“Seventeen” Loses Its Innocence

The current issue of Seventeen lay atop the magazine stack in the orthodontist’s office. “Capture the look,” it said; “Hair that dares,” “Clothes chic,” “Is it love — or obsession?” And, then, burned across the pretty cover girl’s navy blue sweater was the white all-caps notice: BIRTH CONTROL UPDATE. Chiding myself for confining my pop magazine reading to dentists’ waiting rooms, for not paying attention to what my young daughters may be devouring in the magazine section of our local drugstore, I flipped to the birth control article.

“What you don’t know about sex can hurt you, and that’s especially true when it comes to contraceptives,” read– the sub-head. And then came this chilling opening state­ment:

You may not even be dating or contemplating having sex just yet, but when you decide the time is right for you to become involved in a relation­ship that includes sex, we want you to be able to make intelligent choices. You might not find that special person for some time — for years or maybe not until you are married — but it’s not too soon to know about birth control.

There are a number of safe and effective methods of birth control available to teens on a confidential basis. While only abstinence from sex is 100 percent effective, many methods come close to that degree of protection. No one method is right for everyone, and no method is perfect, but there are several that are reasonably con­venient. Whichever method you may eventually choose, the most important aspect of its effec­tiveness will be correct and consistent use. That means using birth control every time you have sex.

After that introduction devoid of any moral overtone, assuming active sex as a normal part of the teenage life, the rest of the article followed with dreary, distasteful predict­ability. There was the explicit rundown of methods, headed by the Pill, pushed subtly by the message that “For healthy teens, health risks connected with oral contraceptives are low, considerably lower, in fact, than the risks of pregnancy and childbirth.” The final method listed was the “rhythm method,” covered in a brief paragraph lumping together the old calendar rhythm with the sympto-thermal method of determining the time of ovulation. As one would expect, the terms “sympto-thermal method,” “ovulation method,” “natural family planning,” or “natural child spacing” were not used. “Rhythm” was dismissed as “not a very effective method of birth control.” Its failure rate was magnified to 30 percent. (For motivated married couples the effec­tiveness rate actually is close to 99 percent.)

“This method,” said Seventeen, “is best used by mar­ried couples whose religious beliefs prohibit other forms of birth control and for whom a pregnancy would not be a ma­jor problem.” After picturing the method as merely im­possible to practice and stressing in several more ways that “Rhythm is not a reliable form of birth control,” the section on “rhythm” concluded with this clincher: “What’s more, this method requires a great deal of abstinence from sex dur­ing ‘unsafe’ days. Patterns of desire do not always coincide with ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ days.”

The Seventeen article had yet a finale — a section on “Birth Control of the Future.” “There are many fascinating new contraceptives in the testing stage,” came the report. These fascinations, too gruesome to be detailed here — but of course described for the 14- and 15-year-old readers — are the contraceptive implant, the cervical cap, contracep­tive injections, ultrasound and contraceptive nasal sprays.

We read daily of moral and spiritual deformity; we react sometimes with anger, sometimes with numbness to the news of one more atrocity. I felt, however, as I closed the magazine, not so much anger as engulfing sadness. That adults are the targets of the modernist agenda is sad enough. But that young girls — children, really — should be attacked by adults posing as experts at the point of their greatest vulnerability, their yearning to be loved, must be the worst form of perverseness. The inclination of a girl has always been to love a man, to marry him, to be faithful to him and to have his children. It still is. Chastity and fidelity remain valid for anyone in any state in life.

But for the poseurs who funnel the latest sexual infor­mation to teenagers, there are no fixed values governing our actions. In regard to sexual behavior there are only two norms: timing and adequate contraception. The first princi­ple behind the sexual activity of a teenager should be maturi­ty. It is expected that any teenager will engage in sex before marriage; it is only a question of when he feels “ready” for a heavy relationship. And, of course, when the time comes, the second principle must be responsible birth control. In­adequate protection is tantamount in the modern mind to im­morality. 

Seventeen magazine — “Young America’s favorite magazine” — has been on the market at least since my generation. But what a difference. When I was a 13-year-old eighth grader, as is my older daughter, I, too, read Seven­teen. My friend Judi and I memorized every issue. We sat on her screened-in back porch the summer before our freshman year, experimented with lipstick samples we col­lected from the Avon lady, listened to the favorite In­dianapolis disc jockey, Pat Somebody, and talked over the current Seventeen.

The article I recall most vividly was an interview with four New York boys on what they expected from a girl on a date and how they themselves treated her. Since neither Judi nor I had ever had a real date, we had never read anything so utterly absorbing. One boy counted his conquests, and neither of us liked him. A second boy made little impression on us. Judi liked the third boy. But the one I liked was Peter, who had black curly hair and an Italian last name. He was what I would now call chivalrous, a gallant sort both charm­ing and respectful.

Peter fit in with my recurring adolescent fantasy — the backdrop of which was always an antebellum parlor that adjoined a spacious hall with grand staircase. I pictured myself as 18, always dressed in a long red velvet gown with sweep­ing train, floating down the stairs and into the waiting arms of a handsome dark-haired man of 25, who looked incredibly like the young Robert E. Lee. It was invariably the same scene; it never amounted to more than that. The key points in my mind were that I always wore the red velvet gown and that the young man was devoted to me.

In the intervening years of a generation since my reading of Seventeen I have grown past my youthful fancies — that is, more or less. My friend Judi has died of cancer. And Seventeen has joined the sexual revolution.

Seventeen has become another vehicle for the modern mechanistic view of the world — on the march at least since the seventeenth century — in which what is outer, what can be seen, tested, demonstrated, is a higher form of life than what cannot be seen or tested. In its extreme form what is unseen either does not exist or can hardly be said to be human and rational.

In such a scheme of the world, technology is higher than philosophy; technology, the highest point of reference, determines morality. Because something’ is technologically possible — in this case contraception — it is automatically acceptable. A moral judgment on a method of technology is a violation of rationality.

Moral standards in the mechanistic view are not pinned to objective truth but to what science defines as workable. Our entire moral world has been restructured around scien­tific hypotheses which are adequate to explain a limited range of events in the visible world but are inadequate to ex­plain in far wider spiritual, moral, philosophical issues that confront us in our deepest levels of existence.

The arbiters of modern moral standards are technical experts, like the writers of the Seventeen article, who claim to use one fragment of technology to encompass the whole world. Not philosophers but pop psychologists determine our proper behavior. Because contraception is possible, they say, it is good. Thus the sanctity of life and protection of the family as a context for giving birth to and nurturing life can no longer be proclaimed as an absolute value. The morality of ripping the life-giving act from its end — life itself — can­not be questioned. The idea is rather to teach young women and men that their liberation is in freedom from responsibili­ty for the results of their actions. There is no suggestion that freedom is something altogether different from irrespon­sibility — no hint, for example, that freedom just might con­sist in living in tune with objective values that prepare us for the transcendent end for which we were made.

What the world tells young people has changed drastically from a generation ago. Yet human nature has not changed. Girls still cherish dreams of happiness. They still find fulfillment when they live, not as the experts writing in Seventeen direct them, but in concert with the truths of their own girlish being.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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