23 April 2007

Thinking About Limits

In March, an article appeared in the Dallas Morning News about a book by Laura Sessions Stepp called Unhooked. The book discusses the downside of “hooking up” – having semi-random one night stands – for young women. From what I could gather from the article (I haven’t read the book), the main point of the book is fairly straight-forward: if young ladies think that casual sex will somehow empower them or bring about lasting relationships, they’re quite mistaken.

If that is the point of the book, I fully agree with it.

The commentary from those disagreeing with her is fairly predictable. According to the article:

[Stepp] has been criticized as a throwback to an earlier, restrictive moral climate, an anti-feminist and a tut-tutting mother telling girls not to give the milk away when nobody's bought the cow.

The author "imagines the female body as a thing that can be tarnished by too much use," wrote reviewer Kathy Dobie in Stepp's own paper, and suggested that Stepp was, in one part, trying to "instill sexual shame." For Meghan O'Rourke, literary editor at Slate.com, Stepp is "buying into alarmism about women," and making sex "a bigger, scarier, and more dangerous thing than it already is."

These points of view seem to indicate that restrictions on behavior imposed (or pushed) by adults on young adults are somehow a violation of the rights of the young. Somehow, “instilling sexual shame” is seen as a bad thing – indeed, instilling shame for any behavior necessarily attempts to limit behavior. This runs counter to the seemingly wide-open freedom espoused by those criticizing Stepp. However, this “empowering” of young people by abdicating responsibility all-around is reprehensible. It forces young people to essentially teach themselves, with their own limited experience and their peers as guides. It’s a recipe for personal disaster, repeatedly.

Taken a step further (pardon the pun), the article got me thinking about what messages young adults get concerning not only sex, but also other potentially life-changing choices that they must, eventually, make. At some point, just about every young person will make decisions (potentially life changing decisions) on a whole range of subjects, everything from drug and alcohol use to whatever the latest fad is (like body piercing). Without guardrails on what is proper and prudent, there’s no telling where things will end up. Even with them, there are no guarantees, but it’s better to have a fighting chance than none at all. Without restraint, fueled by “extreme” culture and a drive to be different (even though difference makers like tattoos and body piercings are far from unique), young people are apt to make bad decisions.

It is strange to think how advocates for fairly unlimited personal freedom cannot see, or foresee, the train wreck which tends to accompany such freedom. They essentially create wind-up dolls, crank them up with desire and freedom, let them go and quickly move on to the next shinny thing – perhaps they don’t want to see what unlimited personal freedom results in.

And, I’m not talking about smothering controls for young adults, either. Far from it. Young people need to make mistakes and learn from them. But so that they don’t make irrecoverable mistakes, limits must be posted, so to speak. Open discussion is a vital part of this. Setting reasonable expectations of behavior and expecting young people to live up to those expectations is also key. It’s not an exercise for the self-interested adult, though, who would rather take the easy way out and grant ultimate freedom in the name of “liberation” and “empowerment”. The fewer adults we have like this means the fewer young adult tragedies our society will endure.

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