. Teenage boys—and perhaps not a few girls—were logging on to “learn” sex, or so they thought. When this phenomenon began in earnest, less than 15 years ago, boys were clearly misfiring with girls, who wanted no part of their new “knowledge.” But the stats on heterosexual anal sex—and short-term sexual hook-ups of any sort—are suggesting life is starting to mimic art. Strike that, porn is not art. If it was, we’d hang it on the wall.
As a husband and as a father of a daughter and a son, this is depressing. All the abstinence education in the world, delivered from I don’t care where, feels puny and weak when stacked up against our consumer culture’s penchant for quick self-focused sex (and giving a public account of it afterward). There’s a lot of money being made in telling certain stories about sex.
Another irony is that I sound so unbelievably conservative when I lament this state of things. Well, I’m not (a political conservative), and I am (lamenting). And the more I lament, the more I have found that this issue resounds with well-meaning adults and parents of all religious and political colors. Some things just suck; on that many of us have started to agree. And any sociologist worth his stripes (we wear stripes?) will admit that “private” behavior is never really that. Just like my neighbor’s new girlfriend. What happened to his wife, my kids wonder. What we do affects those around us. Maybe it’s OK as long as no one gets hurt? Hah! What a joke! Just spend an afternoon talking with students about the pain in their lives and the trickle-down effect of their parents’ abysmal actions. Ah, the gifts that keep on giving. Pass the Prozac.