April 8, 2012

Teenagers and Sex. What’s Love Got to Do With It?

I work with teenagers as a psychologist.  I have my ear to the ground and hear their most intimate secrets.  I listen to the struggles of both young men and women.  When therapy works, it is a safe place where even the most intimate fears and behaviors can be disclosed.  Sex is one of the most poignant topics that emerges.  As adults we often grapple with our sexuality; what role it has in our lives, how we feel about our bodies, how it affects our relationships.  Imagine, then, how much more difficult it can be for younger people with less experience, independence and confidence.

Our society gives such terribly mixed messages.  Many families still teach young women that sex is out of bounds, unsafe, unwise yet the American culture glorifies, commercializes and emphasizes sexuality in so many areas.  Explicit sexuality is rampant now on network television.  Situation comedies are very often sexual situations.  I still remember my shock one day when I was listening to a catchy song on the radio, not paying any attention to the lyrics when all of a sudden I realized that the song was extolling the joys of sex with threesomes.  This is now modern top 40 music-uncensored, unfettered and widely available to every ten year old.  But parents still are scared to talk about sex with their kids or wait until they are sixteen?!  TV, movies, advertising all put sex front and center in the popular culture.  The media gives the impression that sex is all that everybody is doing and thinking about.

So, yes, sex must be talked about but so must we also talk about relationships and the role of sex in deepening and bonding those relationships.   Parents often seem to be reluctant to discuss this area as well.  Amy Schalet is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and studies and writes about teen sexuality.  She has a wonderful editorial in the April 7 New York Times on sex and teenage boys, “Caring, Romantic American Boys.”  Her research reveals that sexual experimentation among boys in their mid teens (15 to 17)  has decreased in the last decades.  Part of the reason is fear of pregnancy and disease but another survey, cited by Schalet, states that four of ten American boys between the ages of 15 and 19 stated they had not had sexual intercourse yet because they had not met the right person.  This is certainly encouraging news!  Her article is about the need of young men to have caring, loving relationships.

Just as our society has tried to give women the right to claim their own sexuality and pursue sex for their own pleasure and need as opposed to an effort to please the males in their life, so must we help our boys accept that they are not less manly if caring about someone and wanting to share sex as part of a loving relationship is their priority.  All men are NOT dogs.  Both men and women achieve the highest level of life satisfaction from a caring supportive partnership with another loving human being.  Research repeatedly confirms this.  Health, financial stability, success all can help contribute to a good life but large scale surveys consistently report that people find their greatest happiness from their close relationships.  Boys have often gotten the message in a misogynistic culture that it is not masculine to crave love and tenderness, that to “be a man” means to seek lots of sex and not feel connected to their partner.  What emptiness and sadness that can lead to for both men and women!

I am not advocating against recreational sex.  I believe it has a place in our lives, even for adolescents.  Not every sexual relationship need be a committed caring activity.  There are times and places in our lives when sex strictly for fun and pleasure can be perfectly fine, especially when the other person is not being exploited.  What I think is important is to give developing young people the support and validation they need to explore all areas of their sexuality and emotional needs in a way that is safe and life affirming for them and their situation and development.

Sex remains treacherous and challenging for young women who are still easily labeled as sluts for sexual experimentation but also as immature and uncool if they are reluctant to be sexually venturesome.  So often parents are shy about speaking about sex to their adolescent children.  Don’t abdicate your responsibility in this important area of your children’s lives.  Make efforts to talk about sex often and easily.  Look for opportunities, don’t wait for a one time major “talk.”  The more of an ongoing dialogue, the better for your relationship and the more opportunity young people have to explore ideas and develop their values.  And remember, love and caring are an essential part of the conversation-even with boys!

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