Sex, Innocence, and Children

In her visit to our class, Danielle Evans emphasized that in “Virgins”, she was not trying to write a story about virginity per se, but a story mainly about friendship. However, there is no doubt that the intersection of sexuality, knowledge, and childhood are are central points in the short story. A large part of Erica’s interaction with men and sexuality have to do with ignorance and a lack of agency – for example, she describes being kissed by a boy she didn’t expect and being touched inappropriately when she was 11 by a lifeguard at the pool. We see Erica list these occurrences as matter of fact (“he did that to everyone” (p. 84)), yet no one really dissects these experiences for what they are (i.e. assault). As Jasmine tells Erica “That’s your problem, Erica. You don’t understand adult relationships.” (p. 87), yet we get no explanation of what this means either. Throughout the novel, we see Erica feel lost at instances with only vague ideas to inform her decisions – for example, her mother’s warning that “…no one does you a favor who doesn’t want something back” (p. 93). We can view the girls in this novel through the Keyword “Innocence” by Marah Guber; she talks about how a society invested in a myth that children are inherently innocent leads to ideas about who or who shouldn’t receive information, in particular, sex ed. She states that the “ideology of innocence does not protect children; instead, it mystifies the actual conditions in which they live, making it more difficult to offer the right kind of aid and assistance.” (p. 127). This short story is a fictionalized account of how children try to navigate sexuality in a world in which no one wants to talk explicitly about sex – we can see here that Erica makes a calculated decision to have sex with Ron only through comparisons of relative safety, i.e. as compared to Jasmine’s situation or her past encounters with men. Although “Virgins” is fiction, the myth of childhood innocence and its political ramifications are very real in the US – this article from 2014 summarizes some research on sex ed in the US. Many states are not required to provide sex ed, and even if required, must only stress abstinence. (My personal favorite, “In Tennessee, sex education is required if the teen pregnancy rate is at least 19.5 or higher per 1000 teen women”.) Our policies surrounding sex ed are invested in a myth that children, even teenagers, are too ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ to learn about realities like STI’s, contraception, and consent. Wisconsin is not an exception to this – as of this article, WI does not require sex ed, if it is provided, it is not required to be medically accurate and it does not require information on contraception, only abstinence. We can see one possible consequence of this myth in the fact that WI has the 11th highest teen pregnancy rate in the US. It’s less clear what role literature can play in helping combat the myth of childhood innocence and asexuality, but perhaps more stories that discuss issues like birth control, consent and conversations about sex can help.

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3 thoughts on “Sex, Innocence, and Children”

  1. I think this was a great topic to discuss, especially as it relates to State Sex-Ed classes. I agree that children’s lack of knowledge about sex comes from adults and parents not wanting to talk about sex with their children. However, how does innocence and sexuality play out for different races and ethnicities? Are African American girls deemed less innocent than their counterparts?

  2. This post opens up a great discussion about how society often treat children and teenagers as passive, naive people when it comes to topics of sexuality and innocence. I like how you talk about Evans’ visit with us and how her writing talks about the intersection of these topics as well as race, girlhood, and class. It was also interesting to learn more about the failing sex education system in the US and its ramifications on children, particularly girls.

  3. The link you shared showing the comparison of teen pregnancy across states was really interesting to me. I’m from Massachusetts and it is ranked as the state with the lowest rate of teen pregnancy, which isn’t surprising to me. Teen pregnancy at my school and surrounding towns was incredibly rare. When I arrived at school I had a conversation about teen pregnancy in one of my classes and heard from a lot of my classmates that they had at least a few teen pregnancies in their high schools while they were there. This was absolutely shocking to me. One girl in my class was from South Carolina and said her school strictly taught an abstinence only approach to sex ed. Her school had several outbreaks of herpes while she was there. This further proves the extreme importance of maintaining a sex ed program throughout the country that emphasizes safe sex and protection.

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