There was a provocative blog post on BlogHer recently about a parent’s role in the sex life of their teenager. The author advocated tacit acquiescence, assuming that the teen is going to be sexually active and treating him or her as such, complete with education — but discreetly. In his case, he joked that he would follow the tradition passed down to him by his mother, that sleepovers would be allowed, but only if the guest keeps up appearances by stashing his or her suitcase in a separate room.
It’s an amusing metaphor for the issue of teen sex. It’s that tightrope we all walk between wanting to be realistic and not wanting to alienate our children. Basically, we don’t want them to have sex as a form of rebellion.
That is a good goal. Humans have been known to make many a poor decision based upon rebellion.
While I am tempted to walk a parallel journey, having read the same studies he has read about the enlightened Netherlands and their low rate of teen pregnancies, I worry that this parenting mindset cannot work in America (I’m not really sure how it works in the Netherlands). It assumes that as long as a teenager uses the proper protection, they are safe from any of the consequences of teen sex.
They are not.
First of all, birth control is never 100% effective. It is even less effective when used by novices, particularly novices with raging hormones. According to avert.org, a website aiming to educate teens regarding HIV and AIDS,
If they’re used correctly, condoms are about 94% – 97% (depending on which study you look at) effective at preventing pregnancy and they’re nearly 100% effective at preventing transmission of HIV.
Some people say that certain viruses can ‘pass through’ latex – that’s not true. They won’t help against crabs, though, and some sexually transmitted infections (like herpes) can be caught through oral sex with someone who is infected, so you need to use condoms for this, too.
The key here, of course, is that they must be used correctly. And even then they are not 100% effective. How many tasks involving hygiene can you claim your teenager actually does with 100% accuracy? Brushing their teeth? Keeping their hair clean? This isn’t a bash on teenagers. It’s a dose of reality: teenagers cut corners because they are usually in a hurry to move onto the more fun activity. No matter how many times you teach a teenager to use a condom properly, there is a good chance they will want to move onto the more fun activity in the heat of the moment.
Here is the harsh reality: it is relatively easy for a teenager to get pregnant and to contract a sexually transmitted disease. Due to our very North American views on sex and sexuality, it is even easier for a teenager to regret their decision to have sex before they are ready. And, though we might want to believe that we can keep them safe by presenting all the facts, we aren’t all that well-informed ourselves.
Recently, at a party, I shared a story of an old friend who became pregnant without penetration. One woman in the room was adamant that this is not possible and that my friend was telling a lie (despite me explaining that this friend was pretty open about her sex life and had no reason to lie). In fact, according to The American Pregnancy Association,
Anytime the penis comes into direct contact with the vaginal area, there is the chance of pregnancy. The probability is extremely low particularly compared to if intercourse with ejaculation took place, but there is still a risk. The transmission of STD’s can also happen through any type of skin to skin contact like this.
My point is that we parents are often times only slightly more educated than our teenaged kids when it comes to sex and its risks. How many of us know, for example, that the chemistry of a young body makes them more susceptible to STD’s (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) and STI’s (Sexually Transmitted Infections)? This website offers some alarming facts, including this one,
Teens are also more likely to develop precancerous growths as a result of HPV infection, and these growths more likely develop into invasive cancer.
Unfortunately, according to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “About 30% of cervical cancers will not be prevented by the HPV vaccine.” Are there any other activities you would be casual about with regards to your child’s participation knowing that 30% of a certain type of cancer could still attack them?
The author of the original blog post mentioned cites the Netherlands and their notoriously low rate of teen pregnancy and abortion as proof for his methodology. Here’s the problem, the Netherlands also hold a great deal of societal norms that are absent here. Contraceptives are free there, for one, and are dispensed absent of medicalization or judgement. We are far from that attitude here and moving even further away. Any American teen remotely aware of the controversies of this political campaign, for example, are likely to internalize the attitudes behind them. For us to come close to the effects of the attitudes in the Netherlands with regards to teen sex, we would need to alter our attitudes as an entire country for several generations to come. The fact is that our attitudes about sex in general are pretty unhealthy and are not likely to change anytime soon.
My kids, at least, will be long finished with their teen years by the time we make any strides. I would like to arm them with the hard facts about teen sex rather than try out a variety of parenting philosophies that might or might not prove helpful and that could potentially be fraught with inaccuracies.
Here is what I think we parents in the United States can do, solely with regards to the narrow question of when a person might be ready to have sex. We can educate our kids about sex and reproduction — all of it — the good, the bad, and the ugly. They should know that sexual feelings are normal and healthy. They should hear that healthy sex feels good, that it is fun. We should explain how one can offer oneself those same physical feelings. We should explain healthy sex (consensual) and unhealthy sex (non-consensual). Some might wish to explain that since any sexual activity can lead to pregnancy and/or an STD, a person is ready to engage in sexual activity when they are ready and able to handle the consequences of those two issues. They need to understand what it takes to care for a baby and should understand what is involved in choosing abortion and adoption. They should see pictures of various STD’s and read about the symptoms and treatment for cancers caused by HPV. They should learn about the various ways that sex might affect the psyche.
We parents need to hold an open ear for our children regarding all matters of sexuality. We need to support them with love, with proper healthcare and lessons in hygiene, and without judgement. And, perhaps most importantly, we must continue to share with them what we consider to be healthy choices regarding sex. Maybe the United States will catch up with the Netherlands someday. Until then, we have a lot of work to do.