One Person's Opinion

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Sunday, June 15, 2003

I am not a huge advocate of abstinence programs. I think that while teenage pregnancy is a huge problem, and teenage venereal disease is a serious one, teenage sex is inevitable and not, if conducted responsibly, particularly problematic at all. At the same time, I don't think schools should sponsor events that make drunken, unprotected sexual experimentation more likely among teenagers, either. This isn't really a moral objection so much as it is a public health objection-- teenagers should be encouraged, indeed browbeaten if necessary, into having sex only in circumstances where no pregnancy or disease transmission will result. (And that includes married teenagers-- because teenage mothers are vulnerable, teenage marriages don't last very long and are often abusive, and childbearing tends to stop the educational process even for married teenagers, society really shouldn't encourage married teenagers to have kids either.)

Which brings me to the Scarsdale, NY Junior / Senior prom. The high school there discovered something that everyone who has turned 18 in the last 30 years knows-- that teenagers hire limos to take them to the prom so that they can drink before hand, and hire limos to take them back to post-prom parties so that they can drink some more. The school, in a decision unpopular with some students, decided to bus the students to and from the proms. This is a salutary decision. There are lots of good reasons to ban limos from the prom. The school's reason-- to stop teenage drinking-- is perfectly sound. Additionally, proms have become a platform for students with affluent parents to outdo each other in flaunting their affluence. Students with rich parents already feel superior enough to other students without schools sponsoring an activity that permits such a brazen exhibition of unearned wealth. Limos are a big part of that.

But I think the best reason of all to stop this is one not mentioned by the folks in Scarsdale at all. Proms are a coming of age ritual that formalize sexual activity. The last thing that teenagers need is to formalize sexual activity. What do I mean by that? Proms are a huge event, in which teenagers are treated like adults, dress up like adults, travel like wealthy adults, and often rent hotel rooms afterward like adults. They also drink like they imagine adults to drink. Many of these teenagers are going to the prom with people whom they have been dating awhile; a lot of them probably think the relationship will last forever. (Teenagers often tend to have unrealistic romantic expectations.) Put these elements all together and this is a recipe for unprotected sex. Too drunk to use protection (and in any event, not dressed or with a transportation option that allows for the easy purchase of a prophylactic), and on a night that has to be made "special". I would assume quite a large number of teenagers lose their virginity on prom night, and a significant number of those sexual encounters are unprotected and drunken.

Of course, teenagers who want to have sex will always find ways to do it; that is true. But there's nothing wrong with a school putting its foot down and constructing school-sponsored activities in a manner that decreases the likelihood that teens will leave the event drunk (or about to get drunk) and heading off to hotel rooms to consecrate the evening's festivities.

Every culture has its coming of age festivities-- Bar Mitzvas, quinceneros, and the like-- so the prom is probably here to stay. But schools who really want to do something about harmful teenage sex should probably get off the abstinence kick and reform the ground rules of an event that in its current form, makes such activities almost a foregone conclusion.

I think these teenagers problems are not connected with limousines. Yes, they like to hire limousine and had a great prom or some party, but without limousine teenagers will do the same, just in the other place. I don't think if to ban limousine hire, it will help to prevent these problems.
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