"It is estimated that fully 70% of teens in America have had sex but 50% of all parents think their children are still virgins."
Our Shared Schizophrenic Attitude About Sex and Teens
The United States and Europe are vastly different in their attitudes toward sex. As a child growing up in Germany and England I saw more shows about sex and sexuality during prime time television than is permitted here. Frank talk about sex and human sexuality is considered good programming. I learned about human reproduction from watching very graphic and detailed shows about how babies were conceived, and then born. I was taken on a trip to a working farm when I was in the first grade and we saw a horse covering a mare and then a sheep being born.
According to my mother, I was completely aware that the ram had covered the ewe to produce the lamb, though I had no actual knowledge of what the mechanics actually were! This seemed natural to her, and she was pleased I had such a lovely experience. My grandmother, however, was horrified.
When we returned to the States after 16 years abroad my grandmother was very quick to lay on some really odd wive's tales, like the fact that she would know I was having sex because after having sex my "hips would spread." To this day I can only shake my head at the silliness of telling that to any young girl. Even then I knew enough about human physiology and anatomy that I could spot the shaming behavior and I politely told her so. She swore to my mother that I would be pregnant before my life had even begun because I was a willful and wicked girl. This, then, was my introduction to the destructive attitude that persists in America when it comes to teenagers and sex.
Thankfully, my mother continued to stress abstinence as the one and only way of being 100% certain to not get pregnant or STDs, but she also taught me what I needed to know about my own body and its cycles. She taught me about the wisdom of using a condom and how conception actually worked. She hoped that if I was properly and fully educated, I would be able to make good decisions. Her attention to detail paid off because I was 26 before I had my first child, and I have never tested positive for an STD.
Since I received such a thorough education at home, I never paid much attention in Health class and was able to opt out for most of the lessons. I did, however, carry a 5 pound bag of flour around for two weeks, dutifully. This was supposed to show us how hard it was to take care of a baby. Since my mother had explained in great detail what was actually entailed in caring for a newborn, AND made sure I was able to observe all stages of infant care, we didn't take this lesson too seriously. My dog, more often than not, babysat the bag of flour. She thought, and I still think, that this lesson is a strange and stupid way to teach anything. The intention is good but the methodology is poor.
What we were taught in school sex ed was a sum total of sex is dangerous, scary, and makes you act insane. It causes young men to rape young women and we should never blame the victim. OH, and never, never have sex until you are married. End of discussion. My peers and I were left questioning whether boys were ever to be trusted, and it caused a lot of hurt for these unfortunate young men. My mother stepped in, once again, and taught me that boys were just as scared as we were about sex and had just as much pressure on them as we did! She, and my father, assured me that all boys could control themselves and weren't raging monsters waiting to attack.
I thought my experiences were pretty common but I am seeing that my education was colored by my early European schooling. I was horrified to learn that sex ed wasn't even offered in our school district until the eleventh grade, YEARS after puberty had set in for most of the young men and women. This is ludicrous but explains the super high rate of teen pregnancy in our area.
Documentaries And Late Night Conversation
One night, as I was browsing NetFlix, I came across a documentary by James Houston entitled "Let's Talk About Sex". I had long admired his photography, and here was his take on sex and sexuality education in America. I began to watch this documentary and, like moths to a bright flame, my daughters slowly edged their way over to my computer. What followed left us all with our mouths hanging open, and we had a serious talk about what were were seeing.
In "Let's Talk About Sex," Mr. Houston shows the completely strange and seriously twisted relationship we have with sex and teenagers. Kids need us to help them make good decisions about their bodies and their lives, but in America we show them raw sex in every venue and then ask them to simply look, but don't touch. We give them next to no information about the responsibilities of sex and how to take care of themselves. Instead we present sex as a foe they need to battle against every minute of every day until that magical moment they are sanctified. We are sending a mixed message that is getting our kids in trouble. Statistics show that in America, everyday, 10,000 teens catch an STD! Further, 1 in 3 teenaged girls get pregnant in their teens. CLEARLY teaching teens "abstinence only" isn't working. Not talking about sex, and how to maintain proper sexual health, is making our teens ill, and forcing them to make life changing decisions about whether they are ready to become parents.
Now don't get me wrong, I am all for discussing the benefits of waiting to become sexually active. The idea that keeping silent on the matter, or worse, threatening and coercing your kids into abstinence works to keep them safe is what is foreign to me. If we don't teach our children properly, and with good information, they will fill that knowledge vacuum with other sources. These sources may be telling your teenager that Mountain Dew prevents sperm production or that a yellow skittle placed in the vagina will prevent both pregnancy and disease!
In another section of the documentary, we meet a young woman whose mother believes her to be a virgin. The young woman admits that she is not and that she had sex for the first time after drinking at a party. She was blithe about the drinking, but shook and cried at the thought of her Mom finding our she was no longer a virgin. She was more worried about her Mom finding out she had SEX than about the fact that she had been underage and DRINKING. The drinking is CLEARLY the problem here, because it lead to the impaired decision making that lead to the sex. My daughter actually pointed out this weird dichotomy to me, while shaking her head in disbelief. Her words were, "The natural act of putting a penis in her body is more frightening to deal with than the unnatural act of getting drunk, and then putting a penis inside her. How sad that her Mother completely failed to get the correct message across."
I don't know about you, but in our household making life changing decisions while intoxicated is frowned upon heavily. There are few things that are completely not tolerated, but underage drinking is one of the biggest ones. I would have been sad to learn that my daughter had chosen to have sex with a boy she barely knew, but I would have been FURIOUS if I knew either of my girls was at a party drinking. My girls are very well aware of this fact! I trust their judgement and we've been as frank about alcohol, and drugs, as we have been about sex.
I think it's time that we stand up and let our young people know that sex is a natural part of life, and that it isn't something to be feared or struggled against. It's something to be embraced, in a responsible manner. We need to teach them everything we can about their bodies and how to keep them disease free. I also think we need to provide them with the means to turn pregnancy into a choice rather than a horrifying consequence.
I think that the responsibility for good sex and sexuality education begins in the home, and ends in the home. We, as parents, are our children's first line of defense against misinformation and unsafe activities. We should be frankly discussing sex and sexuality while our children are young, and then adding in more vital information years before the public schools offer their silly attempts at education. This isn't meant to criticize teachers, because I am well aware that the vocal minority that oppose any form of sex education in schools has tied the hands of the good folk entrusted with the job of education. I am hoping that the quiet, but forward thinking parents will stand up and demand better for their children.
I have heard the argument that teaching a teenager about safer sex practices and showing a willingness to accept them as they are actually encourages them to have sex and be gay! First of all, I have no doubt that sexuality and sexual preference is something that we don't choose. In my household we stress that whomever you love should be a good person who doesn't say, "I love you", with a fist. Whatever the sex of the person, my girls know to be sure this person is someone they look forward to introducing to their parents; all three of them! In the long run we want our children to be happy, healthy and satisfied in love. We accept our children as they are, simply because they are our children.
Second, I was taught about condoms, though my Mom stopped short of actually demonstrating how to use them. What this did was empower me and offer me a choice. She also taught me all the silly things young boys say to get you to "give in". I was taught the exact mechanics of male orgasm so that I could refute the "blue balls" plea, and yes, my boyfriend DID try to use that one on me! He thought I was sexy as hell when I told him that he could simply take the matter in hand or I could find someone who wasn't afraid of his sexuality and masturbation. I then gave him a lecture on the possible health benefits of the act. I knew my mind and I chose when and where we would eventually have sex. In fact, both of us made a careful decision and practiced safer sex because we had the wherewithal to do so.
Having learned about condoms kept us from attempting sex for a full year after we started dating, and then we went slowly and carefully, making sure we were ready for this big step. It did NOT make us rush out and try sex the moment we learned about condoms! Studies in other countries prove out this fact, and I think it's high time American parents take a chance and trust their kids.
I don't know about you, but I want my teens to feel comfortable enough to come to me when they have questions or concerns about sex and their sexuality. I certainly want them to be able to tell me anything that is happening in their lives so that I can guide them and provide help when needed. When I speak confidently about sex and sexual identity I am teaching my children that I love,accept, and expect them to act responsibly about sex. I arm them with the best information I have access to and then let them loose to make their choices. I may not like or agree with their choices but I trust them to come to me if they need me. In the end, it's all we can do for our kids, and it's so much better than trying to scare them into compliance with an ideal that clearly isn't all that important in our world.
Stress your moral beliefs but prepare your children, and yourself, for the possibility that no matter what you say they may choose to go ahead and do the deed. You don't want your child to say, "I got pregnant, or sick, because I didn't know I was supposed to stay firm about using a condom."