Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor of sociology at NC State and author of the new book “Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers.” The Abstract has previously featured Sinikka’s research on “hooking up” and parental views of teen sexuality.
1). Parents aren’t all hardliners when it comes to school-based sex education. Debates about what kind of sex education schools should offer tend to depict parents as polarized – favoring either abstinence-until-marriage sex education or a comprehensive curriculum that includes information about contraception. Yet the parents I spoke with for my book blur these lines.
One father I interviewed identified as very conservative and a devout Catholic. He is raising his teen son in the Catholic faith and, as he put it, “condoms aren’t part of that equation.” As such, he is opposed to school-based sex education that teaches about contraception. Yet he’s also deeply uncertain about whether his son will abstain from sex until marriage. Part of his uncertainty comes from his son’s sexual curiosity: he has routinely asked his parents questions about sex and he’s been caught on numerous occasions watching pornography. The dad also views his son as a follower and worries about sexually aggressive girls pushing him into sex. So even though he initially said he is opposed to his son learning about contraception in school, he later admitted being relieved that his son is getting this information somewhere.
I also spoke with a mother who identified as very liberal and, as a pro-sex health educator, gave state-wide talks encouraging girls to “just say yes” to sex. She wants her teen daughters to feel sexually empowered, yet she also worries that sex will not be safe or pleasurable for her daughters until they are older and hopes they wait to have sex until at least college.
Parents’ uncertainty about what kind of sex education is best for their children and their concerns about their teen children’s well-being serve as important counterpoints to the abstract and divisive battles over sex education; it points to the important role sex education can play in young people’s lives and it also points to the need to rethink our ideas about teen sexuality. Why do we teach teens about sexuality? What do we hope to accomplish in doing so?
2). “The talk” is not a one-time conversation. It is a series of conversations that parents and teens have about sex. Parents often do initiate at least one big, planned talk – covering things like the anatomy of sex, the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy, the benefits of abstinence, and the importance of using contraception. But plenty of informal, impromptu conversations about sex are also happening at home. Like the big talk, the bulk of these conversations focus on the dangers of sex.
Parents told me they want their teens to know about sex because they want them to be informed about the risks associated with it. When I asked parents if they ever talked with their teens about pleasure, I was essentially laughed out of the room. Parents believe their teens learn enough about pleasure in the media and elsewhere; their job is to teach them about the risks of sex. Yet frank conversations about the pleasures of having a body and of respecting and enjoying it can bring a dose of realism to the distorted images of pleasure in the media. Talking about pleasure can also bring some balance to parents’ risk-based talk and may increase teens’ sense that their parents are being open and honest with them. Nevertheless parents should be prepared for some resistance to these talks.
3). Teens are active participants in “the talk” – including actively resisting it. When parents raise the topic of sex, they say their children act mortified and protest that they don’t need or want this information from their parents. During one conversation I recorded between a mother and her teen son, the son told his mother he didn’t want to talk with her about sex and held his hands over his ears saying “la, la, la, la” to tune her out.
Yet some research suggests that once they are in their twenties, young people say they wish they had talked more with their parents about sex – including talking about their parents’ sex lives. But teens aren’t the only ones who are uncomfortable talking about sex. Many parents are also reluctant to have these conversations and uncomfortable during them – sex is not an easy thing to talk about in our culture. Despite the ubiquity of sexual images and messages in our culture, there’s still a lot of shame attached to talking openly and frankly about sex. Acknowledging this discomfort can help alleviate some of it (joking helps too!).
4). “The talk” doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Although parents are held responsible for teaching their children about sex, parents can face stigma and scrutiny for their sexual lessons. For example, some of the parents I interviewed were reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) because people thought their kids were too knowledgeable about sex.
One mother taught her 5-year-old son to use the correct terms for genitalia and explained very basic components of human anatomy to him. But when the boy used these terms in his kindergarten class – telling the boys, “You can’t go in the bathroom. There’s a girl in there and that girl has a vagina, not a penis, so you can’t go in the bathroom with her” – the teacher reported his mother to CPS for possible child sexual abuse. CPS mounted a full investigation, eventually exonerating the mother, but the accusation left her feeling bruised and uncertain.
If parents can’t teach their kids about bodies and sex, who can? The argument that conversations about sex are a personal matter best left to parents’ discretion in the privacy of the home ignores the fact that most of us interact with public institutions – like schools – and that our public and private lives aren’t separate from one another: what happens in the public arena shapes private lives and vice versa. And currently there is a widespread belief that sexuality is dangerous, contagious, and corrupting, especially to the young. Parents have to make decisions about what, when, and how to talk with their children about sex within this context.
5). Parents aren’t always sure what to say during “the talk” – but want to keep their children safe. Even parents with very strong beliefs about sex expressed a great deal of uncertainty about how best to guide their children’s sexuality. Many parents told me they like the simplicity and lack of moral ambiguity involved in telling their teen children to abstain from sex until marriage or adulthood, but they are also deeply unsure about how realistic this is and whether it adequately prepares teens to deal with sex. One mother had her teen daughters sign contracts promising to abstain from sex until they had graduated from high school, but she also took them to Planned Parenthood and has talked with them about contraception.
It should come as no surprise that parents feel responsible for keeping their teen children safe. They want their children to get good educations, find good jobs, and live happy, fulfilled lives. And they hear a great deal about how sex can ruin a young person’s life, and that teenagers are vessels of raging hormones “raring to go,” as one mother put it.
But while parents’ sense of moral accountability for ushering their children safely to adulthood makes sense, it might make it harder for parents to talk about sex with their teens. Rather than insist that parents should be responsible for “the talk,” we should consider what would make it easier for parents and youth to have these conversations – such as a strong social safety net, an economy that provides optimism and opportunity for all, quality, affordable healthcare, and less shame, blame, and fear about sex in the public discourse. And we should also make sure that teens are getting information about sexuality in a wide variety of other venues.