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The ‘‘Juno’’ effect


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At the beginning of this summer, about the time that the print and TV news were having an old-fashioned heyday with the alleged Gloucester High Pregnancy Club, we caught up with the movie “Juno.” What we have here is a case of life imitating art and vice versa.

“Juno” won four Academy Awards, among them best picture and best actress for the 21-year-old star who so convincingly plays Juno, a pregnant 16-year-old girl. We saw the film after much urging from other pro-lifers. “Juno” is a simple, but compelling story of two young high school students in a small Midwestern town, and after a brief sexual event, the girl becomes pregnant.

It is tagged as a pro-life movie, we suppose, because once Juno realizes she is pregnant, she seeks advice from those around her: Abort? Keep the baby? Find suitable parents? Without giving away too much of the movie, Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. The plot, however, revolves around her struggle to deal with the advice swirling around her and come up with the right solution.

As a character, Juno is an alpha teen. She is bright, potty-mouthed and highly independent. While hardly rich, she is indulged. She does what she wants and does it on her terms. She has the keys to the family car. She visits a married man (a prospective adopter) at all hours of the night. She has no homework despite being in school. Her teachers are like the wallpaper: there but barely noticed.

One thing stands out immediately: Where are the adults, especially her parents? Both father and stepmother are appealing folks, and want to help with whatever Juno decides to do. They have been giving her “her space” for some time and clearly don’t want to change now. Parental moral authority is replaced by sympathy and whatever-you-want-dear support. They have been out of the parental guidance role for some time and are not going to enter now.

What is most disturbing about “Juno,” which is clearly billed as a feel-good movie, is the picture of the “grown-ups.” The adult world that Juno encounters is filled with a mix of uptight types who are afraid of teenagers or enablers who stand by as kids get in trouble. The film mirrors a world where when children enter their sexual awakening, adults step back and bow out.

Maybe Massachusetts wasn’t the setting for “Juno,” but some of Gloucester High girls may certainly have suffered from the same absence of adults. Not only are high schoolers having babies without benefit of marriage, they are “without adults.” In the mid-1960s, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a report on the plight of the black family in America. In his essay, he reported that 30 percent of African-American children were being born out-of-wedlock. Since then the percentage of black out-of-wedlock births has more than doubled, and the out-of-wedlock percentage among white Americans is more than 30 percent!

Lest we think the Gloucester situation is an aberration and specific to that public school in our northern suburb, we refer to the recent best-selling book, “Restless Virgins,” about the sex scene of teenagers at Milton Academy in our southern suburb. This tough account of the sex scandal that engulfed this prestigious private school in 2005 was written by two fairly recent graduates and draws heavily on the personal reports of the students involved in the events. But more disturbing than scandalous events at Milton Academy (and they are, indeed, disturbing!), is the book’s portrait of teenage sexuality in the Boston area with weekend sex parties held in students’ homes. We are kidding ourselves if we think this behavior is confined to Gloucester High and Milton Academy.

It is a story of oral sex clubs, heavy viewing of pornography, and a toxic social world of intense and early sexual activity. It is a story, too, of neutered parents, parents too afraid or too uncertain or too unconcerned to address the real world of their children’s emerging sexuality. These are not underprivileged parents, overcome by economic and educational hardships.

These are the children of “the winners,” the Boomer parents with fine educations, important jobs and summer homes. Many, however, appear to have made a pact with their children. “As long as you make the grades and don’t disgrace the family, you can do as you wish.” The college name to be stuck on the rear window of the family cars will be a shared success. One might call this a deal of using children as property. “You are mine and your successes reflect on me.”

We certainly know wonderful, dedicated and strong parents who struggle with their teens’ behaviors. Sometimes we wonder why such good people are so tested by their rebellious, high-wire offspring. They need our prayers and support. Raising children has never been easy, but providing one’s children with a sound, spiritually rooted view of their sexuality is particularly daunting in our sex-saturated culture.

Many parents, perhaps drawing too heavily on their own experiences, have left their responsibilities to educate their children about their sexuality to the schools. And surely the public schools have been eager to snap up the task. But with what results?

All that birth control, health and sex education dispensed and look at the outcome. More babies. As “Juno” reminds us, kids see through our phoniness and masks. They quickly learn that the real sex message from the schools, “abstinence, but...” means “You can have sex, but don’t get caught. Just be careful.” Preaching and practicing “free sex” has become the moral high ground for many teachers and their students. Parents’ authority as sex educators has been usurped by schools. While human sexuality is complex and messy and awkward to talk about, how they respond to their sexuality during their teen years has profound implications on their emotional, physical and spiritual lives.

So when are we going to force the schools again to focus on intellectual education and character formation, and leave their “value-neutral” sex education to parents who can teach sex in its full complexity?

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

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