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by R. Murray Thomas
Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2009
Review by Christian Perring on Aug 24th 2010

Sex and the American Teenager

This book is rather odd but it might be useful for some.  Thomas is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and he has published a great deal, but it is hard to find reviews of any of his books.  This book is an overview of issues facing schools related to the sexuality of children -- the word "Teenager" in the title is misleading, since the book addresses all school-age children, and indeed many of the difficult cases he addresses involve young and pre-teen children.  Early chapters set out his approaches, come essential facts, and a large number of cases that have been reported in the press or are taken from real life, although there are not always sources for the stories.  Thomas addresses a wide variety of problems, with three central chapters focusing on sexual abuse, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases.  There's a chapter on gender traits and roles, one on sex-education, and a final one summing up and looking to the future. 

Maybe an advantage of this book is that it spends more time analyzing issues than didactically urging particular points of view.  At the start of the book Thomas explains he will analyze people's reactions in terms of Could-be, Is, and Should-be.  These help to spell out how people think about these issues.  The Could-be is about what a young person might become, the Is is their current state, and the Should-be is the view of how they should develop.  But it isn't clear exactly which perspectives are included in these analyses, not how the Is is distinguished from the could and should.  For example, Thomas discusses the case of a 14-year-old girl in middle school who uses a library computer to put pictures of herself on her MySpace page, saying she was 17 and that she wanted to hear from boys.  A librarian sees her, and reports her to the principal, who phones the girl's mother.  Thomas describes both the Could-be and the Should-be from the librarian's perspective.  For the former, she says "the interaction of the ninth-grader's genetic time clock with her past and present environments equipped her with active postpubescent sexual drives that she might attempt to express in various ways" (16).  For the latter, he says, "The librarian believes that the girl is playing a dangerous game by trying to attract older youths through the Internet" (16).  But for the Is he gives the girl's point of view, saying she "hopes to engage in erotic experiences (actual or vicarious)" (16).  All of this seems very speculative, and it is not clear why he varies perspective in the analysis.  In another more extreme case, she provides a case of an 11-year-old girl masturbating with a plastic toothbrush case (18), discovered by her father, who shouts at her warning that she will go to hell.  Thomas analyzes this all from the father's point of view, but the differences between the could-be, the is, and the should be are very murky: it is all about self-abuse being a sin, succumbing to the influence of original sin, and the need to suppress erotic yearnings. 

So while there's useful information here, the analyses lack a systematic approach.  Probably the most useful chapter of the book is the fourth, which has 18 cases documented from real life (mostly documented on the Internet) spelling out different kinds of problems.  These involve a variety of cases such as possible abuses of power by boys over younger girls, sexual acts between a boyfriend and girlfriend who were 17 and 15, the sexual assault of a developmentally-disabled teen girl, the statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy by a 47-year-old female counselor, and the punishment of a middle-aged male teacher for inappropriate comments and touching of middle-school girls.  This collection of cases might well be useful for someone teaching a course on dealing with sexuality in schools. 

Thomas himself tends not to take any strong positions on controversial debates.  He does point out the lack of proven success of abstinence programs, but for the most part he does not identify himself in ways that could be categorized as liberal or conservative.  He does make it clear that it is helpful for schools to prepare themselves for possible issues they will face with their students, and to communicate the reasons for their policies to the students and parents, but everyone would agree with such advice.

While Thomas's book is not the place to go for sophisticated ideological analysis, it is still a worthwhile contribution to the literature, partly because this literature is sparse.  A recent AP news report on Yahoo! News about sex education got fifth-graders in Helena, Montana gathered over 250 frequently angry comments from readers.  This is a topic that generates a great deal of emotion on both sides, and so any book that helps us to start a reasonable debate should be welcome.


© 2010 Christian Perring        



Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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