The Science of Sex: A Modest Proposal

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A Modest Proposal index

Unwanted pregnancy! Breast cancer! Traffic accidents! Drug abuse! STDs! School absenteeism! Alcoholism! Violent crime! Could a simple shot in the arm alleviate all these plagues? I suggest that it could — if that shot contained a drug that blocked the onset of puberty.


It may sound like a scare-tactic suggestion: cure juvenile delinquency with mass injections. But hear me out. It’s the right response to a dangerous, contradictory trend that’s been building for almost a century.


Put simply, the problem is this: teenagers are considered “irresponsible children” well into their twenties, but they are hitting puberty younger and younger. In 1850s Europe, girls got their periods at sixteen or seventeen. By 1900 in the U.S., that age had dropped to fourteen. Now it is around twelve. A comparable drop has affected boys. While a lively debate has erupted about the reasons for this change, the prime suspect is the increase in the supply of food, especially fatty, calorie-dense manufactured food. More food, more fat, more weight. And since weight gain helps trigger puberty, kids turn into physical adults earlier in their teens.


Meanwhile, society has been shoving ever upward the age at which they are considered adults. Early in the nineteenth century, many teens were out of school, earning a living, and at least partially independent by thirteen or fourteen — before puberty, in other words. Now we expect our youth to remain in full-time education till their late teens or early twenties, if they go to college. They may remain financially dependent on their parents for much of this time. And society treats these young people as children in many respects, by attempting to restrict their sexual behavior, their access to alcohol and many other freedoms.


The result is a completely modern phenomenon: the “post-pubertal child.” That is, a person who has completed the biological processes of maturation but who is expected to act as if he or she hasn’t. This “childhood” can now extend for a decade or more, as long as or longer than pre-pubertal childhood. Call it “adolescence” if you like, but be clear that nothing like it has existed on Earth before now.


Post-pubertal children have the same sex drive, the same aggressiveness, the same lust for independence that we adults do, if not more so, thanks to the testosterone and other hormones that are washing through their bodies and brains. No wonder that our efforts to restrict or channel those drives have limited success. Instead, we’ve got the Rebel Without a Cause Syndrome: sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, plus STDs, teen pregnancy, bad grades, dangerous driving and crime. It may sound sexy, but the truth is, this is an artificially created social crisis. And for girls who avoid getting pregnant, the cost can be high: all those menstrual cycles add up to a markedly increased risk of breast cancer later in life.


Drugs that postpone puberty already exist — an example is leuprolide (Lupron). When given in depot form (i.e., by monthly injections), these drugs prevent the pituitary gland from releasing the hormones that tell the gonads (ovaries or testes) to start functioning. Such injections are already used to treat children with “abnormally” precocious puberty — say, girls who show signs of puberty before eight, or boys before nine. They are also used to postpone “normal” puberty in gender dysmorphic children, in order to facilitate sex reassignment at some later date. I’m suggesting that we should consider raising the bar of “normality” — perhaps to fifteen years. That would mean treating most of the nation’s children. It would be expensive, and it wouldn’t eliminate the social problems I listed earlier, but it would put one hell of a dent in them.


Of course, we couldn’t jump into such a plan right away. For one thing, the idea raises significant medical questions. Would such a treatment program have adverse effects on bone density or body composition, for example? New drugs might have to be developed to make the treatment safer.


And there’d have to be a societal consensus that postponing puberty is a good idea. Right now, many people will call this the lunatic fringe of social engineering: a reckless mass experiment, with our children as its victims. That’s probably how people reacted in 1796, when Edward Jenner suggested that all children be inoculated with cowpox as a means to prevent smallpox — and actually carried out the procedure on little James Phipps. Now universal vaccination is a mainstay of world health. What seems outrageous to one generation is accepted as routine by the next, if it works.


One thing is certain: we can’t go back to what was once our natural fate: to grow up in semi-starvation and be forced out into the world as soon as our bodies could cope with it. We must search for a solution that acknowledges our changed circumstances, and one that respects the rights of parents and children alike. Postponing puberty could fit the bill.


So call me a mad scientist. But don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against today’s teens. Many of them cope magnificently with the burdens that their unnatural state has placed on them. They simply deserve to enjoy their historical right: to be children — not just to be treated as children — until adulthood calls.