All over the world news agencies are reporting the startling revelation that at Normandy High School in suburban St. Louis-the neighborhood I live in-students are now being tested for HIV after an infected person told health officials as many as fifty teenagers might have been exposed to the virus that causes AIDS. While public officials are calling for more education, the root of the problem is profoundly moral and cultural.
School administrators have not released any details describing how the virus may have spread in the school. But we are all aware of the usual suspects: drug use and sexual activity. This is yet another item on a list of problems plaguing a district already known to be among the worst academically performing districts in Missouri and in jeopardy of losing its accreditation.
If the virus entered the high school because of sexual activity, this story will be one fundamentally about adolescent sexual morality. According to the most recent date from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 48 percent of high school students report having sex. Even worse, some 15 percent of high school students report having four or more partners.
Since Normandy High School is nearly 99 percent black, stereotyped analysis is emerging from those saying that they are “not surprised” given the neighborhood’s demographics. In other words, “there go those blacks living the sexual lives displayed in hip hop.” But beyond the racially charged stereotypes, this potential tragedy confirms the existence of widespread sexual confusion among teenagers in general.
In 1996, the PBS documentary “The Lost Children of Rockdale County” put on display the syphilis outbreak in an upper-middle class, predominantly white Atlanta suburb which affected more than 200 teenagers and revealed parts of their lives unknown to parents: group sex, binge drinking, drugs and violence. Some of the students involved in the epidemic were as young as twelve years of age.
In a culture that glamorizes and celebrates non-marital, extra-marital, impulse-driven sexuality it is no wonder our children are confused about what their sexuality is designed for. Ill-equipped and cowardly parents have outsourced sex education to school teachers or the federal government. Additionally, religious leaders have often failed in their responsibility to assist parents in the nurture of their children’s sexual lives by teaching young people what is best in the long-run - a sexual life characterized by fidelity and virtue.
As a result, high school students are reduced to learning about sex primarily from movies, music, internet pornography, and television programs or, even worse, their parents’ own sexual infidelities.
Many high school boys have stooped to using girls’ bodies as tools in some sort of right-of-passage ritual to affirm their masculinity. Many high school girls are more concerned about getting pregnant than they are about contracting STDs and HIV. Risky behavior has been desensitized.
Preserving sex for the context of life-long, committed love has disappeared along with the wisdom of delayed gratification. As the Rev. E. Dewey Smith, Jr. reminds teenagers, “You have the rest of your lives to have sex.”
Do we live in a country where we have no higher expectations of people than we do of animals? We cannot expect our dogs to control themselves, so we spay and neuter them. People, on the other hand, have choices. We choose to indulge or curb our impulse and desires. “Raging hormones” do not trump reason and virtue. Biology is no excuse for low expectations. We can expect high school students to preserve sex for life-long, committed love because they are human beings.
If our children are being infected with STDs and HIV, this will have profoundly deleterious affects across society, including our economic life. Expenditures for STD treatment add strain to a troubled health system. A sick and dying workforce saps economic vitality. Engaging in physically and morally debilitating behavior is no way to prepare to participate in a competitive global economy.
Dehumanizing sexuality sabotages personal identity, the family, and the public good. Like Rockdale county, perhaps Normandy High School is another wake-up call to baby-boomers that their sexual revolution is damaging – in some cases killing - their children and grandchildren.