Prom season is here, and many students are primping and prepping for the big event. On prom night cameras flash, limos roll, and the dance floor is flooded with enough energy to power a small city. Prom is a rite of passage, a ritual steeped in history and tradition. Unfortunately, some of those rituals and traditions work against the development of healthy sexuality in young people, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not calling for prom to be abolished. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “I ask for, not at once no prom, but at once a better prom!” OK, so Thoreau was talking about government not prom…but that’s another blog!

Here are my suggestions for making prom a more sexually healthy event:

1) Axe The Big Ask: In many schools, asking someone to prom has become a spectator sport. Some students wear placards inviting their sweetheart to prom. Invitations are offered in the middle of school assemblies, or in public places on campus often accompanied by a dance routine or short skit. Even teachers and administrators have become co-conspirators in setting up complex scenarios that end with the “big ask”. Afterwards many of these public invitations go right to YouTube where the whole world can watch them. While I appreciate the time and effort that goes into these public invitations, I wonder why teens feel the need to take what should be a private, even intimate, moment and make it so public? Asking someone to prom, whether they are a sweetheart or a friend is just between those two people.  Too many private aspects of teens’ relationships today are made unnecessarily public.

2) De-Couple the Deal: Is prom a celebration of couples or a celebration of a class? When seen as an event for couples, a system is set up which privileges those teens already in relationships, privileges heterosexual couples over gay/lesbian couples, and puts enormous pressure on those who are not in a relationship to find a date. This leads to many unfair judgments, and sometimes ridicule, heaped upon those who do not have a romantic partner to take to prom. If prom is a celebration of a class, then those who are coupled can certainly go together but those who are not are relieved of that pressure and can go with friends or even alone with their heads held high. Prom shouldn’t be about showing off your arm candy or flaunting a relationship, but rather one of the culminating celebrations of a class’ journey through high school together.

3) Annihilate the After-Prom: In too many communities the prom has become a hoop young people must jump through to get to the real event, the after prom. While some of these gatherings provide a nice opportunity to hang out and decompress after the formal evening, many become the setting for a host of unhealthy behaviors including sexual activity while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I’ve heard too many stories over the years of prom nights ruined by an after prom gone wrong. 

4) Erase the Economics: Prom is expensive, and money can be used as a tool of power in relationships, even among young people. I have had a young man say to me, “I paid a lot of money for those prom tickets. Of course I expect some kind of sex at the end of the night.” I don’t think he is a lone voice. Prom night is already ripe with the expectation that it will end in some kind of sexual activity, an assumption that in itself is unhealthy. This can become coercive once economics enters the picture. Perhaps the solution to this is for everyone, even couples, to buy their own ticket to prom. This may also allow for more deliberate conversations and decisions about sexual activity to occur. It should not be assumed just because it’s prom night or because someone paid for your ticket.

Prom shouldn’t be an event that reinforces unhealthy relationship behaviors, unfair expectations about sexual activity, and that privileges being coupled over being single. If looking at these ideas you say, “but that’s not prom”, then maybe we should dump the whole thing. 

About the Author

Alfred Vernacchio, M.S. Ed.

Al Vernacchio, M.S. Ed. is the Upper School Sexuality Educator and an English teacher at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, PA.

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