Talking to teenagers is hard work – especially for parents. But being a teenager is perhaps even more difficult.
I have a theory that we often respond to our teenagers out of our own fear and regret. Looking back with the hindsight of lessons learned the hard way, we speak to them as if speaking to our younger selves: “don’t make the same mistakes I made…you should not worry about that…make wiser choices.” This, I would argue, comes from a place of love and a desire to protect our precious children from danger, and more directly, from pain. And yet, we miss them entirely in the process. This dynamic is perhaps no more evident than when talking (or not talking) to our teenagers about sex.
In her most recent book, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein addresses this issue with compelling research and testimonies from young women as they reflect on their adolescent sexual experiences. What we discover is an impossibly complicated world of social media and instant access, in which young women are told to be “hot but not sexy,” “pure but not prude,” and perhaps most devastating, feel pressure to please but not to expect or experience their own pleasure. Self-objectification, or “the pressure on young women to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others’ pleasure” is associated with an array of negative mental health outcomes, including “depression, lower GPA, distorted body image, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and reduced sexual pleasure.” All of this is perpetuated by a world in which virginity is lauded but not explained, shame and stigma follow a girl and her “number” and sexual assault, coercion and excessive alcohol and substance use are rampant in high schools and college campuses. In the absence of trusted adults to listen and explain this complicated landscape, there is the Internet and the $97 Billion global porn industry, accessible by just a click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger on an iPhone.
A public health issue:
All together, the federal government has spent $1.7 billion plus on abstinence-only programs since 1982. Orenstein writes, “that money might just as well have been set on fire.” Research shows that while “pledgers” (teens who publicly commit to remain a virgin till marriage) delayed intercourse for only a few months longer than their non-pledging peers, when they did become sexually active, they were less likely to protect themselves or their partners against pregnancy or disease. They also do not have fewer sexual partners than control groups and are as much as 60% more likely to become unintentionally pregnant. The opposite also is not true: there is no evidence to suggest that providing accurate information makes teens more likely to engage in sexual behavior. Studies from the Netherlands actually found that teens who were knowledgeable about sex abstained longer, had fewer sexual partners, were less likely to have STDs and unwanted pregnancy and were more likely to describe sexual experiences as reciprocal and respectful.
“But they don’t want to hear about that from me”
Though comprehensive sexual education is finally becoming the standard, we cannot rely solely on our schools to provide these conversations. What we need are more conversations- though they be awkward and uncomfortable- with our children about sex, intimacy, and healthy relationships. In a 2012 survey, most participants said they wish they’d had more information, especially from Mom or Dad, before their first sexual experiences. “They particularly wanted to know more from us about relationships and the emotional side of sex.” So yes, they DO want to hear it from YOU. Our children are looking to us, as they always have, for cues about how to feel and how to navigate their world. Not discussing sex increases shame, which ensures that it stays hidden and secret, which contributes to inaccurate knowledge about safety and prevention. And if you, as a parent, truly feel unable to have such conversations, I hope you will consider trusting their therapist to do so in a respectful, nonjudgmental and professional manner.
In her conclusion, Orenstein writes, “I want girls to revel in their body’s sensuality without being reduced to it. I want them to be safe from disease, unwanted pregnancy, cruelty, dehumanization and violence…I want to raise a generation of girls who have a voice; who expect equal treatment in the classroom, the workplace and in the bedroom.“ As a therapist, I agree. I want girls to have a safe place where sex is not shamed. Where it can be talked about openly, honestly and comprehensively. My hope for our daughters, and my clients, is that they feel cared about, heard, understood and above all, safe. And I hope they know how wonderful, worthy and deserving they are, and seek out relationships with people who reflect that truth.
–Elizabeth Harrison, MDIV MSW LCSW
Note: The focus of this blog is on how we address young women, as that is the focus of the book in reference. However, it should not go without saying that we must be having these conversations with our sons as well if we are truly going to make meaningful change for future generations.
*All quotes, studies and factual information referenced in this blog post are cited in Peggy Orenstein’s book, Girls and Sex. For brevity, exact footnotes are not included.