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.
- 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)