The Enemy

What is the deal with (usually older) adults – of every background – getting so worked up about teenage sexuality. I mean, it seems to particularly be parents who are also republican/conservative (unsurprising), but it’s not at all limited to that. I’ve heard adults who are not even parents getting all tied in a knot over teens having sex, or even just teens’ romantic relationships. I’ve seen even some pretty-damn-liberal parents getting all uncomfortable about it.

When are they going to get over it?

I quite often hear adults minimizing and trivializing teenagers’ feelings when it comes to sexuality and sexual or romantic relationships – I hear over and over again things about “puppy love” and “it’s just a phase”. Teens seem to particularly hear “it’s just a phase” about sexual orientation, but it’s not just limited to that. In the past, my long-term relationship (that lasted three years) was sometimes treated by adults like it wasn’t really that serious. Because teens are so fickle and don’t know anything, amirite?

Adults – who, in this situation, tend to be about 40+ years old – seem obsessed with the HORRORS of children learning about sex. They seem to think that if we just cover children’s and teens’ ears and shout LALALA, we’re protecting them. Even though studies have shown over and over again that with more sex education, teens are more likely to put off their first sexual experiences, and/or to be much safer about them.

It’s pretty much taken for granted that republicans are freaked out about teens and pre-teens learning about sex and sexuality – but they’re not the only ones. And even when it comes to the republicans, I really want to know why exactly it is. Why do they think that teens having sex is the END OF THE WORLD? Although they’d probably never admit it, they likely started having sexual encounters when they were relatively young, too. And even if they didn’t, when they did start having sex, the world didn’t end, now, did it. So why are they so convinced that it will for present-day teens?

So, let’s take a second to think about this. The average age of people having intercourse for the first time is between 16 and 17 years old and has been for quite a while (this is a 2002 study but I’ve seen more recent studies that gave a similar average age [excuse me for not having any links, I hadn’t started the blog at the time so I didn’t think to keep track of studies]) But how many of those teens get pregnant/an STI*/flunk out of school/something else that is apparently life ruining? The majority do not. The vast majority of people have perfectly satisfactory lives after having sex, and golly gee, that includes people who first had sex when young. Which really, if you are relaxed and really thinking about it, isn’t surprising. Sex doesn’t ruin most people’s lives?! Who’da thought.

I consider the fact that perhaps a lot of these adults did start sexual activity when they were quite young, and ended up regretting it for various reasons. And they just don’t want their kids to go making the same mistakes. But I don’t think trying to stop/dissuade your teen from having sex is the way to go about stopping them making the same mistakes. Because sex usually isn’t THE mistake – it’s usually the context in which the sex took place that is the problem.

Perhaps these parents, when they first started sexual activity, weren’t really ready for it because they hadn’t learned what it meant to be truly ready for sex both physically and emotionally. Maybe their early sexual activity resulted in an unplanned pregnancy – because they weren’t properly aware of their options when it came to contraception, were not realistically prepared to deal with the potential outcomes (didn’t have money set aside in the possibility of needing emergency contraception, etc), or any of the vast array of reasons. Maybe they did know about contraception but just didn’t take it seriously. Whatever the reason was, none of them are reasons to just try to dissuade teens from having sex altogether, or to try to cut them off from knowledge about sex as “protection”.

The solution to all of these problems is to talk about sex more.

The way to make sure people make as informed, as right a decision as possible, is to give them as much information as possible. So they can weigh the reality of the situation, of their decisions, so it is not some big mysterious mystical thing that they are Totally Rebellious and Grown Up for doing. So that they can know what they’re getting into and can be smart about it and make decisions that they feel are right for themselves based on good solid information. That’s true of anyone at ANY age.

Because after all that, if a teen knows how to be safe around sex – physically as well as emotionally – and are open to having discussions and know enough to make informed decisions… then why does it matter if they do have sex? They have all the equipment necessary. Hell, it’s stuff that not even all adults have. If someone knows all the right stuff and is making a decision they feel good about, the chances of it ruining their life is very, very slim.

Sexuality is just one facet of a person’s life – sexuality goes the same way as any other aspect of life. If teens are given the skills and knowledge required to smartly handle sex, they’re as likely to screw up majorly as they are in any other part of their life. And since most people survive their teenage years… not only survive, but thrive and succeed, it becomes pretty clear that this isn’t a huge issue. Yes, sometimes, especially when young, people make decisions they decide weren’t so great later on, but if someone is as informed around sex as they are around other areas of their lives… the mistakes are going to be of the same calibre, have the same level of implications, as mistakes in those other areas. Which is to say, rarely huge.

And which is also to say, if you’re freaking out this much about the possibility of them screwing up around sex even if they have all the info about it in the world, you’d better also be freaking out the same amount about the possibility of them screwing up in any other aspect of life. Otherwise you’re just not making any sense.

Parents often seem to think that “banning” their teens from doing something will actually… work. Parents “ban” their teens from having sleepovers with opposite-sex friends, or from going to parties with opposite-sex friends, or from going on trips with opposite-sex friends, or from being in their rooms alone with opposite-sex friends or blahblahblah. But banning people from doing things never works. I don’t mean just for teens because hurhur teens just loooove to rebel. This is true of most people at most ages. If you don’t give someone a good reason not to do something, why on earth would they actually listen to you? People are not drones. They don’t just do as they’re told “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” If someone wants to do something, and feels they are ready for it and have all the knowledge necessary, they will do it whether they have been “banned” or not.

“Banning” teens from certain situations that MIGHT POTENTIALLY RESULT IN SEX only closes the door on very important discussions that a parent should be having with their teen. Banning someone from something lets them know that you are not open to having reasonable conversation about it, so they’re not even going to bother. It lets them know that you are not willing to actually give their feelings and thoughts any weight, and you’re not willing to give them the information they need. Which leaves them on their own, to find the information out for themselves – or not, and end up making a bad decision that they wouldn’t have made if you hadn’t closed that door.

What it comes down to is this. Teens are humans. I know, seriously, wow surprising. Teens are not stupid. They can and often do make good decisions. When they make bad ones, it’s usually because they don’t have good information or good support**. And lo and behold, there is an easy fix to this.

*hey guess what, the high levels of STIs among teens has been linked to abstinence only education. STI rates are lower among people who received good sex ed. Sex ed 1, Ab-only 0

More resources (referenced in the advocates for youth link):

Kirby D. Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001.

Bearman PS, Brückner H. Promising the future: virginity pledges and first intercourse. American Journal of Sociology 2001; 106:859-912.

Brückner H, Bearman PS. After the promise: the STI consequences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health 2005; 36:271-278.

** having discussions around sex/sexuality can and should include discussions around peer pressure. If parents are supportive and open to having discussions and giving information freely, it absolutely will have an impact on how affected by peer pressure a teen will be.

If you want any more information on any of this kind of thing, the kinsey institute is an amazing resource.

2 thoughts on “The Enemy

  1. Great article! :) If only parents can see..

    Sometimes I feel though you can be as informed as anything but parents are still like that because they just don’t trust your partner. They trust that you can make good decisions but in their minds, what good is that if you are forced into sex or emotionally manipulated by your partner? (but you know the relationship is healthy)
    What are your thoughts on that?

    (feel free to post or leave off, but this is also an issue I thought of that may come up with teens that have this problem :) )

    • Hm, good question. Parents should be having discussions with their teens about what healthy vs unhealthy relationships look like, about what red flags to look for to know that a relationship just isn’t going in good directions, and to make sure there is good communication back and forth between parents and teen about the ongoing relationship. That way the teen should be well equipped to sense when a relationship is not a healthy one, and with the lines of communication about the current relationship open, the parents should also have an idea of what the dynamics of the relationship are so they can tell if the relationship is healthy or not.

      If the parents know that their teen has all the knowledge necessary to recognise unhealthy dynamics, and if they know a bit about the relationship (have heard about how the two have dealt with certain conflicts, etc) and it seems like the dynamics are good, they should be able to trust both parties. It’s not fool-proof; even someone who knows everything there is to know about abusive/unhealthy relationships and who has great communication with their parents can still find themselves in a bad relationship, but the risks are significantly lower with emotional readiness and emotional support in place. And if a parent can’t accept that, then it’s clear that it’s less about not actually trusting the partner/any external force, and more about fears and insecurities they’re having as a parent — feeling like their child is growing up too fast and they want to protect them from everything ever when that’s just not possible, for example.

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