Mar. 18th, 2007

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Lisa Pryor
March 17, 2007

Why are so many teenagers living married lives? Making the bed together in the morning, celebrating anniversaries, joining the in-laws for Sunday lunch? Teenage sex has become acceptable in many families but with one big proviso: the sex must be in the context of a serious relationship, complete with family holidays, declarations of undying love and joint homework assignments. It is the de facto de facto relationship. The parental logic operating here seems to be that domesticity makes sex moral and healthy. The girl down the road can go to town on one's son under his Star Wars doona cover, so long as they love each other very, very much, so long as they finish in time to set the table for dinner and so long as they do not, God forbid, let their HSCs suffer.

There is sense to this approach. It is better for teens to have sex in the safety of their own bedrooms, hopefully after a visit to the doctor to discuss contraception, rather than some of the alternative sex venues popular among teenagers, such as a park down the road from the birthday party the teenager is supposed to be attending. What irks me about the de facto de facto relationship is not the sex but the domesticity. Liberal parents who would never dream of advocating teen marriage are encouraging something very similar, with many of the same negative consequences. Kids can end up giving away their independence, saddled with a mate chosen because of proximity rather than suitability, stuck in domesticated monogamy at just the age they could be branching out, getting to know new people and playing the field.

The message parents are sending when they embrace de facto de facto relationships is that sexual morality equals serial monogamy. Sex is healthy only so long as it is conducted with a view to signing a lease and buying a toaster. It is OK to have multiple sexual partners as long as the relationships are sequential rather than simultaneous, so long as every relationship ends with a heart-wrenching bust up, and so long as every time you start again you convince yourself the next relationship will last forever. It is possible to meet the right person young. I started going out with my husband when I was 19. I was lucky. But how many other kids end up stuck in substandard matches with the person they met young, the relationships cemented by parental support?

Sometimes the tragedy of a relationship is not that it ends, but that it doesn't. Extracting yourself from a domesticated relationship is hard, especially if you move in together. No matter how much you come to hate each other, you will still find yourself sleeping in the same bed and eating cornflakes from the same box unless you make a monumental effort and call a removal van, break the lease, divvy up the spice collection and the CDs and find somewhere new to live. So thank goodness for the "fuck buddy" phenomenon. The idea of hooking up and having sex with friendship but without undue romance is horrifying to many parents. It is declaimed as soulless, calculated, immoral and shallow. But when executed thoughtfully and sparingly, could it be less damaging than the sexual morality so many parents are trying to impose?

For all the supposed permissiveness of our society, there seems to be a compulsion to shape every sexual relationship into some kind of marriage. It has already happened with de facto relationships, with laws ensuring that if you live with a lover, same sex or opposite, for more than two years, the property settlement will be treated like a divorce if you break up. Just as there is, rightfully, a demand for gay marriage, maybe there should be a movement in the other direction, too. Perhaps more of us should be living our lives like the gay men of old.

Domesticity is all well and good, but save it for the right person. Don't confuse domesticity with morality. Hook-ups and sexual friendships can be dignified and ethical when indulged in sparingly, with mutual respect, with protection and not for the sake of being cool or keeping up. If you are young, guard your independence at least as much as you guard your virginity.

The Sydney Morning Herald

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