Cultural Condomnation: Let’s Talk About Sex (With Our Kids)

GeekMom

This song was a lot more fun when I thought Salt n Pepa were singing it to my generation

So there we were in rush hour, driving down the Long Island Expressway, and from the eleven year old in the back seat comes the question:

“So, Mom, if guys can get erections, I’m wondering, does anything like that happen to girls?”

I’ve got to admit, when I get these questions–and these days they are coming with an insistent, rhythmic regularity–my first instinct is to look around for my husband and suggest a guy’s night out. Or, better yet: a weekend. Hey! I’ll supply the informational pamphlets!

I suspect, though, that part of this process for my son is figuring out where the lines of communication exist in his changing emotional landscape. Questions that mom can answer by sounding like a department of health manual? Still okay. Requests to be driven to the bookstore to pick up the latest issue of Maxim (initially discovered at the barber shop around the corner from my home)? Denied. He is looking for answers, but just as important, he is also looking to gauge my emotional response. And, while the 14 year old is less likely to ask this type of question aloud, I can feel him listening ferociously from the passenger seat while simultaneously monitoring me for stuttering eye tics.

This feels exactly like a minefield–but instead of blowing up, one wrong step lands everyone on a Freudian psychologist’s couch or pacing the floors of a neonatal unit. As I try to frame the facts around this latest question into a cogent, age-appropriate response that implies unconditional love, support, and the message DO NOT USE THIS INFORMATION UNTIL YOU ARE IN A LOVING, MATURE RELATIONSHIP MANY YEARS HENCE, a Lexus minivan swerves in from the side, cuts in front of me, and then slams on its brakes…which feels about right.

Here are some facts that I’ve been mulling  over (because this is what I do when I get anxious, I hunt up statistics):

  • In Western Europe and the United States, the average age people have their first sexual experience is 17.
  • 1 out of every 3 American girls becomes pregnant before she reaches the age of 20.
  • Half of all sexually active youth will contract an STD by age 25.
  • 15 percent of women who are infertile cannot conceive solely because of an untreated STD.
  • Half of all new HIV infections occur among adolescents.

Sure, some of our kids will fall outside of those statistics…but not as many as any of us grown-ups would like. We are all going to know some of these statistics personally–if they are not our children, they will be our children’s friends and peers. Young people we care about will be affected.

More food for thought: Last week I happened upon a Slate.com slideshow,  “The Dream Team, The European Approach to Teens, Sex, and Love, in Pictures.” The protagonists in this public health “dream team” are Love and Condoms–and in the slideshow presentation, both are suggested as vital prerequisites for a rewarding sexual relationship.

The slideshow is aimed at an American audience and it is asking that audience to consider the strategies and outcomes of a Western European model–something that, quite frankly, will not be everyone’s cup of cultural tea.  The presentation first compares young adult public health statistics in the United States and (for the most part) the Netherlands, stating that the two countries have comparable economic, education, and family-planning resources, but then goes on to outline dramatically differing outcomes:

  • Teen pregnancy rates are 3-6 times higher in the US than in Western Europe.
  • Teen gonorrhea and Chlamydia rates are 20-30 times higher in the United States than in the Netherlands.
  • Germany’s teen HIV rate is six times lower than ours.
  • The majority of U.S. teens–63 percent of boys and 69 percent of girls–wish they had waited longer to have sex, compared with only 5 percent of boys and 12 percent of girls in the Netherlands.

It is that last statistic that jumps out at me the hardest. Effective condom use (the first time they had sex, 64 percent of Dutch teens used birth control, compared with only 26 percent of American teens) can protect young adults from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but it takes something much more complicated than a “condoms, condoms, condoms” mantra to protect against trauma or regret: my best guess would be trusting relationships and open and honest communication…and yes, that is what the slideshow professes, that, “At the heart of [this issue] lies a contrast in attitudes toward teen sexuality. This is clear from research about how families talk about sex.”

Okay, I think as I read through the slideshow. I’m laying that foundation. We talk, we trust…

And then I get to these two paragraphs:

In a 2004 study, [researcher] Schalet asked parents: “Would you permit your son or daughter to spend the night with a girlfriend or boyfriend in his or her room at home?” Not surprisingly, nine out of 10 American parents said, no, often adding, “Not under my roof!”

Nine out of 10 Dutch parents told Schalet they have allowed or would allow a romantic sleepover under the right circumstances: With a child who was 16 or older and in a loving committed relationship that the parents observed develop gradually. It is common for Dutch teens to sit down together with each set of parents to discuss why they think they’re ready to have sex, and to seek permission.

After I’d unrolled back out from a rocking fetal position, I realized that as a parent I might be operating from more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” perspective than I’d ever acknowledged. Sure, I am  willing to provide pie charts and cautionary literature–but is that enough? It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be common anywhere for parents to sit down with their children to discuss their actual (as opposed to theoretical) sex lives, or for children to “ask their parents for permission” before entering into a sexual relationship. To be honest, I felt like it was invasive to imagine my children, the people I diapered and breast-fed, as ever being sexual. Whether I realized it or not, “send them off to college and hope for the best” was probably my go-to strategy in this instance.

Clearly, though, my children want to have this dialog with me. On their terms, at their pace. So, we’ll continue to hammer out what our family believes is moral, what love means, what emotional groundwork should be laid before sexual relationships take place…and also, we’ll continue to discuss how best to keep those two bodies that I grew inside of me healthy and happy as they become adults.

ADDITIONAL READING:

  • I’m going to cite it twice: the Slate.com slideshow referenced throughout this post.
  • For hard number on the rates of STDs in our country, this New York Times article is helpful.
  • If you believe that advertising helps shape culture and attitudes, this article on how media corporations define appropriate advertising criteria for condoms is interesting–essentially, condom ads that stress disease prevention are acceptable on television, while ads that even imply that condoms can be used as a form of birth control are not.

(Read Kate Miller’s post on a similar subject: Confessions of a Sex-Ed Addict)

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekMom on Patreon!

36 thoughts on “Cultural Condomnation: Let’s Talk About Sex (With Our Kids)

  1. Hey Andrea — I didn’t know we’d be covering the same territory today, wonderful! Love your thoughtful post. I was actually a colleague of Amy Schalet’s a few years ago as she was developing her work on Dutch and US parents. Such compelling evidence!

  2. Hey Andrea — I didn’t know we’d be covering the same territory today, wonderful! Love your thoughtful post. I was actually a colleague of Amy Schalet’s a few years ago as she was developing her work on Dutch and US parents. Such compelling evidence!

  3. Great post! It is so true that we need to opening talk about sex if we are going to raise children that can make healthy life choices regarding sex. It is sure not easy to think about your kids having sex, but the more they know the better choices they tend to make. At least they cannot say no one ever told me that could happen. It countries that have a more open discussion about sex the rates of rape, teen pregnancy, and all STIs are lower. People also tend to feel better about their sexual experiences. Way to go Geek Mom for keeping the conversation going. Thanks for being part of the prevention revolution.

  4. Great post! It is so true that we need to opening talk about sex if we are going to raise children that can make healthy life choices regarding sex. It is sure not easy to think about your kids having sex, but the more they know the better choices they tend to make. At least they cannot say no one ever told me that could happen. It countries that have a more open discussion about sex the rates of rape, teen pregnancy, and all STIs are lower. People also tend to feel better about their sexual experiences. Way to go Geek Mom for keeping the conversation going. Thanks for being part of the prevention revolution.

  5. Thanks for this post. My daughter is 18 months old and I already know what I want to tell her about sex as she grows up. I feel that my parents were very open about sex with my sister and I. The best thing my dad ever told me was “sex is the best thing you will ever experience, as long as it is with someone you love.” I was 11 when he said that. I remembered it and I waited to have sex because of it. Inspite of all the great talks we had and advice I received, when I actually started a sexual relationship, we were strictly “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I never thought this was a problem until I read this post. I hope that I can build on my parents’ lessons and not only have open, candid conversations about sex in the abstract but also, when the time comes, talk openly to my children (I’m having a son in February) about their current sexual relationships. It is a big hurdle to overcome, but I have 16 years to prepare for it, right?

  6. Thanks for this post. My daughter is 18 months old and I already know what I want to tell her about sex as she grows up. I feel that my parents were very open about sex with my sister and I. The best thing my dad ever told me was “sex is the best thing you will ever experience, as long as it is with someone you love.” I was 11 when he said that. I remembered it and I waited to have sex because of it. Inspite of all the great talks we had and advice I received, when I actually started a sexual relationship, we were strictly “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I never thought this was a problem until I read this post. I hope that I can build on my parents’ lessons and not only have open, candid conversations about sex in the abstract but also, when the time comes, talk openly to my children (I’m having a son in February) about their current sexual relationships. It is a big hurdle to overcome, but I have 16 years to prepare for it, right?

  7. The statistics between US teens and European teens is shocking. Clearly we are failing our kids in this area. And while abstinence education doesnt work for the most part, I am still not comfortable with my kids having liasions in my house. Smacks of buying alcohol for underage drinkers so you can keep an eye on them. If it is against your family values, then you have every right to enforce them.

    1. Jennifer: As a parent to a near-15 year old, I absolutely understand your perspective and I am actually inclined to agree with you. As families, we need to figure out what values we are going to pass onto our children…what works in the Netherlands does not HAVE to be the solution we create in our own homes. By bringing up the “sex in the home at 16” concept, I wasn’t advocating for it so much as commenting on the level of honest communication between the parents and their children. Each family needs to create its own rules, but without communication, I think those rules are less likely to be adopted by all involved parties…

  8. The statistics between US teens and European teens is shocking. Clearly we are failing our kids in this area. And while abstinence education doesnt work for the most part, I am still not comfortable with my kids having liasions in my house. Smacks of buying alcohol for underage drinkers so you can keep an eye on them. If it is against your family values, then you have every right to enforce them.

    1. Jennifer: As a parent to a near-15 year old, I absolutely understand your perspective and I am actually inclined to agree with you. As families, we need to figure out what values we are going to pass onto our children…what works in the Netherlands does not HAVE to be the solution we create in our own homes. By bringing up the “sex in the home at 16” concept, I wasn’t advocating for it so much as commenting on the level of honest communication between the parents and their children. Each family needs to create its own rules, but without communication, I think those rules are less likely to be adopted by all involved parties…

  9. Ok, immediately, as in right now, go to Amazon, and buy this book.

    http://amzn.com/140005128228

    “Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask)” by Richardson and Schuster.

    Andrea, this is EXACTLY what you’re looking for. It is the geek parent’s holy grail of parenting your kid’s sexuality at every stage, chock full of current scientific data and psychiatric research without religious leanings. The authors attempt to give you, the parent, the tools to instill your cultural or religious “norm” in your children while simultaneously recognizing your child as a healthy sexual individual.

    I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m up front, honest and open with my kids on sexuality and have what’s considered in the U.S. pretty liberal views, and I still learned a lot from reading it.

  10. Ok, immediately, as in right now, go to Amazon, and buy this book.

    http://amzn.com/140005128228

    “Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask)” by Richardson and Schuster.

    Andrea, this is EXACTLY what you’re looking for. It is the geek parent’s holy grail of parenting your kid’s sexuality at every stage, chock full of current scientific data and psychiatric research without religious leanings. The authors attempt to give you, the parent, the tools to instill your cultural or religious “norm” in your children while simultaneously recognizing your child as a healthy sexual individual.

    I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m up front, honest and open with my kids on sexuality and have what’s considered in the U.S. pretty liberal views, and I still learned a lot from reading it.

  11. Loved this. I try to be open and honest with my kids, but often I have to hope they don’t notice my eye tic as I’m responding to some of their questions. Interestingly, one of my boys never asks questions (and this worries me a bit) while the other comes at me regularly with sex-related quizzes.

  12. Loved this. I try to be open and honest with my kids, but often I have to hope they don’t notice my eye tic as I’m responding to some of their questions. Interestingly, one of my boys never asks questions (and this worries me a bit) while the other comes at me regularly with sex-related quizzes.

  13. I feel I had it lucky, growing up on a ranch as I did. I can’t actually recall ever experienceing any mystery about sex. If the cattle didn’t reproduce, we would go out of business!

    I’m raising my son in the city, and all our pets are fixed, but given my upbringing, I don’t feel like I have to shelter him from the facts of life. Kids can deal, in my experience. That said, I’m really glad that GeekMom blog has this sex-ed focus recently. I don’t live on a ranch any more, so I appreciate the resources.

    Thank you!

  14. I feel I had it lucky, growing up on a ranch as I did. I can’t actually recall ever experienceing any mystery about sex. If the cattle didn’t reproduce, we would go out of business!

    I’m raising my son in the city, and all our pets are fixed, but given my upbringing, I don’t feel like I have to shelter him from the facts of life. Kids can deal, in my experience. That said, I’m really glad that GeekMom blog has this sex-ed focus recently. I don’t live on a ranch any more, so I appreciate the resources.

    Thank you!

    1. You should probably do your math a little better. 33% for a 16 year range vs 66% over a 60ish year range. Basically less than 1/4th of the population is receiving 33% of the total infections. This makes them around 40% more likely than people over 30 years old contracting an STD. That is a pretty big difference.

      I am not very good with math and know being fooled by biased statistics is a good way to make false assumptions about topics regardless of how emotional / moral they are to you.

    1. You should probably do your math a little better. 33% for a 16 year range vs 66% over a 60ish year range. Basically less than 1/4th of the population is receiving 33% of the total infections. This makes them around 40% more likely than people over 30 years old contracting an STD. That is a pretty big difference.

      I am not very good with math and know being fooled by biased statistics is a good way to make false assumptions about topics regardless of how emotional / moral they are to you.

  15. Tim L, what weight did you give each age group? (And it’s not a sixty-ish year range–it goes from 13 to however old the oldest person in America is.) The number of years you’re counting doesn’t necessarily correspond to the number of people in these groups, and indeed it doesn’t.

    Using the Census Bureau’s population estimates for the year 2006, those aged 13-29 (reached by adding 2/5 of those aged 10-14 to the sum of those aged 15-29) composed 21.1% of the population, and those aged 30+ 58.5% of it. Of those aged 13+, the former group is 29.0%, the latter group 71.0%. If the former group accounts for 33% of infections, when they would be expected to receive 29.0% of them with a random distribution of disease among those aged 13+, their chance of infection is only about 22% more than the latter group.

    But, this is for those aged 13-29, not those aged 13-19; if you believe surveys that show half of high-school seniors still haven’t had sex (which I do), then those infections are going to be significantly more weighted towards the older half of the group, and they are. Using the CDC’s estimates for new infections by age in states that report infections for 2008 (and ignoring those under the age of 13 as likely born infected), those aged 13-29 compose 31.5% of new infections, and those aged 30+, 68.4% of them, close enough to the 2006 estimates. However, those aged 13-19 only accounted for 4.6% of the total infection rate, while those aged 20-29 accounted for 27.0% of them. New infections are indeed much weighted towards those in their twenties, and teens make up less than 5% of those newly infected, a far cry from the stated 50%.

    Of course, that’s only a discussion of the absolute number of infections, not the relative risk of each age group. Again using census data, there’re roughly (49.4% vs. 50.6%) as many people aged 10-19 as aged 20-29, so weighting this numbers to estimate risk won’t really change anything.

  16. Tim L, what weight did you give each age group? (And it’s not a sixty-ish year range–it goes from 13 to however old the oldest person in America is.) The number of years you’re counting doesn’t necessarily correspond to the number of people in these groups, and indeed it doesn’t.

    Using the Census Bureau’s population estimates for the year 2006, those aged 13-29 (reached by adding 2/5 of those aged 10-14 to the sum of those aged 15-29) composed 21.1% of the population, and those aged 30+ 58.5% of it. Of those aged 13+, the former group is 29.0%, the latter group 71.0%. If the former group accounts for 33% of infections, when they would be expected to receive 29.0% of them with a random distribution of disease among those aged 13+, their chance of infection is only about 22% more than the latter group.

    But, this is for those aged 13-29, not those aged 13-19; if you believe surveys that show half of high-school seniors still haven’t had sex (which I do), then those infections are going to be significantly more weighted towards the older half of the group, and they are. Using the CDC’s estimates for new infections by age in states that report infections for 2008 (and ignoring those under the age of 13 as likely born infected), those aged 13-29 compose 31.5% of new infections, and those aged 30+, 68.4% of them, close enough to the 2006 estimates. However, those aged 13-19 only accounted for 4.6% of the total infection rate, while those aged 20-29 accounted for 27.0% of them. New infections are indeed much weighted towards those in their twenties, and teens make up less than 5% of those newly infected, a far cry from the stated 50%.

    Of course, that’s only a discussion of the absolute number of infections, not the relative risk of each age group. Again using census data, there’re roughly (49.4% vs. 50.6%) as many people aged 10-19 as aged 20-29, so weighting this numbers to estimate risk won’t really change anything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *