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reframing “sexual maturity”

Posted by pocochina on March 3, 2010

I’d like to challenge prevailing ideas of “sexual maturity” from a pro-PWD (and particular, people with invisible mental illness) perspective.  This is clearly an idea found within mainstream feminism, but I don’t think it’s really all that distinguishable from mainstream thought in general, so, you know, apply as necessary.  Overall, it is problematic because it defines women’s brains on what we do with our bodies, even if it does so in the spirit of fighting shame and stigma; it leaves out adults with developmental disabilities; and it’s harmful to teens with mental illness.  I’ll be concentrating on that last one because it’s closest to my knowledge and experience, but I’d love to hear in comments from folks who have opinions on the first two as well.

The concept of “sexual maturity” relies on the idea of “ready to” have sex, and inherently defines maturity – which generally correlates to capability to carry out a line of thought similar to that of a reasonable adult in our society – as performative.  You’re “ready to” have sex, that is, “sexually mature,” when and only when you actually do the dirty with someone else.  This makes maturity, an internal trait, contingent on external behavior which is by definition dependent on at least one other person.  I’m loath to define any one person’s inherent maturity on anyone else’s treatment of them, because it reinforces an unfortunate social structure where women’s senses of selfhood are dependent on social judgment of our fuckability.

Such a framework is heavily and inappropriately individualist, making an individual’s (often perfectly mature and reasonable) reactions to factors beyond her control and turning it into a judgment on her very self.  If your parents will punish or shame you for having sex, and you know that particular consequence is probably unavoidable for you, and more damaging than the enjoyment you surmise you’ll get out of a particular sexual encounter or any sexual encounters, this is a perfectly mature decision.  It avoids a negative consequence – in this case shame – and further preserves as best as possible your sense of self for when sexual activity is a more realistic possibility for you.  If you are a queer kid and would prefer not to be gay-bashed, and find that celibacy is a useful tool in that totally reasonable goal, that is not immature.  Fear isn’t always immaturity.  Sometimes it’s a reasonable reaction to the correct assessment of a situation.  If there’s nobody around who you’re attracted to, this also is a perfectly mature decision, ‘cause why fuck someone you don’t like just to prove you can?  If you don’t have the privacy or the agency to get the information you need in order to protect yourself, that’s totally mature too.  Avoiding activities of unclear benefit, or of reasonably high cost, is totally reasonable, and in fact is something that many adults never learn (both in and out of the realm of sexuality), suggesting that maybe we should rethink the idea of maturity as a linear and chronological construct and maybe instead contextualize it as decision-making ability within a given arena.

When we talk about girls who don’t have sex as girls who are “not ready,” we reinforce the framework of girlhood as an inherent impediment to agency, and of the actual incidence of sex (which socially usually ends up meaning PIV sex, no matter how carefully we consider queer women in our construct of teen sexuality) as something which inherently changes a person, rather than as an action which is optimally undertaken every single time by someone with fully informed enjoyment of the act.  A construct of linear development of maturity plays all too neatly with the idea that there is such a state of “virginity” and “non-virginity” and that the single action which marks that transition is more important than all other similar actions.  This stands in direct contrast with the necessary idea of reframing sexual history as a series of decisions undertaken with as much information and agency as possible.

Adults with developmental disabilities challenge our concept of sexuality as something For Normal Teens and Adults Only, because adults with developmental disabilities have sex drives and reproductive desires the same as the rest of us, even if culturally we’re unable to recognize them as beings with sexual agency.  Generally speaking, such adults will experience different reasoning processes than the average “mature” adult, around sexuality as around many other parts of life.  That doesn’t mean that they are all incapable of a series of informed decisions which add up to what we think of as a healthy adult sex life.  I don’t know how to reframe this conversation in a way that both affirms the sexual agency of adults with developmental disabilities and pays sufficient attention to the particular dangers they face in an ableist rape culture, but I sure as hell know it’s not by referring to them as “immature” – that is, as children.

Different but PWD-related examples abound.  What of girls on the autism spectrum, for whom the many tiny deceits of socially determined actions of flirty femininity – which are the beginning, middle, and end of many if not most of their NT peers’ information set on female sexual roles – are simply impossible, even if their attitude towards sexuality is laudably healthy and informed?  They’re inherently immature?  I deeply doubt any of us in the pro-reality-in-sex-ed camp believe that, which is why we have to be extremely careful not to imply it.

Mostly, though, I’m really resentful of the idea that the decision on the part of girls with mental illnesses not to have sex is somehow related to immaturity.  This is a tough one, because of course mental illness in girls is socially far more likely to be heavily sexualized, with “promiscuity” often considered just short of a symptom of mental illness, where actual mental illnesses are ignored if not openly encouraged in our society.  In this case, the cost-benefit analysis I’ve put up above is even more pronounced.  If mental illness – not a sense of discontent created in reasonable reaction to sexist society, but symptoms of mental illness – are gnawing away at a girl’s sense of self, she’s not less mature than her sex-having peers to avoid the potentially greater negative consequences for her.  This can be true even if a girl is reasonably capable of taking stock of the risks of sex, minimizing its potential negative outcomes, and evaluating sexist social expectations surrounding sexuality for what they really are.

This is deeply personal to me.  Was I immature to steer clear of sexual relationships when I was sixteen and the driving force of my existence was my self-loathing?  When the lack of privacy enforced by my religious, controlling parents mean that if I was very, very lucky, enough to avoid all the potential negative consequences we usually associate with sex, I would still be assured emotional repercussions which would further exacerbate my depressive symptoms?  When hiding my body was the only way I could muffle ED’s screaming the tiniest bit?  No.  It was a very, very fortunate instinct which helped to keep me out of the way of great harm, a cold iron core of self-preservation that I deeply hope I still have.  If I could go back, knowing what I know now about myself and the world as a sexual adult almost ten years later, I’d make a direct cost-benefit analysis and do the same thing.  But I would feel a hell of a lot less crummy about it.  And when things changed for me, I wouldn’t have any ridiculous internalized shame about my lack of sexual history hindering my enjoyment of my life.  I’m aware that the plural of anecdote is not data.  While I genuinely do hope I was the only such teen who found that these particular experiences were yet another unfortunate consequence of her brain chemistry, I throw this horribly personal story up there for two reasons:  (a) because dude, I really fucking doubt it was just me, and (b) to show the lack of logic inherent to the use of the term “maturity” for this particular situation.

I don’t think any feminist would really disagree with what I’ve argued here, which is why I’m uncomfortable to even construe this as a critique of feminism as a whole.  I am, deep in my chilly little heart, a harm reductionist with a huge sense of immediacy.  If someone wants to argue that activists in the wider world have to use terminology which is deeply incorrect but the easiest way to explain our crucial goals to mainstream society in order to get girls as much help and support as possible right now, I don’t honestly know that I would jump up and down on principle to vehemently or entirely disagree, even if I also understand and deeply respect those who would do so.  I get that there’s an argument there.  But I think we should be aware that that’s what we’re doing, and that there is a trade-off in the form of direct harm to girls who are already marginalized.  I think that at least in conversations among ourselves, we should challenge our shorthand and the presumptions it makes.

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