Just what are we teaching our kids about sex?

Abstinence-only programs may be peddling more fear than education.
Publish date:
April 16, 2012
teenagers, abstinence only programs, Sex,

A few weeks ago, a friend hosted a small gathering of ladies in her kitchen—your quintessential suburban soccer mom happy hour. Her teenage son wandered into this gaggle of women on his way out for the evening. While he was very polite (and good-naturedly put up with our teasing), he was hellbent on a quick escape. And just as he thought he successfully cleared the door, his aunt yelled out to him, “Have fun! Don’t get anybody pregnant!”

He looked back at us with a startled look and yelled, “GROSS!”

It was quite a parting shot—and we all laughed. But there was something about the way he said “gross” that got under my skin. There was more to his tone than just an “Oh-my-goodness-adults-just-alluded-to-sex-please-kill-me-now” thing. It was deeper than that, more visceral. Something that, as I mulled it over later that evening, sounded almost like fear. And while it bothered me a bit, I soon put it out of my mind.

Until I read Amy T. Schalet’s recent column in the New York Times, aptly entitled, “Caring, Romantic American Boys,” that is. In the piece, Schalet talks about the fact that teenage boys are waiting longer and longer to pop their proverbial cherries. She says:

In fact, the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth found that more than one-third of teenage boys, but only one-quarter of teenage girls, cited wanting to avoid pregnancy or disease as the main reason they had not yet had sex. Fear about sex was intensified by the AIDS crisis and by sex education that portrayed sex outside of heterosexual marriage as risky. Combined with growing access to pornography via the Internet, those influences may have made having sex with another person seem less enticing.

But after going through some of the fear stuff, she concludes that young men are embracing a more romantic outlook on sex and relationships. They are as much into that gooey love stuff as the teen girls are. And Schalet seemed to be suggesting this change in mindset was actually quite sweet.

Forgive me if I think that these changes in boys (and, for the record, changes we see in teenage girls, too) are as much bitter as they are sweet. I can’t help but wonder if all this love talk from boys is some kind of fear-based deflection—a way to avoid speaking directly about the mysteries of sex. Or, worse, a semantic mirage of sorts—because educational programs now insist on teaching sex education wrapped up in the words of love and romance, kids today can only ask questions about sex couched in those romantic words that we give them.

Popular sex writer Susie Bright (known to the masses as “Susie Sexpert”) linked to Schalet’s piece on her personal Facebook page. (Full disclosure: We’re Facebook friends and she offered me permission to quote her here). She introduced the link to Schalet’s piece with the following note:

’Not Being Able to Find Your Dick With Both Hands’ is a problem I have been talking about for two decades now. We have a whole class/generation of developmentally stunted young people. This isn't romantic, it's tragic. It's not just losing their virginity, it's not having a clue about their penis, masturbation, interest in being a good, giving and game lover, embrace sexual desire, body acceptance, etc., etc. It’s a freaking dystopic nightmare!”

While I wouldn’t have worded it so strongly, I happen to agree. And I blame a lack of proper sex education for the whole mess. I worry that if this war against sex continues—and we continue to promote abstinence-only sexual education (which, as study after study demonstrates, doesn’t even work)—our children are going to have even more trouble than we do when it comes to navigating sex, relationships and intimacy.

Simply put, our goal should not be to scare the bejeezus out of kids when it comes to sex. Or unequivocally tie it to love (especially only that vanilla heterosexual variety). Sex is scary enough without the all the added pressure—or the dishonesty. And we can’t continue to say that sex is only okay within the confines of heterosexual love and/or marriage. That’s not preparing kids for the actual world that is out there, or the bodies they inhabit.

I know sex can be dangerous. Sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, romantic rejection, overwhelming emotion, sexual assault—sex has its risks and I’m not trying to downplay that. And I agree that adolescents need to be educated about those risks so they make informed and healthy decisions. But current programs often do so at the expense of the act itself. And that’s going to result in more than just "caring, romantic American boys"—I fear it'll result in a new generation of adults incapable of real attachment, even while they wax poetic about the power of love.

Sex is a biological drive—it is a natural act that not only helps us propagate the species, but form strong bonds with others. And, as much as we may want to pretend otherwise, our kids are going to eventually do it. They may even do so outside a “traditional relationship.” They need to know that it’s okay, that we all fumble as we explore this new territory, that desire is a powerful thing in its own right—even if sex has consequences. Especially since sex has consequences.

We, as adults, parents, educators, voters and legislators, need to offer them the right vocabulary and direction so they can explore and learn about their sexuality in a healthy way—and understand that sex, even when adults mention it, is not “gross.”