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Gov. Palin's Success with Sex Education: Is It Really Any Different from Any of Ours?

Sara Palin's impending grandparenthood is an unnerving reminder to every one of us who has daughters (and not to be sexist, sons) that sex education in the current climate is like trying to run up a steep mountain of sand. It is exhausting, we slide backward and some of us never quite make it to the top without giving up. Trust me. I know. I am a sex educator, teen advocate, pediatrician and mother of three unmarried daughters in their twenties.

So before we pounce all over the woman, blaming her parenting technique (supposedly she taught sexual abstinence to her daughter) for her daughter's pregnancy, let me remind every one of us parents (and you who have never parented a teen daughter shouldn't enter the debate) that influencing teen behavior is at best, well... daunting. We who love teens have our hands too full when it comes to convincing them that pregnancy isn't such a great idea at 15.

As one who spent years standing on my head trying to get girls to swallow birth control pills (they wouldn't because they said the pills made them fat) or demand that their partners use condoms, and feeling like a failure when many of my patients returned either pregnant or having any number of the 30 sexually transmitted diseases out there, I, like Governor Palin switched to teaching abstinence. Do I fail? I sure do at times. Did I fail when I begged girls to use birth control? Yep.

Here's the reality: sex is very complicated stuff for kids. That is what every one of them, from the Gloucester girls, to Ms Palin's daughter, is telling us. Somehow, in their own way, they are giving us the proverbial finger. They are telling us, that they will do "as they please" regardless what we say to them. In fact, the publication Internal Medicine News printed an article on the front cover of their magazine lamenting this very phenomenon. Why, oh why won't kids just use condoms?

I have a few theories which I'm sure won't sit well with either parents or journalists. But, since what I really care about is getting to the bottom of this very disturbing trend of too many girls having too much sex too soon, I'll give it a go.

First, I think that girls are extremely lonely. And, sex with boys fills that loneliness (albeit only temporarily.) Research shows that most young girls (contrary to boys) don't really enjoy the act but they engage in it in order to garner male attention. I get that. So the next reasonable question is, why do young girls crave so much attention from boys? Here's where the road get sticky. They may not be getting enough touch, affirmation, love or respect from their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, etc. Whether they mean to or not, often the significant men in girls' lives pull away from them when they hit puberty. This phenomenon we can amend. That's why I wrote Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters -- to get fathers to move forward into their daughters' lives, not retreat. We women need to encourage our daughter's fathers to do just that.

Second, and this is no insignificant factor: we are living in a climate that trains our girls to be sexual at very young ages. I have 6 year old girls come in for their kindergarten physicals with training bras on. Around every corner looms another message reinforcing the one from an hour earlier. That is: what really matters is how sexy you are. (And for the record, let's throw in skinny.) Your intellect, artistic abilities, character qualities, athletic accomplishments don't rate. Sexiness does.

I have never met a mother in my twenty something years of practice who doesn't writhe over this fact. The problem is, every one of them (myself included at times) feels defeated in our ability to "train" this belief out of our girls. After all, we're just middle aged Moms who don't understand. No mother wants her daughter to go to prom looking like a high-class call girl, but at the same time, who wants their daughter to feel like an outcast when all the girls are wearing tea-length skirts with tops that look like fancy bras?

I do believe that Oprah gets this. Look at her magazine. It doesn't reek of tawdry ads displaying gorgeous women sprawled across a bed wearing black stockings held up by garters. And Katie Couric gets it as well. When her oldest daughter reached junior high and disclosed to her mother what many of the boys at the boys school across town were doing with some of the girls at their all girls' school, she just about flipped. She did what any famous single mother of two daughters would do. She did a show on teens and sex.

That's where I came in. We sat as two concerned mothers, talking with teens from all over the country trying to find "the solution" to the problem of kids having too much sex. No solution came, but we learned a lot about kids -- not the least of which was the repeated truth that they all felt enormous pressure to have sex. Where did the pressure come from? Did the boys pressure girls or vice-versa? No, it was just pressure -- nothing direct, nothing forced. They just felt that sex was something they were expected to do. Bingo.

If we are honest, you and I know exactly where the pressure comes from. It comes from everything around our kids. Sex has become their culture. So, while we lament which choice of sex education, abstinence or comprehensive safe sex is best to teach in the classroom, let me propose something a bit less profound. Mothers and fathers (who are, studies tell us, the most profound influencers of behavior change in a teenager's life) had better step it up three or four notches. We mothers have to teach our girls why life is more than being sexy. They must have a real reason to get up in the morning, so we must begin to teach them that their lives embody deeper meaning.

Fathers, uncles, older brothers need to give more affirmation to the daughters in their lives. Love them, spend more time with them when they are teens, not less. This feels intimidating, but overcoming discomfort and fear may just well (and this is no exaggeration) save a girl's life.

We can no longer wait and wonder, look to teachers in our school to bend our daughter's ears about whether to use birth control or abstain altogether because what really matters is communicating to our kids what we think about our kids and sex. That's what really makes the difference. And then we must provide an alternative voice to the predominant one that being "sexy" is the beginning and end of life. And any one of us parents can do that.

I've worked in teen -- and -- tot clinics, attended weddings of patients who waited until their wedding night to have sex and I've sat with girls who have been raped. One thing I know for sure is that every single girl in America now needs our help to learn to navigate a sexually complicated climate. Will our words matter? I know they will, because I've seen your words matter in the behaviors of some of my patients. Your words bring sanity, encouragement and affirmation. But we must know that there is a price to the words and that price is inexhaustible energy.

I'm sure Governor Palin feels like a failure as a mother. She, like all of us mothers who have daughters (and sons) has charged the sand hill alongside each one of us. Sometimes we win and make it to the top, other times we collapse in the middle. But in the midst of our hyersexualized culture, every one of us adults who loves kids must keep on trying to reach them. Then, we must wait. For in the end, every girl ultimately makes her own decisions about her sexual life.