When I was a teenager, the big debate about sex education was whether schools could offer “abstinence only” classes. The argument against abstinence-only classes was simple: the kids won’t comply. “They are going to do it anyway,” they said. “So, we need to teach them about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases using birth control and condoms.” This constituted so-called “comprehensive” sex education.

I am now in my thirties. And today, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the message seems to be exactly the opposite: We must abstain from all human activity outside of our homes, including social and economic activity. The expectation is total abstinence. 

I’ve read headlines that suggest that talking to my neighbors even from six feet away isn’t appropriate, that I should allow “absolutely no play dates” for my kids, and that “visiting just one friend” would make me a death-spreader. Ok, social shamers, message received!

But if it was true, when I was growing up, that teens were going to “do it anyway,” why does anyone think they can prevent teens and others from merely socializing today?  Wouldn’t it be best to focus not on abstinence but on socializing safely?

Already we are seeing Americans bucking shelter-in-place orders as they grow tired of staying alone at home.

We need a “comprehensive” approach. Yes, there’s been breathless reminders about hand washing and the six-feet thing. But where are the tips for the rule breakers?

My family simply decided early on that we would only have play dates with one other family, a family that has been as cautious as we have otherwise. Just as with sex, I figured a monogamous relationship would yield some benefit. We don’t hug or shake hands when we hang out together, and we wash hands often. We see our meetups as a tradeoff we are making: We know we increase our risk, but we gain a lot from this important human interaction.

I haven’t been so bold as to socialize with more people yet, but it seems to me that small groups of people together at one time would be fairly low risk. Masks seem to help, and sharing food seems like it could hurt. Should we wait two weeks between seeing one friend and seeing another? Have any public health experts thought through this?

I find it laughable that in my youth there were such low expectations for teens compared to now. It seemed the expectation was that, despite the enormous personal consequences and public health implications, teenagers were going to do what the birds and bees do. (Maybe because sexual liberty is a sacred cow in our culture…?)

But now here I am a couple of decades later, and I’m expected not to come within 6 feet of people outside of my home? That’s fine. I’ll do my best to comply. But trust me, I’m the rule follower of the bunch. There are plenty of Americans who will flout stay-at-home orders. They’re already doing it. Where’s the equivalent of “safe sex” education for them?

Maybe you find this unconscionable. Maybe you think “true love waits” until “after the pandemic” (whatever that means). But I think a more sustainable, realistic approach means thinking through “safe socializing” rather than expecting total social abstinence for the foreseeable future for 320 million Americans.