Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Questions about Teens and Sex

So you know I have been angsting over this for a bit. I have difficulties at multiple levels. So often I write here with confidence. "Here is something I'm doing and it is working!" and sometimes I complain about the kids, "I love him, but he is making me crazy." Sometimes I struggle with how to respond to different behaviors.

But this time I am having trouble figuring out exactly what the trouble is.

So here are my starting points:

1. I have all these thoughts about how I value sex, when I think that people are mature enough, etc. I'm not part of the wait-until-marriage crowd, but I think there are good reasons why most teens, at least most minors, are not ready. Those reasons are not reducible to risks of disease and pregnancy.

2. I think that kids who are having sex before they are ready are doing it out of coersion or because they have some other emotional need that is unmet. Okay, there may be exceptions to this, but I'm not particularly interested in them right now. I thinking about my kids.

3. I know how to educate a teen about the risks of sex and the use of condoms, contraceptives, etc. I don't just mean that I know the things they need to be taught, I mean I have got pretty good at actually doing it. I knew that I had reached a new level as an educator when I had a conversation with Evan about how to preserve the romance of a moment and use a condom.

4. For some reason I am more comfortable with gay boys having sex than with heteros. Part of this is probably my concern about becoming a grandmother before I am ready. Part of this may be that I believe (perhaps falsely) that even what looks like consensual sex may not be for the girls. I worry more that they will expect more emotional intimacy and be hurt. I think it is easier for me to believe that the gay boys are not risking the emotional selves in the same ways. At the same times, I have loved heart-broken young gay men and I know that they can be hurt deeply, so I am suspicious of my own attitudes.

So that is the background. Now here is the problem:

When I tell Andrew or Brian, "Don't have sex until you are older, but if you do, use a condom" they seem to hear, "Don't have sex until you are older, but if you do, use a condom."

When I say something like that to kids who are already sexually active they seem to hear something like, "Blah, blah, condom, blah, deny everything, blah, blah."

If I say something like, "It really is important that you use a condom. I will even buy them for you, and you really can talk to me about it." They hear, "I am totally comfortable with you having sex! I am one of the cool adults. Have sex in your bedroom anytime! I'll make you pancakes afterwards." If I try to add that I think they shouldn't be having sex now, if I mention that the agency has rules about this stuff they hear, "I want you to hide it from me, so I don't have to report you to the social worker."

If I say that sex should be reserved for truly intimate relationships between mature people they think...well you know what they think.


I think this is my problem: I want to have meaningful conversations with them about what they are doing, and why they are doing it. I want to be able to talk with them about the needs they are trying to meet and about whether there are other ways for them to be meeting them. I want to talk to them about if they are sure whether their partner is in thinking the same thing is going on, because it isn't good if this means different things to different people.

I don't just want to tell them that if they are having sex they need to use a condom.

I want them to be able to talk to me about the decisions they are making and how they feel about them.

And we both know that if we have those conversations I will probably have to report it to someone else.

I think I need to have a detailed conversation with the social worker about what sort of conversations I can have and how much I have to report to her.


  1. I think it is great that you are able to evaluate your own feelings in this way. I think that is a huge step in doing the right thing. I will be interested to here what the SW says.

  2. Anonymous10:21 AM

    Can you talk about coercion in another format? IE Being coerced in another situation, like work or school or church, and then play it back to your kids as if it were a relationship?

    Sometimes when kids can see it from an empathy point of view themselves they can then see how pressuring a sexual partner is also coercion.


  3. “I want them to be able to talk to me about the decisions they are making and how they feel about them.”

    Do you have any reason to think they want the same thing?

    As a teenager, one of the things you can really control is your own body. One of the *points* of sex can be that it’s none of anybody else’s g-d business.

    As an adult, I certainly feel that way. No, I do not want to feel free to talk to my boss or any other authority figure about my sexual decisions. I want to make them, period.

  4. Allison,
    That is a good question and one I want to think more about. This is, by the way, the sort of conversation I wanted to have. We (parents/aults) talk about educating teens about sex, but the conversation is limited. We need, I need, to figure out what else I should be talking about and how to do it.

    It really was easier for me with the gay boys, and I am still trying to get a handle on why.

    I know this much now: it is very important that adults respect teens boundaries and it is double so when those teens have a history of their boundaries being violated. So I don't want to push conversations they don't want to have.

    This of course is in tension with my responsibility to talk to them if I think they are doing something dangerous. (Does sex between sixteen/seventeen year olds present that sort of danger? Probably not.)

    Do the kids want this? Evan did.

    Does Gary? I don't know.

    I would like it to be the case that if he did he could know it was safe to talk to me.

  5. "I'll make you pancakes afterwards" too funny!

    Our views are practically the same on this issue except well...I don't have a teenager yet AND I won't have to worry about what I'll have to report so I feel for you. My only experience w/ a fostered teen was our very first kid (we were in our mid 20s and looked like his older siblings!LOL) and I remember then feeling so darn torn between what I thought was perfectly ok (not just ok...normal) for him to do or say, what I wanted to discuss with him, and what the agency felt we needed to report (because by reporting it I was betraying his trust)...it made parenting a teen almost a scary thing for me...not because of the teen but because if he did anything and we hadn't reported or hadn't followed protocol then we'd be in trouble and because I didn't like encouraging him to be open only to turn around and divulge the info. Ugh...hopefully the Social Worker will give you more room to wiggle but I doubt it...then again if she is very specific as to what exactly you have to report it might give you just enough leeway. ;)

    I'm curious as to how this will unfold, maybe still have them (conversations) anyway as long as he is aware that you have to report it...then again...not sure how much he'll share then.

  6. Anonymous11:28 AM

    What I want to know is if you will come to NYC and make me pancakes too.

    AidelMaidel :D

  7. I think they just want to do it, and they don't want to talk about it at all. They don't want to think about it, because if they thought about it, it might not be okay. Good luck!

  8. The whole system though intended to keep kids safe seems so utterly flawed. And through those flaws, it seems like so many more opportunities for them to be in unsafe situations and make unsafe choices.

    Like of course sneaking has to be done because you can't simply ask to have a ride home from a friend. And you can't ask about sex questions unless you can figure out a way to keep it so hypothetical that a mandated reporter (even one who cares deeply about you) doesn't feel the need to pick up the phone.

    It is nuts and totally makes it amazing to me that you are able to have any kind of relationship with teens under these restrictions. I am even more in awe of your parenting skills!

  9. Anonymous9:41 PM

    Very interesting points to think about. I agree with you that the decision-making (and thinking about choices, autonomy vs. coercion, etc.) is much more interesting and in some ways more important than the condoms/birth control part. But also much harder to figure out how to talk about. Sometimes it's easier to have the discussion (or for the kid to want the discussion) when you're not the parent. I am a primary care provider who sees a lot of teens.

    Maybe some of the teaching is very subtle (like when you say above -- you don't push the sexual discussions when the kid is not comfortable. But in doing so you are actually modeling appropriate respect for boundaries. And of course knowing how to set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others is one of those fundamental points that sexually active persons need to know.)

    Some of the more interesting conversations I have had with teens were cases where I was helping them see that they had a wider range of choices than they thought they had. For example, the idea that even if you've already been sexually active, you still get to make a separate decision with each partner, whether or not you want to have sex with that person.

    It is sad, but a lot of times they just expect they are doing what is expected; they wouldn't say they are being pressured but they don't realize that they even have a choice. I would say a lot of my teens come from families where the parent is (or has been) herself pretty disempowered in relationships/jobs/etc. so for the kid to see themselves as someone who gets to decide to do one thing or another in ANY behavioral choice is in itself a really big deal.

    A non-sex example that I use a lot is with smoking: a kid smokes, and they don't think they could quit because they always smoke when they get together with their friends. So I ask them, is there anyone in your group of friends who doesn't smoke? And they usually say yes. So then I ask, "Do you and your friends give that person a hard time for not smoking?" and universally they say no. (I have yet to meet a teen who thought they and their friends would perpetrate peer pressure on anyone.) So then I say, "So, if you decided not to smoke, it sounds like your friends would probably be cool with that too." I figure if I can even get them for a split second to picture themselves as a person who is standing around with their friends and has decided not to smoke, that's a step toward seeing themself as a decider, and seeing themself as a possible quitter -- if that's what they want.

    So I am thinking about a set of skills that are relevant to responsible sexuality, but not necessarily ONLY learned in discussions about sex. I think a lot of the stuff you work on all the time with your kids is relevant.


  10. You're in a seriously tough spot between your responsibilities to report him, educate him, keep him safe and to keep your relationship open. I'd love to hear what Gary thinks of this and how he thinks this should be handled.

    Maybe you and Gary need to come to an agreement as to how much he'll tell you and how much you will report. I do think it's wrong that you have to report any of it though. It's a hard call, but it seems to be a violation of his already compromised privacy. Not that you've violated it, but that's the nature of foster care.

    For what it's worth, I started having sex at 14, but it wasn't until I was 16 that I was in a healthy sexual relationship. I think it's important to remember that teenagers can be having good healthy, respectful, caring sex even though it can be difficult for the adults in their life to believe that.

  11. Health Department gives away free condoms at least here.

    Basket of them in bathroom, verbal reminders to wait until adult age and in committed, loving relationship.

    The phrase I heard growing up was "if you don't want to risk being tied to this person for the next 18 years, then don't have sex with them. With your luck, you'll get preggie the first time."

    And because my luck did really suck- I tended to be an ice queen. Maybe yours will luck out the same way, but if not, the basket in the bathroom should prevail.


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