My past two posts have looked at the subject of Teenagers and Sex from the broad perspectives of Context and Sexuality. In this third post on the subject, I will try to deal with a few difficult questions that can be grouped loosely together under the theme of Growing Up.
It is a given for many that adolescence is a time for experimentation, when the parental rules that have governed childhood are either owned or set aside as the teenager develops the personal moral framework that will shape their adult life and guide their decision-making. This is part of the natural process of growing up, part of the journey from childhood to becoming an independent and responsible adult, and it involves a good deal of experimentation. Not surprisingly, this pattern of experimentation extends into the realm of relationships and sex.
At the same time as coming to terms with the changes initiated by puberty, whilst trying to understand the changes in their emotions and feelings, teenagers are trying to figure out a framework for the expression of their developing sexuality. Ultimately, they are trying to determine where they will draw the line about what is acceptable in terms of sex and sexuality – the kind of relationships they will pursue; what kind of conduct they find acceptable for themselves and for others; the kinds of sexual activities in which they will engage and which they will avoid. Their decisions will be influenced to varying degrees by their friends, their family, the communities to which they belong, and the beliefs they hold or are exploring. Some teenagers will play it safe in terms of their sexual experimentation; others will be much more adventurous.
As if the above were not complicated enough, there are other factors at play too! Young people develop at different rates. For most, puberty starts between the ages of 9 and 13 and lasts several years. The age at which puberty arrives can have a large effect on a young person, causing early-developers to feel they have outgrown their peers and late-developers to feel like a child in a group of adults. Differences in developmental age within peer groups influence relationships and sexual exploration, lending kudos within the group to some for their “exploits” and sometimes creating feelings of desperation in others that their biology leads them to being viewed as inexperienced or childlike.
The legal age of consent for sex varies both between and within countries, as do statistics relating to teenage sexual activity. I have seen figures ranging from a third to a half of school-age teenagers claiming to have had sex, and up to 70% for the proportion of school-age teenagers who have experienced some form of sexual activity. There is no ideal age for losing one’s virginity, the average age for which ranges from about 15 (USA) to 17 (Ireland). Attitudes to losing one’s virginity include regarding it as a rite of passage; as an enjoyable experience to be actively sought; as something to be delayed as long as possible; and as an experience to be properly reserved for marriage. Some teenagers take a vow to preserve their virginity until marriage, but it has been suggested that the impact of such vows on sexual experimentation are limited as some young people taking such vows regard them as applying only to full sexual intercourse whilst any other form of sexual activity remains open to exploration.
A further aspect that should be noted is the possible psychological impact for teenagers of engaging in sexual activity. For some, it will be an enjoyable and positive experience, boosting their confidence and laying a sound basis for future relationships. For some, however, it can be a painful or frightening experience for which they were not genuinely ready, yielding a loss of self-confidence and possibly having a long-lasting impact on future adult relationships and sexual encounters.
Advice for parents
Refuse to foster guilt or fear. A cursory glance at websites offering advice about teenagers and sex reveals how easy it is to adopt the approach of fostering guilt or fear. Some sites give the impression that the possibility of pregnancy or of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is pretty much all there is to say about the subject of teenagers and sex. I recognise the importance of teenagers understanding that there can be unwanted consequences from unprotected sex, but I cannot agree that this even begins to approach all that could helpfully be said on the subject. Parents will, of course, want their teenager to be well educated about the dangers and about steps that can be taken to minimise them. However, many parents will agree that if teenagers are given a picture of sex that does not extend beyond the dangers, then they will have been sold well short in terms of a balanced, informative and constructive education on the subject. Fostering guilt or fear as a tool to delay sexual experimentation by teenagers may bring a short-term delay in some cases, but ultimately it risks them entering adulthood with a negative, fearful view of sex that can damage future relationships and bring lasting damage to their relationships with those who fed them that distorted view in the first place.
Seek what is best for the teenager. Most parents will agree the importance of teenagers knowing about contraception ahead of the time it is needed. Many will feel able to talk with their teenagers about contraception to ensure they are well informed. However, this is very different from finding contraceptives in your daughter’s handbag or son’s jacket pocket – and very different from the reaction of some parents when this happens! I remember talking with a parent who had recently taken their teenager to university for the first time. They went together to buy food at a supermarket near the campus, only to see their teenager put a packet of condoms into the trolley “just in case”. It took about half an aisle for the initial shock to subside. This teenager knew about contraception and the importance of having it available should it be needed. They were also sufficiently comfortable to make the purchase with their parents present. This was not something for the parents to be embarrassed or ashamed about, but reassurance that their teenager was well prepared to leave home.
Work to eliminate taboo subjects. Most parents find some subjects easier to raise with their teenagers than others. Even where there is initial discomfort, however, wise parents find ways of broaching the trickier topics from time to time so that there are no taboos and the teenagers know that they can come to the parents if they need to talk – whatever the subject. Among the trickier subjects for many will be those of masturbation and pornography, especially if the parent has walked in unexpectedly and found the former in progress or the latter being viewed – or both!
For many teenagers, masturbation is part of the way they explore their developing bodies in a medically safe way. It seems to be an activity that is engaged in by a large proportion of teenagers and adults, but with very few being prepared to talk about it. If parents should walk in on their teenagers who are thus engaged, in addition to learning to knock first, I suggest acknowledging subsequently what was happening. In all probability, the teenager will be as embarrassed about the incident as the parent, and will probably be relieved that the parent was prepared to raise the subject subsequently rather than pretending it never happened. If a parent is able to raise the subject as part of a conversation under more normal circumstances, then some reassurance about the morally-neutral nature of the activity and of its medical safety as a means of exploration might be a good starting point.
Pornography has become far more readily accessible to today’s teenagers than was ever the case with former generations due its easy availability in the digital age. Statistics suggest that a very large majority of teenagers access pornography at some time or another. Wise parents will raise this subject with their teenagers from time to time, perhaps raising such issues as the difference between popular and hard-core pornography, the objectification of people, and the desensitising effect of repeated exposure to pornography. The most important aspect of pornography for teenagers to understand, I believe, is its illusory nature. The sex in pornographic videos is not real sex; it is staged. The biggest danger for most teenagers, therefore, is that they expect their own sexual experiences to reflect what they see in pornographic material, which will lead almost inevitably to disappointment and possibly to them making unreasonable demands on partners.
Both the above topics have the potential to become powerful taboo subjects within families. Taboos prevent communication, which is never a good thing in terms of the parent-teenager relationship. I recognise the discomfort many will experience in raising such subjects, but I believe that if by raising them, teenagers get the message that they can always talk with their parents if they need to, whatever the subject, then a few uncomfortable conversations will come to be seen as having been well worthwhile.
Beware of sending mixed messages. Within several of the areas discussed above, the danger of sending mixed messages is apparent. That is also the case when the subject of sleepovers comes up, especially when older teenagers are requesting that their current partners be permitted to “sleep over”, which everyone knows is often not really about sleeping, but about some level or other of sexual activity. The knee-jerk response of some parents to such requests will be “Not under my roof!” but that is a dangerous response because it is open to several interpretations. It could be taken to mean that the parents believe the proposed activity to be wrong under any circumstances, in which case they should say that calmly and give reasons. However, it could be seen as sending the message that the parents are not comfortable with their teenager having sex and wish to be shielded from such knowledge by it taking place in someone else’s house. The danger, of course, is that it could be interpreted to mean that sex behind the bins at the back of the local supermarket is ok, whatever the dangers of sex in such inauspicious circumstances.
However difficult some parents might find it to confront issues liked those discussed above, when it comes to talking with their teenagers about sexual matters, I would advise that the aim should be for clear communication. Parents will sometimes feel embarrassed about the subject matter, but for the sake of their teenagers, they will push beyond their embarrassment. Stating clearly what they believe and explaining why, even if it takes several conversations for this to be achieved, is important. Even where the teenager will not hear the reasons or heed the advice, the fact that the parents overcame their discomfort and tried to communicate clearly sends a powerful message about the value they place on their teenager and of the importance of sex in human relationships.
Advice for Teachers and Schools
Sex education. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015 made the point that “Teenagers … said they felt let down by school sex education that is too narrowly focused on biology and risk-prevention messages”. There has been a welcome increase of late in discussion of the need to expand the scope of sex education in schools so that it includes more than “the basics” about sex and anchors sex more firmly in the context of human relationships. This is an area that schools have traditionally avoided, but which carries the potential for them to make an enormous contribution to the preparation of young people for life in the modern world. As a first step, I would encourage schools to begin a dialogue with parents with the aim of developing a mutual understanding of the aims and approaches of sex education in school, which is properly understood as complementary to, rather than being in competition with, the role of parents in this area.
Establishing the boundaries of acceptability. Schools have an important role to play in helping teenagers develop an understanding of the boundaries of acceptability. Public displays of affection (PDA) occur in all school communities at some time or other. In part, PDA stems from an inability of teenagers to exercise easy and effective control over their developing hormonal drives. It is also due to the fact that, at the same time as coming to terms with all the changes of adolescence, they need to develop their understanding of what types of behaviour are regarded as acceptable in various branches of human society. School is the workplace for teenagers and part of being educated in a school is learning the behaviour that is considered acceptable for the work environment. The best teachers develop ways of challenging excessive PDA that enable the teenagers to learn the boundaries while not feeling humiliated or victimised in the process.
Being there when it matters. Teachers are sometimes the ones to whom teenagers will turn when they need someone in whom they can confide. Teachers will know that this is an area in which their own self-awareness is of great importance. If a teacher becomes uncomfortable about the level of personal support a student is seeking, or feels that the depth of intimate detail being revealed by a student is inappropriate, they should pass the student to someone else for support. Additionally, teachers should develop their own systems of safe practice to reduce the risk of being accused of behaving unprofessionally, and schools should require such safe practice from their teachers. With all that having been said, however, there are times when teenagers turn to teachers for support or help. Being there for a student when it matters is one of the aspects of teaching that for many gives a level of job satisfaction which those outside the teaching profession will often find it difficult to appreciate fully.