Youth, Technology, & Sexuality

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Yesterday I had the great pleasure of addressing Sex::Tech, the national conference on Youth, Technology & Sexuality sponsored annually by ISIS (Internet Sexuality Information Services). Over 400 sex educators, youth program directors, and technology developers (many under the age of 25 themselves) gathered to discuss how to use new technologies to enhance young people’s sexual health.

I spoke about why adults are so frightened about young people’s sexuality, and how many adults are manipulated by cynical politicians and “decency” groups into combating sexual expression rather than poor sexual decision-making.

I talked about the special way adults feel excluded from the lives of young people, who live in a world of mobile devices and apps that adults not only don’t understand, but can’t even use. The result is a terrible moral panic which is gripping the country. It looks like this:

Sexuality + Youth + Technology = Panic

To help make young people’s sexuality less alien, I reminded people of the similarities between it and adult sexuality: both groups are challenged by performance pressure, the desire for validation, insufficient information, and inadequate communication skills. Both groups want sex to provide closeness, pleasure, feelings of being special and desired, and a chance for self-expression.

But when it comes to sex, young people are a repressed minority. They suffer from the systematic withholding of sexual information, health services, and products. They don’t own their own bodies (or images of them), and special laws criminalize their sexual expression. We’d be shocked if anyone suggested these restrictions on the sexuality of any other group in society, such as Blacks, Jews, or the deaf.

I didn’t get a chance to address pornography. I would have said that we need to support young people’s Porn Literacy, teaching them that:

* Porn is fiction, not a documentary
* Hours of footage are edited to make a single video
* Porn features atypical bodies, often doing atypical activities
* Adults sometimes play sex games—which feel very different to the participants than the way they look to viewers
* Since different people relate to porn differently, everyone needs to understand their partner’s views on it.

I also would have liked to address what porn typically omits: Context, Kissing, Communication, Cuddling, and Consequences.

A few words about sexting would have been in order, too. We give teens the most powerful communications device in human history, and are shocked when they misuse it.

Teens need to understand that they simply may not own sexual images of themselves, which are strictly regulated by the government. You can actually go to jail until you’re old and gray just for sending or receiving nude pictures of a teen, even if you’re the teen, or the teen has given you permission. And unlike your refrigerator, in cyberspace things last forever. That’s a long time to put your clit on display.

In reminding the audience that we need to support young people in identifying their values and then making sexual decisions that fit those values, I quoted my mentor Dr. Michael Carrera:

“Young people are not at risk; they’re at opportunity.”

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