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Thursday, May 18, 2006

The state of teenage sexuality

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a series of articles on sexuality education and sexual health of young people in the United States. They made a big deal of the international comparison in which the US shows much higher rates of teen-pregnancy, abortion, STD’s and other indicators, showing that whatever the US is trying to do to improve sexual health, it’s not working. That is, if sexual health is indeed the goal of ignorance-only sex education, which I don’t think it is, but that is a story in itself.

The Post then posts in this series an article to tell parents what to do and that list of advice is worth looking at:

  • Be clear about your own sexual values and attitudes.

  • Talk early and often with your children about sex.

  • Help teenagers find options for their future that are more attractive than early pregnancy and parenthood.

  • Let your teens know that you value education.

  • Know what your kids are watching, reading and listening to.

  • Supervise and monitor your children.

  • Know your children's friends and their families.

  • Discourage early, frequent and steady dating.

  • Build close, caring relationships with your children early in childhood.

What is completely absent from this list is any notion that a teenager will develop his and her own sexuality. The emphasis is so much on instilling values of the parents—supposedly higher values than teenagers’ values are, on control and supervision, knowing friends and their families. That one kills me. You have to know the families of your childrens’ friends. For what? To see if they “promote” sex? To see if they are of good stock?

There is not sentiment that growing up means becoming a sexual person who has to her and his own sexual choices. Supporting someone in their own development rather than claiming to shape the development of the young person makes more sense. Let’s face it, no matter how lofty your values, instilling them without dialogue or curiosity about the young person’s sexuality will create resistance. It is inevitable and in some sense even healthy for the young person. Without the resistance, they would not develop into the unique persons they are.

Young people have to learn first and foremost to say yes to their sexuality, which is not the same as saying yes to sex. Without embracing your sexuality as a wonderful and also terrifying part of yourself no one can make good choices about their sexuality. Choices will always be driven by some outside notion. If it is not the parents’ ideas and values—which we assume are lofty, but do we know that—then other outsiders can make sexual decisions for you.

You can only really say no, if you can say yes to your sexuality.

Most of the data came from the Guttmacher Institute. A terrific resource.

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