The Sex Lives of Teenagers

September 8th, 2009

book_SexLivesCover“If you really want to know what teenagers think about sex, this is the book to read.”
– Michael Thompson, PhD, coauthor of Raising Cain

“A frank, clear-eyed book on a topic that remains all but taboo.  Dr. Ponton models a posture for listening to teenagers and talking sympathetically with them about issues that arouse extraordinary anxiety.”
– Peter D. Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac and Should you Leave?

“Superb…An eye-opening view of adolescent sexuality.”
– Library Journal

“The heated adult debates about unwed mothers, sex education, or abstinence often leave out a crucial piece of the puzzle: what the kids are actually feeling.  As Dr. Ponton points out, whether they are sexually active or not, all teenagers have an intense relationship to sexuality, their own and other people’s.”
– Michael Thompson, PhD, author of Speaking of Boys and coauthor of Raising Cain

“Written in a warm, readable, and straightforward style…Invites us to enter the world of sexual thoughts, feelings and behaviors of teenagers from the beginning of their adolescence. Dr. Ponton encourages us to put aside our alarm and our denial so that we may use ourselves as listeners and guides for these teenagers. Her perspective is invaluable.”
– Steven Levenkron, author of Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation

“A fascinating foray into the often tumultuous sex lives of American teens.”
– Kirkus Reviews

Epilogue: Ready or Not

Fifty percent of America’s sixteen-year-olds are having sexual intercourse, a figure that is actually lower than those in many developed countries. The United States excels in one area, however, that of dangerous sexual risk-taking- i.e., unprotected sexual intercourse resulting in unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. For generations, this country has struggled with adolescent risk taking of all types. American culture is defined by risk-taking- the successful pursuit of the American Dream virtually requires it, but we are not a society particularly adept at risk assessment.

The general attitude about risk-taking is only one factor that contributes to higher rates of sexual risk-taking, however. Attitudes about sexuality also play and important role. Our culture is plagued with conflict about how to handle sexuality. Parts of this country are extremely restrictive, discouraging masturbation, homosexuality, and even adolescent sex, and labeling them as crimes, sins or sickness. Adults try to discourage young people from becoming sexually active by lecturing them about the virtues of virginity, by not openly discussing sexual matters, and by making it difficult for teens to obtain contraception. Yet as much as conservatives criticize teen sexuality, the United States is not by any means a sexually permissive culture, despite the idealized and very disturbed views of teenage sexuality in the media. If anything, the United States is a fairly restrictive sexual culture characterized by strong taboos, poor communication, and restrictive gender roles. We do not give a consistent message about sexuality.

As the stories in this book reveal, teens struggle to discover their sexuality in a culture that is giving them a highly conflicted message. It is a tribute to their energy and power that many are able to develop healthy sexual lives. Many, sadly, are not.

Sexual education efforts in this country are paralyzed by these same conflicts. Many states insist on abstinence-based sex education efforts and do not allow access to contraception. Teens’ views of their sexuality, however, differ from those of adults. For teens, that ways of sex are fraught with struggle, but also filled with excitement and pleasure.

While working on this book, I had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of teens about what their sexuality means to them. Some answered that it made them feel loveable, or more adult. Some described intense physical pleasure. Some told how it nurtured intimacy with another person or fulfilled a desire to become pregnant, or promoted status in his or her peer group, or allowed for a surrender to desire or another person. For some it brought relief from boredom or escape from life’s pressures or an opportunity to test out biological equipment. For others it involved reenactments of a sexually traumatic event from the past, or was useful as a tool for barter in obtaining money or material goods. Some characterized it as an expected part of a current relationship, a representation of “true love”, a useful weapon, or a personal expression of growth and spirituality. As the stories in this book reveal, there is not one meaning, but many.

The sexual culture of the United States is not only confused, alternating its messages between restrictive and permissive, but violent as well. Violent sexual images are often transmitted through the media, but teens experience this violence in other ways, too. Teens struggling with their sexual identity or orientation fear that violence will be directed at them if they deviate from the norm. This affects all teens at some point in their lives, because at some point every teen feels that he or she is sexually different and fears reprisal. The narrow gender and sexual orientation norms affect all teens, not only girls like Angie and Mirian, who were sexually active at early ages, or boys like Joel and Ian, who believe that they are gay. Narrow gender roles force a macho identity on boys who are striving to become men in a patriarchal culture. Boys feel the pressure to rapidly acquire experience and become sexual experts, to have penises that are powerful.  The culture reinforces and rewards this. For girls, the message is more contradictory. On the one hand, they, too, are encouraged to become powerful with their sexuality, told explicitly and implicitly to use it as their main source of control. On the other hand, girls who do this are often cast out as sluts. The double standard continues. Teens of both sexes are fearful as the struggle to develop and understand their sexual orientation. Frightened of their own feelings and the culture’s reaction, some scapegoat others. Many adults encourage this attitude. Tolerance and understanding of sexual diversity are too little discussed or understood.

Into this restrictive, confusing and punitive picture cams the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The lethal risks associated with HIV have been frightening for parents and teens alike. More than one quarter of those infected with the virus acquire it as teenagers. The crisis has encouraged the United States to begin to examine its attitudes about sexuality. In a recent interview I did with Joycelyn Elders, the former U.S. Surgeon General, she said that she believes HIV has done more to change attitudes toward sexuality and sex education than anything else in the past decade. It has forced the United States to look at an area of taboo. Conversations about teen sexuality started. However, Dr. Elders also said, “we need to know what our teens are doing in the backseats of cars, and we don’t.” She’s right about that, and of course it’s not just what’s going on in cars. Teens are sexually active everywhere- most commonly in their homes. Before we find out where teens are doing what sexually, we need to be able to both listen and talk with them about sexuality.

HIV is one factor that is forcing our culture to reexamine teen sexuality, but there is another- the teens themselves. Gilbert Herdt, professor of sexuality and California State University at San Francisco, notes that young people questioning their sexuality aren’t satisfied with the answers they have been given, and are struggling to define a better world, one that is more tolerant and understanding of sexual diversity. Many of these teens have joined support groups, have written about their struggles, and have spoken out on these subjects with peers.

This book has introduced the idea of sexual readiness for teens, I believe that teens need to ask themselves several important questions before they become sexually active, including whether they are engaging in sexual activity for themselves; whether they feel rushed by a partner or the situation; whether their bodies feel ready; whether they trust their partners; and whether they would be comfortable saying no, even at the last minute. (Please see the Appendix for a complete list of readiness questions for teens.)

This book also introduces the concept of parental readiness. Sonia’s struggle to preopare herself to guide her daughter Miriam into a healthy sexual life, and Peter’s struggle to understand Ian’s sexual orientation illustrate the importance of parental contributions. Many parents know that they should prepare themselves to guide their child through the teen years, but when they think about sex, they shut down. Rather than letting embarrassment paralyze them, it should act as a clue, helping parents detect what they are afraid of. In talking with teens about sex, it is important to be direct, using simple language, and admit to your own embarrassment. In general, teens don’t like jokes about sex unless they are telling them, so begin slowly in this area. The discussions need to start long before a child is a teenager. Some ideas for earlier discussions include biological information, identifying and exploring language a child may learn outside the home, and observing and discussing messages around sexuality in the media. It is preferable for parents to talk about feelings and lessons they’ve learned through experience without disclosing specific personal details. Exploring stories about other teens – real or fictional – can also promote discussion. Ask teens for their opinions, don’t just give them yours. Educate yourself about the spectrum of adolescent sexual behaviors. Enforcing rigid gender roles or sexual orientation can be extremely damaging. The wise parent recognizes that adolescence is about taking risks, sexually and in other ways, and will want his or her teen to have safe, healthy options, even if this means engaging in activity that runs counter to parental values. (For a complete list of suggestions for talking with teens about sex, please see the Appendix.)

All teenagers have sexual lives, whether with others or through fantasies, and an important part of adolescence is thinking about and experimenting with aspects of sexuality. This helps adolescents to discover and develop their individual sexual identity, a vital part of one’s overall identity. Parents need to educate themselves about sexual identity, which is more than sexual orientation. Encouraging your teen to talk with other trusted adults about sexuality is also important.

Parents communicate values and morals best by example, so be aware of how you speak and act concerning sexual and gender issues in front of your teens, who are watching, whether they acknowledge it or not. They respond best to suggestions rather than directives, highlighting the importance of the parent’s role as guide during these crucial years.

The imperatives around knowing more about adolescent sexuality extend to the culture at large. Parents should find out what sexual education their children and teens are learning in school, and what they are not learning. Many teachers will welcome parental input. There are other sources of sexual education besides school. Many youth organizations for girls and boys offer programs. Health care providers such as pediatricians, specialists in adolescent medicine, child and adolescent psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers are familiar with programs and are available for individual consultation also.

Helping society understand this taboo and complex subject may seem overwhelming. Educating yourself and your child is an important place to start, but it is largely uncharted territory. Conversations about these important subjects are unusual enough among adults, so it is not surprising that they are even more rare between adults and teens. Adults have to start these conversations.

If you listen openly to your teens’ own stories to learn about their hopes for and struggles with sex, and offer them guidance without being authoritarian, you will have gone a long way toward helping them develop their own healthy outlook on their sexual lives, and fostering the risk-assessment skills they’ll need along the way.