In an interview with Andy Cohen on SiriusXM’s Radio Andy last week, Vampire Diaries star Ian Somerhalder revealed a few ethically concerning personal details about his experiences with sex and intercourse during his adolescence. In addition to telling Cohen that he had sex for the first time at the young age of 13, Somerhalder described, in detail, exactly how he learned to “lay the pipe,” so to speak:
“I had an older brother. My brother was seven years older than me, so he taught me a lot. And he was quite a Casanova...and he used to have girls in his bedroom all the time. And what I did was, I went in the bottom corner of his window and I pinched the Venetian blinds down so I had a clear view, and then when he’d have girls over, I would run outside and I would watch. And I learned a lot.”
Outlets reporting on the story were quick to point out that Somerhalder, although young, acted in a complete violation of the privacy of both his brother and his brother’s partner. Many of them also framed his behavior as weird and perverted. Numerous folks on Twitter also responded, writing off Somerhalder’s actions as “gross” and “totally cringy,” calling him a “peeping tom.” While, yes, the former is absolutely true, maybe these types of comments aren’t actually helpful.
As a sex educator myself, the idea of a kid “spying” on older kids or adults in hopes of learning potentially valuable, highly coveted information that is otherwise inaccessible to youth — aka sex education — isn’t all that surprising to me. Somerhalder definitely isn’t the first kid to attempt to learn about sex, bodies, and intercourse by observing or overhearing others.
Erica Smith, M.Ed, a Philadelphia based sexuality educator who specializes in adolescent sexuality, also finds Somerhalder’s admission unsurprising. Smith tells O.school, “Anecdotally speaking, I’ve heard many similar stories. Young people are curious about sex and sexuality, especially as they enter puberty. He spoke openly about quite normal experiences of sexual development that did not raise any red flags for me.”
After asking my Instagram followers for their opinions, I received similar reactions. One respondent said, “Is it really that weird? I feel like it’s super normal, especially if family/school/community is lacking in sex education. You shouldn’t spy on people being intimate without their consent, but that it happened, as a child…definitely not weird.” Another user echoed these sentiments, saying they weren’t surprised and that Somerhalder shouldn’t be shamed for this behavior as a child.
As Jessica Duggan, a sexuality educator and reproductive health care assistant at Planned Parenthood, tells O.school, “Somerhalder’s story should cause us to reflect on what doing things like eavesdropping and spying accomplish. It’s a way to learn without letting other people in on the fact that you REALLY want to know something.”
Young people are going to be curious about sex, as they should be, but the reality is that sex education across the United States is severely lacking, and teens may be getting even less formal sex education than in previous years.
At this moment, 20 states do not mandate any sex education whatsoever. Of the states that currently do mandate sex education? Well, only 17 of them even require the information to be medically accurate! Adding on to that, most of the states with sex education mandates are expected to promote abstinence-only education or heavily focus their programs on abstinent behavior. Research shows that abstinence-focused sex education is entirely unhelpful, leading to increases in unprotected sex, STIs, unplanned pregnancies, consent violations, and sexual assault. Undoubtedly, it also causes teens to feel ashamed of their sexual desires and curiosity.
Asking about sex as a kid isn’t easy and it can feel embarrassing, so it’s a lot more likely that a kid will submit a question to an anonymous question box in a sex-ed class than go up to their parent and ask them what a blowjob is. Duggan points out that having these resources would make young people feel like they don’t have to secretly obtain information: “[What] if we were just being taught about sex without having to ask, probe, or spy? Of course, kids might still be curious, but it’s a lot less likely that their curiosity will take the form of a boundary violation when you’re getting reliable information from a trusted source like an older adult.” Even without formal sex education, the kind of intrusive spying behavior Somerhalder described could have been prevented if grade schools and middle schools invested in teaching about consent, privacy, and boundaries in a general manner to children at a younger age.
As established, it was absolutely inappropriate for Somerhalder to violate the privacy of his brother and his brother’s partner in order to learn about sex, and people are right to critique his past behavior. Still, it’s also irresponsible and sex-negative to shame Somerhalder and label a curious preteen’s actions as “perverse.” Simply put, young people deserve to learn about all aspects of sex in safe, non-judgemental, and non-invasive spaces that, along with promoting safer sex behaviors, center pleasure and substantially help youth navigate the nuances of sex and dating.