In this article, the first of several under the general heading Teenagers and Sex, I wish to focus on context. I am not talking here about dimming the lights or playing soft music, but rather about the way a teenager’s attitude and approach to sex are shaped by a much broader context. This broader context includes how they perceive and behave towards people generally. It also involves the beliefs of the society, cultures, communities, and family to which they belong. Also influential are the quality and sources of the information they receive about sex, about health issues relating to sexual activity and about their safety and that of others. I believe it is an easy mistake to treat sex as an isolated aspect of life rather than seeing it as part of life as a whole. Both parents and teachers are key participants in helping to shape that broader context for our teenagers with regard to sexual activity.
Beginning in the area of relationships, the first key word for consideration is respect. Respect values oneself and others as people, leading to genuine regard for well-being, wholeness of relationships, and integrity of feelings and personality. With regard to sex, respect is important for the protection it affords against the objectification of others that can lead to them being seen and treated as objects to be used for pleasure or gratification. Respect gives a perspective on sexual activity that understands it as an aspect of relationships between people rather than as an isolated activity.
Respect leads on to the subject of consent, our second key word. The recent rise of the #MeToo movement has led to an increased awareness generally about the importance of consent. Leaving aside for the moment any debate about what constitutes consent, it is important that teenagers understand early-on the importance of the concept of consent with regard to sexual encounters. Those whose general approach to other people is characterised by respect are more likely to appreciate fully the need for consent, and to understand that there is never a place for coercion when it comes to this particular area of life and relationships. The widespread reporting in recent months of non-consensual sexual encounters, sometimes relating to incidents going back decades, should serve as a reminder of the crucial importance of genuine consent when it comes to any form of sexual activity.
A further constituent element of the broader context with regard to sexual activity is that of information. Teenagers are at the stage in life where they experience the development of their sexuality, which provokes exploration and a search for information. They need to understand what is happening to their changing body and how those changes impact on their relationships with others. We live in an age of information. The Internet has given teenagers in many societies around the world easy access to almost unlimited information. Such easy availability of information, however, creates problems of its own. There is no quality control on the information available online and those in search of information are often not in a position to distinguish between high and poor quality information on a particular subject. The possible life-long impact on teenagers of poor choices in the area of sexual activity ought to caution us that this is too serious a subject for it to be left to chance that high quality information might be stumbled across.
The fourth and final key word for the purposes of the present discussion of the broader context for sexual activity is safety. Recent figures of falling numbers of teenage pregnancies has led to some speculation that the current generation of teenagers is having less sex than previous generations. However, nobody really knows the reason for the decline in these numbers, and the speculation about teenagers engaging in less sex sits uneasily alongside the current rise of incidences, in many western societies, of sexually transmitted infections. The importance of protection against such physical risks is known widely amongst teenagers, but frequently ignored. Far more difficult to quantify, however, are the psychological risks than can ensue from sexual activity that has been coerced, entered upon in the heat of the moment, or simply experienced before the teenager was genuinely ready.
Advice for parents
It is probably embarrassment that causes some parents to fear the time their children will reach the stage that the “big talk” about sex becomes unavoidable any longer. Whilst the big talk approach might work for some, I suggest that for many, it may not be the best approach. Investing so much significance in one occasion is likely to heighten any feelings of awkwardness for both parent and child. Many, I believe, would find it more comfortable, and hence probably more effective, to try throughout the pre-teenage years to answer questions honestly and age-appropriately as they arise naturally in conversation and so to impart information in stages as the child develops. The approach will vary from person to person, since we are all different. However it is done, it is important that parents do not duck the responsibility to ensure that information is conveyed in such a way that their children understand, before they reach the teenage years, not just the mechanics but also the place of sex within relationships, how safe sex can be practised and in such a way that consenting sexual partners are affirmed rather than objectified or used. Teenagers are resourceful, and if the information they seek is not made available to them, they will go out and find it. Many parents will feel that their own feelings of awkwardness are a small price to pay to ensure their teenagers are well informed about sexual activity ahead of the time the information is needed. Any list of alternative sources of information is likely to be headed by their friends or, for many, by whichever porn site is most popular amongst their friends at the time. In the area of sex, neither should be regarded as a reliable source.
The parental role in this area is far broader than simply conveying information. Children and teenagers are observant. They notice both the good and the bad aspects of how their parents relate to each other and to those outside the immediate family. None of us is perfect and we all make mistakes, but our teenagers will be aware of the general approach to others that is followed by their parents: whether it is one of respect, whether it uses others for their own ends or whether it regards others generally as worthless. Teenagers do not automatically accept the approaches they see in their parents, but the approaches to life modelled by their parents over the years has a far stronger effect than many of us might find comfortable.
Alongside the behaviour of parents, family values also play an important role with regard to the way teenagers view other people and sexual activity. Family values have often evolved over generations and are frequently bound up with those of a variety of communities with which the parents identify themselves. These could include the close family including former generations, faith communities, ethnic groups as well as a variety of friendship groups. Some of these communities will be more influential in terms of shaping opinion than others, some intentionally so. Whatever the influences that have contributed to the shaping of the family values, there comes a point for (often older) teenagers when they will choose whether to accept or reject those values. A dogmatic approach that such values are not up for debate can prove counter-productive, provoking an outright rejection in some cases. Once again, I believe it is important that teenagers understand not just what the family values are, but why particular values are held to be important. With regard to sex, understanding why certain values are held to be right, especially if backed up by the way they are modelled by their parents, can prove an invaluable foundation to teenagers who are trying to find their way forward in life through a maze of conflicting opinions and approaches.
I believe it is important that parents ensure their teenagers are well equipped in advance of their first sexual encounters with information and life values that will help them make well-informed decisions. Ultimately, teenagers will make decisions for themselves about their sexual partners and practices. If parents can ensure that their teenagers arrive at decision-making points with good quality information and life values that are built around respect for themselves and for others, then they will have provided a good foundation for those decisions. Whilst there will always be debate about sexual activity and its place in the lives of teenagers, there should be no room for doubt that sex without consent is always wrong and that safety is an aspect that should always be considered.
Advice for teachers and schools
Teachers have an important part to play in helping to shape the broader context discussed above. The teenage social world can sometimes be brutal and how sex is viewed and used within it, likewise. The respect shown by teachers to their students, and expected in the classroom from teenagers with regard to their peers, can be an important factor in helping to build a culture of respect. Life does not break down into clearly defined, distinct units. Building a culture of respect within a school community can contribute to the outlook and approach shown by teenagers to others, even in the field of their sexual encounters.
Additionally, where appropriate, whether in conversations or class discussions, teachers have the opportunity to make clear some of the essentials such as consent and safety. Many teenagers have great respect for their teachers and listen to their views. Clear statements about non-negotiable elements can be a powerful factor in shaping the way teenagers approach the subject of sex.
Most schools these days incorporate sex education into their curricula at a variety of levels. There is a tendency to focus more on teaching the mechanics, which perhaps feels safer, and has its own value. However, I would encourage schools not to shy away from discussion of the broader context, which is possible without being prescriptive in approach. Today’s teenagers have grown up in the information age, but that does not mean they are well-informed, and sex is an area where it is important that they are helped to distinguish between high and poor quality information and to weigh which approaches affirm, and which denigrate, others and themselves. Schools can make a valuable contribution in this area and there is room for more creativity in developing sound educational ways for this to happen.