Teenage Sex

4 minute read
Amy Dickinson

First, the good news. The National Center for Health Statistics concluded, in a survey released last week, that girls ages 15 to 17 had the lowest birth rate in 40 years. Finally, messages about abstinence and contraception seem to have caught on: 80% of the decline in teen pregnancy is attributed to more birth control. So let’s take a minute, parents and teens, to pat ourselves on the back. Done? Good. Now let’s get back to work, because here’s the rest of the story.

While teen pregnancy is down, there is evidence that kids are still having sex at a young age. In a recent survey, more than a third of ninth-graders said they have had intercourse. Anecdotes and news reports from around the country suggest that oral sex is currently in vogue among schoolkids. In a recent survey by Planned Parenthood, 10% of self-described virgins admitted having oral sex–some in their early teens. Peter Sheras, professor of adolescent development at the University of Virginia, says many teens have become desensitized. Oral sex “might mean what a French kiss meant to us when we were kids,” he says. Teens often shrug and say that oral sex never made anyone pregnant. Parents need to remind them, though, that it can transmit dread diseases, including HIV and the papilloma virus, against which even condoms offer little protection.

My first glimpse into the mysteries of sex came when I was 10 and wandered into our barn to see a veterinarian artificially inseminating a long row of dairy cows. That’s when I first suspected that sex is not for the fainthearted. The most difficult moments of my parenthood (so far) involved my fumbling attempts to discuss sex with my adolescent daughter. But I know that kids take their views and values from their parents. They look to us for direction. So we have to talk.

The professionals always say to be open, honest and a good listener. What they don’t say is how hard that can be. Maybe, like me, you’re mortified at your own geekiness. Maybe you’re afraid of sounding judgmental, priggish or foolish. So start small. Debra Haffner, author of the terrific book From Diapers to Dating, says parents should avoid “the big talk” and instead take advantage of everyday “teachable moments.” Three-year-olds should be taught the proper names for their body parts, and five-year-olds should know basically where babies come from. Don’t give young children more information than is appropriate, but always answer their questions.

Your adolescent may tell you he knows it all, so next time you’re driving him to band practice, ask what kids do at parties or what he thinks of sexual images he sees on TV or in movies. Talk to your daughter about friendship, love, sex and the spaces between. “Don’t turn it into an ‘organ recital.’ It’s more about relationships than plumbing,” Haffner says. If you feel you’ve got a late start, use that as an opener.

When a friend of mine spoke about sex with her 13-year-old daughter, who protested that she already knew everything, my friend said, “That’s fine, but now I want you to hear these things from me.” What a great answer! A conversation about sex is a perfect time to convey your values to your kids. It’s far better for them to learn the facts of life from you than from Ally McBeal, the Starr Report, Billy in biology class or…a veterinarian and a barn full of cows.

See our website at time.com/personal for more about teens and sex. You can send Amy an e-mail at timefamily@aol.com

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