Bad puberty, evil puberty

YOU have to wonder about all these people accusing pop culture — and now high art — of sexualising teenagers. Were they never adolescents themselves? Did they never play a saliva-charged game of spin the bottle or slip a tentative hand down the front of their pants in shame and wonderment?

Because, like it or legislate against it, teenagers are sexual. Not maturely sexual. But crazily, excruciatingly, undeniably sexual nonetheless. And they weren’t made that way by Dolly doctor, pole-dancing exercise classes or Bill Henson’s unhappy snaps.

The culprit is that brazen bitch, puberty.

If the powers-that-be insist on pointing fingers and laying charges, she’s the one they should be after. She’s the predator who steals our children’s innocence and insists they spend year after year in hideous, hairy transition like that half-man, half-insect, from The Fly.

Puberty makes them show theirs in exchange for seeing someone else’s. She curses them with strange longings for people who once infected them with girl or boy germs. She gives them secondary sexual characteristics; traits that refuse to do what they’re told.

Backed into a corner, she’ll insist her work is purely in the interests of species survival, but this is a self-serving ruse.

I may not know much about biology but I know what I don’t like, and that’s watching emotional L-platers get the keys to the physiological equivalents of high-speed sports cars.

Does puberty ask for permission before messing with our children’s bodies? No, she does not. Could these kids offer informed consent if she did? Of course they couldn’t.

Puberty grooms children, luring them into adolescence with pretty promises of independence and adult privileges. She’s a unscrupulous child abuser who simply won’t let our kids be kids.

Hopefully it’ll just be a matter of time before the NSW police arrest puberty, seizing her unforgivable nocturnal emissions, her scandalous first menstrual cycles and her antisocial pubic explosions while they’re down there.

Until then, we’re just going to have to find a way to deal with teen sexuality on our own.

Thanks to puberty, adolescents are always going to do alarming things with their bodies. Our mission — should we choose to accept rather than freak out about it — is to keep the lines of communication open so we can pass on important information about how these emerging adults can keep their growing bodies, hearts and minds intact. As part of this education process, we need to show them more pictures of naked teenage bodies in all their awkward glory, not less.

Sure, it would solve a lot of murky, ethical issues if photos weren’t involved. But why shouldn’t teenagers see the physical reality of their existences reflected in the world around them so they know they’re normal?

Shutting such images away and calling them revolting will only add to teenage shame. And — contrary to those prescribing abstinence and endless virginity — teenage shame is not the key to teenage moderation.

Psychology 101 tells us that 16-year-olds who accept and respect themselves are far likelier to decline alcopop spewfests and unsafe sex with creeps because they know they’re worth more (or, at the very least they know that feeling disgusting doesn’t mean they actually are disgusting).

While most of us would agree that adults should never sexually exploit vulnerable teen-beings while they’re works in progress, the problem is reaching a consensus on how to define exploitation.

Is it exploitative if adults make money selling insecure adolescents potions for their Vesuvial complexions? If they publish magazines that reflect the reality of teenagers’ sexual lives rather than a squeaky-clean moral majority fantasy? If they inadvertently find a teen sexually attractive but make sure they never act on it? If they wish to explore these endless confusions and unanswerable questions in art?

We wrinklies are obviously guilty of exploitation if we kid ourselves that teen sexuality is the same as mature sexuality or if we ignore the ethical restraints required in relationships involving power imbalances.

But we’re also wrong to censor all signs of normal teenage sexuality simply because these randy changelings with their zits and training bras leave us feeling so very uneasy.


- originally published in The Australian on 05-06-2008.



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