Teenage Sex: Letting the Pendulum Swing

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"People need to unfold sexually," Sarrel believes, and there is no way to speed the process. What is right may vary with a student's stage of emotional development. "A freshman may need to express rebellion and independence from his family and may use sex to do it." That is acceptable, Sarrel believes, as long as the student understands his motives: "We don't worry too much about the freshman who's going to bed with someone. We worry about the freshman who's just going to bed and thinks it's love." For an older student, intercourse may be right only if the lovers are intimate emotionally. How to judge? One crucial sign of intimacy is "a sense of trust and comfort. If you find you're not telling each other certain kinds of things, it's not a very trusting relationship."

Apparently this kind of advice is what the students want. Sarrel has been dubbed "the Charlie Reich of sex counseling" by an irreverent observer, and like the author of The Greening of America, he is very popular: 300 men and women crowd into his weekly lectures at Yale, and more than 1,000 other colleges have asked for outlines of his course. For good reason. The Sarrels' careful counseling has cut the VD and unwanted pregnancy rate at Yale to nearly zero.

But what about ethical questions?

For those who are not guided by their families or their religion, Sarrel's system —and the whole body of "situation ethics"—fails to offer much support for making a decision. Years ago William Butler Yeats wrote a poem about the problem:

I whispered, "I am too young."

And then, "I am old enough"; Wherefore I threw a penny To find out if I might love.

How did the toss come out? Yeats, unsurprisingly, gave himself a clear go-ahead, ending his poem:

Ah penny, brown penny, brown

penny, One cannot begin it too soon.

Nowadays a great many adolescents, like Yeats, seem to be simply tossing a coin, and singing the same refrain.

*The names of the children and their parents in this story are fictitious.

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