Note to parents and guardians: in this month’s Municipal Alliance column, teen sexuality is presented in a frank manner, and the fact that teens have sex is discussed.
Today, pornography and other sexually explicit material is as accessible as mainstream entertainment. Gone are the days when curious prepubescent kids searched for Playboys at the bottom of a magazine pile in the bathroom cabinet. Life’s greatest mysteries are available on everyone’s personal devices, and no one has to risk being caught with a “dirty magazine.”
As educators, professionals and parents—as adults—we need to teach beyond the birds and the bees. We must incorporate the way media, porn, apps and technology in general are communicating that sex is a mere physical act, existing outside the context of a communicative, mutually gratifying human relationship. It’s time for us to talk to our kids about how they are handling the information: what do they think about it, how does it shape their ideas?
I am a psychotherapist who specializes in adolescents. So I am familiar (accept?) with their impulsivity (their brains are still developing!), their curiosity (finally it is acceptable to be interested in sex), and their desire (hormones!). In recent years, I have become interested in and sometimes perplexed by the stories teens and young adults share about their sexual encounters and beliefs which I would describe as anything other than intimate.
The number of high schoolers having intercourse is not rising, although instances of sexually transmitted diseases are. We know kids are engaging in sexual acts at younger ages. Our kids’ vision and beliefs about sex have created a hook-up culture that is more pervasive than ever. Weekends that are described to me as “worthwhile” by girls involve finding boys to be with for the evening, and a boy’s definition of a “successful” night out may well be a three-way sexual experiences with girls who are willing to try almost anything. These conversations and many like them leave me pondering these casual encounters and questioning where the sense of intimacy and connectedness is in young people’s lives.
Shall we just thank feminism and free love that girls and women are finally free to initiate sex and enjoy it without shame and guilt? Or is this hypersexualized behavior a result of low self esteem and/or immaturity combined with the constant influence of (social) media? Have we mistakenly communicated to girls to value pleasing their partners above all else? Sara McClelland, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, reports that college women are more likely than men to use their partners’ physical pleasure as a yardstick for their own satisfaction.
College men, however, are more likely to measure satisfaction by their orgasm. Maybe we have forgotten to emphasize that girls and boys need love and connection, and that sex isn’t just an act of physical gratification. Have we as adults dropped the ball in educating our youth beyond the birds and the bees?
I remember years ago listening to a nationally known sex therapist who recommended parents buy their daughters vibrators so that they could meet their own sexual needs instead of turning to others to satisfy them. That level of openness about masturbation can be uncomfortable, yet we are smart enough to know our teens have sexual desires and fantasies.
We support giving them a toolbox for all kinds of changes and challenges in life, so how about a toolbox for sex? One in which we include thoughtful decision making about how to get their needs met both emotionally and physically, understanding they don’t yet have the prefrontal cortexes to reach this point on their own.
Many schools include sex ed in the curriculum because we now know that the more we talk to kids about sex, the more likely they are to delay sexual activity. Most kids by the end of elementary school will understand the basics of where babies come from. Later, they learn about the dangers of sex and how to protect oneself from STDs and pregnancy.
But what we aren’t teaching enough of, at home and in school, is how to manage and think about sexual content on cell phones, tablets, computers, TVs and movie screens. We should spend more talking about how sexting, social media, dating apps, and pornography influence beliefs and behaviors.
A March New York Times article, ”When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?” references a British study that showed that 60 percent of college students use pornography as though it were an instruction manual. This is alarming because pornography does not depict real bodies, real situations, or real relationships. Some of us may be uncomfortable talking beyond the basics because we don’t want to think our kids are having sexual relationships, viewing pornography, and using other sources to fill in the blanks. But what if we talked about it more and assumed our kids are actively curious?
The Times article also cites an interesting study comparing American and Dutch students with almost identical backgrounds and racial identities. What they found was that Americans become sexually active at younger ages, had more partners, and both sexes prioritized male pleasure. The Dutch, on the other hand, had first sexual encounters within the context of caring respectful relationships and they tended to communicate with one another about their limits and desires. Both American and Dutch parents discussed sex with their teens, but American parents focused on the risks and dangers while the Dutch included the importance of consent, as well as joy and responsibility.
I am relieved to know that the impact of sexting, dating apps, social media, and pornography on the social lives and sex lives of our youth is being studied and understood in a way it hasn’t been before. These influences account for some of the change I am seeing and answers some of my questions about why teens and young adults are thinking and behaving the way they are when it comes to sex.
Let’s acknowledge how different the world is now even when it has to do with something as basic and nature as sexuality. We did not grow up with the same level of media exposure. We are digital immigrants, they are the digital natives. As parents, educators and professionals we need to be aware that without adult preparation and guidance, our youth is at risk for missing out on what it means to be fully engaged with others—emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Deborah Dumont is a psychotherapist and director of development at Comprehensive Mental Health Services, Pennington.
This op-ed is part of a series presented by the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, which envisions a community united in the development of caring, confident and responsible youth. Heidi Kahme, coordinator.