#13: Let Kids Have Sex

Despite our puritanical roots, Americans are just as sexually liberated as Europeans, if not more so, according to recent studies. Americans tend to lose their virginity at the same age as Germans and Swiss, and, surprisingly, at a younger age than the French. U.S. rates of teen sex, pregnancy, and abortion are also higher than in Western Europe. Still, Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of young people as sexual beings, as evidenced in part by our laws governing age of consent and those protecting children against abuse.


Peter Tatchell, an activist and LGBT rights advocate, tells Big Think that the best way to protect our children from sexual abuse is paradoxically to give them more sexual freedom. Age of consent laws vary from state to state in the U.S., with the majority being 16 and some ranging as high as 18, but Tatchell says they should all be lowered to 14.

“Whether we like it or not, many teenagers have their first sexual experience around the ages of 14 or 15,” says Tatchell. In most states, these sexually-active young people are actually breaking the law and could be convicted as sex-offenders, even if both partners consent. In 2008, a 16-year-old boy from Iowa was convicted of “lewd and lascivious acts with a child” for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, even though the two were dating at the time, she had lied about her age, and she wasn’t pressing charges. For the rest of his life he will have to register on a sex offenders list alongside child sex abusers. 

Criminalizing underage sex is not the way to protect our kids, says Tatchell: “If we want to protect young people, and I do, the best way to do this is not by threatening them with arrest, but by giving them frank, high quality sex and relationship education from an early age. This includes empowering them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to say no to unwanted sexual advances and to report sex abusers. Compared to the blanket criminalization of sexually-active under-age youth, this empowerment strategy is a more effective way to protect young people from peer pressure and pedophiles.”

A higher age of consent actually puts young teens at greater risk of abuse by “reinforcing the idea that young people under 16 have no sexual rights,” Tatchell says. “They signal that a young person is not capable of making a rational, moral choice about when to have sex.” And pedophiles can manipulate this sexual disempowerment to their advantage. “Guilt and shame about sex also increase the likelihood of molestation by encouraging the furtiveness and secrecy on which abuse thrives,” he adds. 

“Despite what the puritans and sex-haters say, underage sex is mostly consenting, safe, and fun,” Tatchell believes. “If there is harm caused, it is usually not as a result of sex, per se, but because of emotional abuse within relationships and because of unsafe sex, which can pass on infections and make young girls pregnant when they are not ready for motherhood.” And better sex and relationship education from a younger age would help combat both these scenarios. 

Takeaway

Stringent laws against underage sex don’t keep teens from having sex (almost 20% of American teens under 16 have had intercourse, despite it being technically illegal); they don’t protect against sexual abuse; and they inculcate a distorted view of sexuality, says Tatchell. “The message we need to give young people is that sex is fundamentally good—not dirty or shameful. It is a natural joy, immensely pleasurable and a profound human bond, resulting in intense shared fulfillment and much human happiness.” Take that puritans!

Why We Should Reject This

Of course there will always be underage people who have sex, but that doesn’t mean the law should condone it. Sex is a very complicated part of human behavior that is too nuanced for young people to understand. In fact, studies have shown that people, especially girls, who have sex at a young age often regret it. One study in New Zealand found that 70% of girls who had sex before the age of 16 wished they hadn’t done so. In a column for Telegraph, writer David Lindsay argues, “sex is for people who can cope with the consequences, physical and otherwise. In a word, adults.” 

More Resources

Face of Global Sex Survey 2007.

— 1998 Study in the British Medical Journal about first sex in New Zealand

Table showing age of consent laws around the globe.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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