Do You Mind If I’m Totally Frank?

Last week, that’s what one of my students asked me in the middle of a discussion led by a classmate. The topic was what stoicism teaches about getting along with others. At the beginning of the discussion, I skimmed the student leader’s questions. The last one was about stoicism and sex which was addressed within the related reading.

With about ten minutes left in class, I said to the student leader that he should probably pick one of the remaining two questions. Without hesitating he jumped to the last much to his classmates’ delight. Apart from a little antiseptic sex ed talk, I’m guessing this was the first time they’d ever truly discussed sex in a classroom.

It’s ironic that the more interpersonally consequential the subject—take sex as one example and marriage as another—the less likely we are to talk about them with adolescents and young adults in any detail. I guess we think of such topics as too personal, private, and value-laden. As a result, pastors rarely if ever talk about sex and marriage from the pulpit, parents rarely if ever talk about their relationships with their children, and educators routinely sidestep topics like that. That means adolescents and young adults are left to themselves to resolve all of the challenges posed by human intimacy through trial and error.

The sex question immediately piqued everyone’s interest. One especially animated student turned from the student leader to me and asked, “Do you mind if I’m totally frank?” Me, “Sure, of course.” Her, “There’s a big difference between fucking and making love.” As they repeatedly say on the television series Fargo, “Okay, then.”

Couple that ice breaker with the fact that it’s a small class, the students are friends, and they think I’m way cooler than I am, the conversation was more candid than I had anticipated. It’s kind of a blur. At some point, I pointed out that they hadn’t yet dealt with the stoic’s primary insight on sex, that in middle or old age few people reflect on their younger selves and wish they had been more promiscuous. Stoics point out that the opposite is much more common, that sexually active people often regret the damage done by being so promiscuous. To which one student bravely said, “I’m 19 and I regret being as promiscuous as I was in high school.”

From there the discussion turned to the confusing and controversial stoic suggestion that sex, even inside of marriage, should only be for the purpose of procreating, which strikes me as an overreaction to the dangers of promiscuity.

Rewind the tape to earlier in the week when, with two colleagues, I was involved in a protracted discussion with a student teacher who is struggling in her internship. I was asking questions designed to get her to admit a regret or two in the hope we could turn to what could be done to remedy the situation. “What would you have done differently if anything?” “Okay,” she finally said without asking if she could be perfectly frank, “I fucked up.”

After the meeting that utterance was what one of my colleagues wanted to talk about first. He was right, she does have to be smarter about professional contexts, meaning more tactful and diplomatic, but these two incidents point to a huge generation gap when it comes to attitudes towards profanity.

Swearing, using “fuck” more specifically and not just as a verb, but as any part of speech, is so common among adolescents and young adults that some adults’ resistance to it, like my colleagues, hardly makes any sense to them.

Just as it’s unrealistic to expect married people to abstain from sex except when procreating, it’s unrealistic to expect young people to stop swearing altogether. The best hopelessly square people like myself can hope for, is that they learn to use profanity freely around their peers when in informal settings and then “code-switch” and refrain from it when around mixed aged people in other settings.

If you don’t agree, you can go forget yourself.

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