Monday, June 01, 2009

Beyond Abstinence and Condoms

Okay, first, I know that sex education classes of whatever stripe cover more than just abstinence and/or condoms, but we don't talk about it much do we? I've been thinking about this as I've been writing about teens and sex, which I do just about every time I have a new teen making me confront the issues teens face about sex all over again.

Evan made me face it directly when he got into the car after a very comprehensive sex education program at the GLBT youth group. They had given him every piece of information he could possibly need. He knew about oral gonorrhea, syphilis rates in our county, Hep B and the use of heavy-duty plastic wrap. He knew that condoms would not protect him from genital warts or lice. I asked him how the class went and he said, "You know, what the people who teach those classes don't understand? They have no idea what it is like to be a teenager. They don't understand romance."

After I was done marveling at how each generation of teens seems to assume that the adults around them were born 30 years old, I explained that they did in fact remember being young and in love. We all did. We remembered that feeling. We knew how difficult it was, and we STILL expected them to use condoms every single time. Evan was surprised and countered that it really wasn't possible to do that. "Talking about condoms ruins the mood." I told him not to talk about it; he didn't need to say anything except maybe "wait a sec." Just grab one and use it. If his partner was the one who needed to wear it, he (Evan) could put it on his partner. Again, no conversation needed. Just put the thing on. I offered to buy him a box and cucumber to practice. I believe his response was, "Is there anything you are uncomfortable talking about?"

No…not anymore.

I've been talking with Gary a lot about consent and coercion. We've talked about how just believing your partner will eventually leave if you don't say yes eventually puts an unacceptable pressure on a young woman. We've disagreed about how a young man should act so as not to create that pressure. Gary points out that repeatedly stating, "it's okay if you don't want to" can create a sort of pressure itself. That wasn't exactly the behavior I wanted to encourage, but the conversation was good. I also told him that women who want sex initiate, or at least participate in initiation. They say they are ready. They take off YOUR clothes. He assured me he had plenty of experience with that. Still, it is something I tell my kids, even my college students. A woman lying quietly and barely moving is probably in shock. That is not what consent looks like.

In my college bioethics class we talked about some pharmacists not wanting to dispense emergency contraceptives. We talked about whether young women would use them monthly if they could. I asked them if a girl could carry condoms herself and not appear to be a slut. Turns out things haven't changed. Good girls don't carry condoms. One young woman told me that her doctor wanted to put her on birth control pills to control her symptoms. She said she argued against it. She was terrified that it would get out at school that she was taking birth control pills. She would be one of "those girls." It would destroy her reputation. She did not tell us what decision she made. I've not yet parented a girl, but I know that is an issue they need to talk about. How can they be prepared to ensure they have safe sex without damaging their reputation? How can they get through the moment that Evan worried about?

When Andrew and Brian were young, they each had a friend who got them into trouble. We had to talk about how to get out of the situation. Just saying no was not enough. They needed more tools to communicate with boys that were their friends. I learned that when Andrew at five kept telling me that just telling his friend no wouldn't work. In frustration I said, "Andrew, if you do those things again I won't let you play with him for a week. You can tell him that for me." Andrew brightened and said, "Can I tell him two weeks?" For Brian techniques like suggesting an alternative looked like it would be more helpful. I don't know that either of these approaches would be helpful for a girl who needed to strategies for asserting herself with a boy she loves, or thinks she loves, but doesn't want to have sex with. (I'm not opposed to the idea that boys may need this conversation. That just is one issue I haven't had to face.) I do know that girls, and probably boys too, need to be told that they don't have to have a reason to draw the line wherever they want to draw it. That you have been okay with a partner doing one thing doesn't mean that you are being silly to say you won't do one thing more.

This of course is just a beginning, but it is part of what teens need. They need to have conversations about how they feel, what they want, and yes, what they value. They need to be able to talk about how to get through the awkward moments, how to handle the pressure, how to extract themselves from situations in which they don't feel safe. And I think they need to know that it is safe to talk to us when it has all gone wrong, when something happened that they did not want to happen. If they were coerced, pressured, even (especially) if they are raped, they need to know we are there for them. They can talk to us and we will help, not judge.

It isn't easy, but it really does get easier. You just have to jump in, start talking. Don't expect them to say much back the first time. Don't be afraid to share your awkward teenage experiences with them. Be prepared to listen. I've found the car to be an excellent place to talk, as I believe I have said before. It allows for limited eye contact and limited means of escape. Of course the boys have figured that out too. They are more likely to bring up what they want to talk about in the car. I don't think I will ever forget talking with Evan about sex in inappropriate places while driving on the freeway in rush-hour traffic.

As I said, this is just a beginning. What can you add? What have your teens needed to know and how have you got the conversations going?


  1. As a 20-something year old I can say that I see the effects of not talking to kids (girls especially) about the emotional preparedness when it come to having sex. I have watched many friends make that choice and then regret it because of emotional consequences they weren't really prepared to handle. (The "once you've crossed the line, you can't go back" line of thinking is sadly alive and well.) I've also seen the effects of girls who made that decision too young (like 13) and how it effects their relationships today (at 28). I think 'sex ed' isn't really going to be effective until we talk just as much about emotions (ones you have before, during and after) as we do about STDs and Birth Control.

  2. I think Dr. Laura Berman's approach is really helpful for parents to learn how to talk to their kids. And although it was very controversial I also agree with allowing teenage girls to take control over their bodies and learn about sexual response.

    I think another important part of all of this is having a place where kids can go and get free condoms or get tested, like Planned Parenthood. But hopefully they feel that they could talk to their parents about sex and know how important it is to protect themselves. I also feel that if a teenage couple are going to be sexually active and they have had previous partners they should make a pact to get tested first and share the results with each other. But probably only in a perfect world... :)

  3. All of this is great and as a parent of a 13 year old boy, and appreciating these posts. Our big struggle here right now is that he is questioning his sexuality and has been surfing gay porn on the internet...

  4. Stacy, depending on his reading level I recommend "What If Someone I Know Is Gay" by Eric Marcus for him and "Always My Child" by Jennings and Shapiro for you.

    If he is to old for "What if..." the "Is it a Choice" also by Eric Marcus might be good. Both ANSWER QUESTIONS people ask, which I find is a place many people need to start.

    There is also quite a bit of good fiction for gay teens, but if he is at the questioning stage he might not be interested. If he is, check out Rainbow High as a start.

  5. Yondalla- Thanks for the info. I will look into these for him. He is struggling and we have found him on message boards and such that are not appropriate for him at his age...

  6. Anonymous1:52 PM

    Yondalla, you are my hero!

  7. I think it's awesome that you put so much thought into that kind of thing. I am that (apparent) freak of nature, a nineteen year old virgin who hasn't deliberately engineered such a state of affairs for religious reasons. My parents were very good at educating me about the technicalities of sex - which I was taught about from about the age of three onwards (my little sister was born, I wanted to know how and why, my parents weren't squeamish about explaining). They were much LESS good about the emotional aspects, and it's been problematic. My first relationship broke down a while back largely due to my total inability to communicate my needs to my girlfriend, so we never did get further than making out - though I would have liked to go further, I was never able to feel comfortable enough to do so because I was never able to explain what I needed from her.

    I learned a lot from that experiance, but I would have been a LOT more prepaired if I'd understood the importance of being able to SAY what you need in those situations - if I'd had the first idea of how to start those conversations. But I didn't even know you NEEDED that kind of communication, let alone how to have it in the first place, so it took me completely unawares and led to no small amount of heartache. =/

  8. Well at the risk of being run off as too old fashioned or religious I am ging to make my comment. There is a wonderful movement underfoot called courtship. It is dedicated to bringing back the art of courship where children, teens and young adults do not give away parts of their heart, much less their bodies, to those but one who is suitable to marry. It's not politically correct and only just now making a slow but growing movement into society at large.

    If you are interested in this you might want to check out 'I Kissed Dating Goodbye' by Josh Harris.

    I do not and will not debate this point, but would be happy to answer any legitimate questions on the subject that I can.

    In His peace - Cindy
    MoM(Mom of Many)

  9. Don't worry Cindy. I have no need or desire to debate you either. I think it is a lovely idea and would be happy to support any teen who wanted to make that choice, and I have no problem with parents encouraging their kids to follow that path.

  10. When I was having sex in high school, my boyfriend and I *always* used condoms--mainly because he was terrified of statutory rape charges (which in his experience mainly came about after pregnancy). In retrospect I realize that if he had insisted on unsafe sex, there's a good chance I would've gone along with it. I loved the attention he gave me and a certain amount of good sense went out the window in my desperation to keep it coming. That said, the decision to have sex in the first place was entirely consensual. Unfortunately the existence of statutory rape laws did factor into my decision to not take my mom up on her standing offer to get me birth control--if I had admitted I was sexually active, it would've put him at risk. (I was 16 and he was only 3 years older than me. In retrospect I don't think it was even illegal, but we weren't what the law was at the time.)

  11. Just to clarify--because I think my last comment probably seems internally contradictory--I think it's possible to initially decide to have sex for all the right reasons (or at least not-so-bad reasons, in the case of a 16 y/o), but *continue* to have a sexual relationship for all the wrong reasons.

    (I also think that differences in sophistication, etc., are certainly correlated with age, but age shouldn't be the deciding factor. Those differences definitely existed in my case, but I still don't think activities such as ours should've been even potentially illegal.)

    Sorry for this whole digression; I just wanted to clarify...

  12. I found this pots really interesting and was surprised to see a very relevant survey in today's Globe and Mail ( - you'll have to go to the homepage and click on the article on the left hand column, I can't seem to paste the link.

  13. All of your posts about teens and sex are really interesting to read. I'm going to really generalise things now, I don't have data to support what I think, just my personal experiences. Sorry for the long comment, but I wanted to be somewhat thorough.

    I live in Austria, Europe and we Europeans seems to be more open or maybe less up-tight when it comes to sex. We learn about sex, all forms of contraceptives, STD's in school, I think by the age of 13/14 and every biology teacher is required to teach about that. I'm sure that I got lucky because we had a great teacher who taught us a lot about the hormons and how teens react. It was embarrassing, but we knew all we needed to know and we were able to submit questions anonymously.

    On the other hand, I don't think I ever talked about sex to my parents. I didn't want to and they didn't seem to be eager either. I grew up with older siblings (10 yo older brother, 4 yo older sister), so by the time I was 10 my brother's girlfriend spent the night at our house from time to time. I know that my sister's first steady boyfriend at 16 was also allowed to stay over after they had been dating for a while (3/4/5?? months). My sister took the pill, that's all I know. I had a 'boyfriend' when I was 13 for a few weeks and another one at 14 for actually a few months. The thought of kissing them made me want to puke, so I never did. I thought that I just wasn't ready. Nobody pressured me to kiss them, but eventually both 'relationships' died because of that. I doubt my parents ever knew about them being my boyfriends. At 15, I realized that I was gay. I tried to find information online and at the local lgbt-center about safe lesbian sex, but that's actually harder than you'd think.

    I would have been ready to have sex at 17 or 18, but since I didn't have a girlfriend and never met anyone interested in me, I 'had' to wait till I was 21. I do regret that in some ways, because falling in love is so different when you're a teenager and I feel like I missed out. Now I'm in a really serious relationship and even though we haven't been dating for that long (6 months), we talk about marriage and kids as very realistic options in the future. With my girlfriend, knowing what I knew about her, I took the risk of not using any protection because I knew that she would have known by now if she had an std (the last time she had sex was very long ago). I was aware of the risk that I took, because I just trusted her, and I took that risk knowingly, also for reasons that I don't want to disclose.

    I totally understand why as a parent, people want to protect their children, mainly their daughters. But I think that when a young woman has all the information that I had and doesn't have a lot of pressure or attention on her virginity, she will probably make the right decision. America seems to have a bit of a problem with that whole virgin/slut idea. I know that at 16/17 there were a few girls in my class who had boyfriends and were sexually active and while we didn't really talk about it (none of my friends had a boyfriend), it wasn't out of the ordinary or anything to talk about really. We certainly didn't think they were sluts.

    I think if you want to protect/educate your children, the way you do it is obviously really great. Again, sorry for the long comment, I got a little carried away.


Comments will be open for a little while, then I will be shutting them off. The blog will stay, but I do not want either to moderate comments or leave the blog available to spammers.