Riot Act is a semi-regular column that challenges conventional wisdom in controversial issues
Last month, Tennessee, the state where Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old first cousin and John Thomas Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution, made waves by passing a bill designed to extend the state's abstinence-only sex education policies. Signed into law by the governor, the bill holds that educators can be fined or sued for condoning "gateway sexual activity."
That has teachers worried that they might get into legal hot water not only for in-class mention of such topics as oral sex or masturbation but also for failing to break up public displays of affection between students in the halls. Besides being vaguely reminiscent of the sexy-teen-punishing Friday the 13th movies, the bill is an embarrassing reminder of how far we have yet to go in the fight to come to grips with teen sexuality.
And that's "we," not "they." Because it isn't just those Tennessee hicks who want to clamp down on teen nookie.
Granada Hills Charter High School, recently in the news for its second consecutive National Academic Decathlon win, takes a zero-tolerance approach to public displays of affection, or PDA. "You're not allowed to hold hands. You're not allowed to touch," says Kim Thompson, parent of a former student who was given detention both for holding hands with his girlfriend and for hugging another male student. "He and his friends had a bro hug -- you shake hands, pull each other together, do a thump on the back and let go. That's the way they greet each other. At Granada, that was grounds for PDA. That equals detention."
Though the school handbook specifies that hugging, kissing and other forms of PDA are grounds for disciplinary action, Laurie Zaragoza, director of student services at the school, insists that students are not disciplined for hugs -- "brief" ones, at least.
The problem, however, is one person's "brief" is another person's "extreme."
"I've gotten detention with my girlfriend for holding hands in the lunch line -- they said we were too close," laments one former Granada Hills student. Another claims she was disciplined for a seated hug with her boyfriend that she estimates lasted about 10 seconds.
It's not just Granada Hills. Although the Los Angeles Unified School District has no districtwide policy on PDA, and some LAUSD high schools specify that brief hugs and hand holding are acceptable, at least four high school campuses (New Open World Academy, Jordan High School, Westchester Magnet, Institute at Birmingham for Humanities) burn down the house to roast the pig, banning PDA entirely.
Thompson, who now works at a neighboring public high school, said that campus's more relaxed attitude toward PDA is based primarily on faith in students' ability to self-police: "It will take care of itself. If kids kiss in the hall, let them be teenagers. If they get carried away, the other kids will say something, like, 'Get a room!' "
That degree of respect should extend to all teens. The Supreme Court has found that teens have rights to an attorney (in 1967), to quality education (in 2010) and to free speech in schools (in 1969). Under the California Constitution, they also have the right to pursue happiness -- which we believe includes the right to express affection, in a nondisruptive way, within socially accepted boundaries.
As the Supreme Court noted in Tinker v. Des Moines, "Students [do not] shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Let kids hug! It's a whole lot better than bullying, racism, gay bashing or whatever else a hug could help.
We may think we're better than those Bible beaters with gilded halos and outstretched arms, but, just like Tennessee, we need to get over ourselves and admit that affection is not a crime. If LAUSD's worst problem was civil disobedience expressed in the form of a between-class hugging spree, well, wouldn't that be lovely?
Dr. Paul R. Abramson is a professor of psychology at UCLA and the author (with Steve Pinkerton) of With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality. L.J. Williamson is a regular contributor to L.A. Weekly.