By Susan Milligan
First, there were "gateway drugs." Now, the danger, apparently, is gateway sex.
On first read, a sensible person would assume that the phrase refers to an interesting place to have sex, for those who like a little variety. But no, the term refers to unspecified sexual activity that might lead to actual sexual intercourse. So squeamish are actual adults about even talking about this behavior, the Washington Post reports, that the measure has been dubbed the "holding hands" law.
Now, there's some value in getting kids not to try things that lead to no good. And it can be remarkably effective: When I was in seventh grade, we were inundated with such a relentless antismoking message-not just in health class, but in many other classes-that virtually no one I knew in my grade smoked. Not only that, but we harassed our parents (most of whom had started smoking before we all understood how very bad for you it is) to stop as well. Where the school fell down was in telling us, wrongly, that smoking was "habituating," when in fact it is very addictive. All the more reason not to ever start, and I credit my teachers with preventing a lot of illness and death.
Then there were the drug talks, and they were reasonably effective. We had to write detailed reports on barbiturates and amphetamines and what they can do to you. We learned about marijuana, too, but all they could really tell us is that it "leads to other drugs." Apparently, eating an entire jumbo bag of Cheetos and losing any sense of drive or urgency about anything, which happened to some but not all who used the "gateway drug," was not considered enough of a danger to deter us.
But what exactly is the point of trying to convince young people to avoid activity that may one day lead to sex? Assuming they are on their way to becoming healthy adults, they will eventually have sex. Most of them will probably have it before marriage (and some may never marry, anyway). It is a normal part of a healthy, mature relationship, and is quite popular with the population as a whole. Do Tennessee lawmakers really think that if young people don't touch each other at all, they will never know about sex, never be curious about it, and never experience a natural human drive to engage in it?
All it will do is drive sexuality into a dark, shameful place. That carries its own psychological dangers, but it includes physical ones as well. If young people are told not to engage in "gateway" sexual behavior, they are not going to seek out birth control, either.
Most of us don't like the idea of very young adolescents having sex, since most aren't prepared for it mentally or emotionally. But that's nothing compared to the damage from an unwanted pregnancy. Tennessee's teen pregnancy rate has gone down, but it's still one of the highest in the nation. "Just say no" might be a somewhat useful, if overly simplistic, slogan for deterring drug use. But as an answer to teen sex, it's idiotic.
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