I recently picked up Alain de Botton's How to Think More About Sex, which generated a very interesting conversation with a car full of teens about how they are taught to think about sex. Why not teach children, I suggested, how to have sex well, the way you teach them how to do other things? This, for the record, horrified my children, but intrigued their friends.
Henry Alford reinvigorated this conversation this weekend with a piece in the New York Times "Sex In A Teenager's Room." This idea, that parents of teenagers would encourage them to bring over their partners, have a nice dinner, then toddle off to bed together, is generally regarded with outraged horror in the U.S., where we are still struggling with abstinence-only "sex-ed" and the correlated highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world. There's still not a whole lot of enthusiasm on the sleepover, "learn to have excellent sex, kids" front. I mean, only last year, Tennessee banned teachers from talking about HANDHOLDING because it is a "gateway sexual activity."
But, does it matter what kids are taught about sex in school? In a 2006 book, When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex -- and Sex Education -- Since the Sixties , Kristin Walker surveyed the history of sex education in American education and concluded that students will do what they want, regardless of what teachers teach them. It also turns out that parents have more influence on what their kids think and do about sex than teachers do. Parental attitudes, it turns out, are far more influential and meaningful.
Would you rather teach your kids that sex is dangerous and forbidden or that it is permissible and... well, awesome? Are you a "responsible-sex-is-good" parent, or more in the "scare-them-silly" camp? It seems logical to me that the same way I try to teach my kids to exercise, sleep well and be good people, I would teach them to have healthy sex and sleep with other good people. People who respect their words, feelings and desires. And make them laugh out loud. And, as long double standards about bodily autonomy and women-as-public-property abound, not having a camera-enabled device involved would be good, too. The real challenge is transferring all this information by osmosis.
If you aren't comfortable with your own sexuality or challenging deeply-embedded ideas about sex being "bad," can you teach your kids anything different? In defiance of socially conservative mythology, approaches that are positive about sex do not lead to licentiousness, STDs, abortions and despair. On the contrary, the more you teach children about healthy, responsible sex, the more likely they are to treat sex in healthy, responsible ways. In general, they are more knowledgeable, more emotionally mature about it and "safer" in the scary-sex way. It goes a long way to understanding why the rate of teen pregnancy is the U.S. is four times that in the Netherlands, for example.
In the past 18 months, there have been an interesting spate of articles, programs and debates not so much about what exactly we teach kids about sex (although, that, too), but how we teach them. Debra Ollivier wrote about a much-discussed "Teen Sex at Home" segment that aired on ABC. "Modern Family," criticized for being irresponsible in its presentation of a teenage character's previously undisclosed active sex life, sparked a public exchange on the topic. In November of 2011, in the New York Times, Laurie Abraham made a compelling case for Teaching Kids Good Sex, in her portrait of Al Vernacchio, a teacher at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia.
Vernacchio, a beloved instructor, calls sex a "force for good." He has gone on to talk nationally about new ways to think about sexual activity and teach children. He makes such reasonable and smart sense you wish you could clone him. His discussion (video below) of sports and pizza metaphors is so worth the time.
Amy Schalet's book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and The Culture of Sex, excellently compares the ways in which American parents differ in their approach to those of parents in the Netherlands. In broad terms, sex is forbidden by parents and educators to teenagers in the U.S. and not to those in the Netherlands. In practical terms, parents in the Netherlands talk openly with their children about the meaning and mechanics of sex and often allow their teenage children to engage in sex with their partners in their homes. Here's how Schalet, in a New York Times article she wrote, describes two of the cases from her book:
Kimberly and Natalie dramatize the cultural differences in the way young women experience their sexuality. (I have changed their names to protect confidentiality.) Kimberly, a 16-year-old American, never received sex education at home. "God, no! No, no! That's not going to happen," she told me. She'd like to tell her parents that she and her boyfriend are having sex, but she believes it is easier for her parents not to know because the truth would "shatter" their image of her as their "little princess."
Natalie, who is also 16 but Dutch, didn't tell her parents immediately when she first had intercourse with her boyfriend of three months. But, soon after, she says, she was so happy, she wanted to share the good news. Initially her father was upset and worried about his daughter and his honor. "Talk to him," his wife advised Natalie; after she did, her father made peace with the change. Essentially Natalie and her family negotiated a life change together and figured out, as a family, how to adjust to changed circumstance.
Respecting what she understood as her family's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Kimberly only slept with her boyfriend at his house, when no one was home. She enjoyed being close to her boyfriend but did not like having to keep an important part of her life secret from her parents. In contrast, Natalie and her boyfriend enjoyed time and a new closeness with her family; the fact that her parents knew and approved of her boyfriend seemed a source of pleasure.
In Natalie's scenario there is more openness and parents get to know their kids' partners. It's complex, emotional and intimate, but has its benefits. Teenagers in the Netherlands tend to wait longer before having sex, have fewer partners and use easily acquired birth control consistently and correctly, resulting in much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion.
Why would you create a situation where your children are forced to hide, sneak around, be dishonest, be uncomfortable, take unnecessary risks and make uninformed decisions about their physical and emotional health ?
Of course, maybe you just like porn and think it's a fine substitute, because that's where a whole lot of kids go in the absence of information and conversation. Ubiquitously available porn is filled with misleading ideas, like those, for example, entertainingly debunked in the YouTube video, "Porn versus Real Sex, The Difference Explained with Food." Porn has real effects on attitudes about sex and they are generally not good. That's not enough, though, as Cindy Gallop explains in her TED Talk on the topic. Porn is everywhere and, because of the ease of producing and proliferating amateur porn, "professional" porn has become even more extreme, violent and dehumanizing. Makelovenotporn, which is Gallop's project to offset the influence of porn on thinking about sex is very interesting.
If you want your kids to have a healthy attitude towards sexuality, are open regarding emotions and consequences, but are uncomfortable with talking to kids about the details of being sexually active, especially in the room next door, there are always organizations online resources for teens, like Amplify Your Voice, which advocates for healthy teen sexuality, or Scarleteen, a grassroots, "sex ed for the real world." This site has age-appropriate, comprehensive resources for teens about every sexual health topic under the sun. It's populated with research, moderated content, referral services and narratives regarding subjects ranging from sexual/reproductive healthcare services (STI testing, contraception, pre-natal, abortion care;) to mental healthcare, LGBTQ support and crisis care. The site, which allows teens to anonymously submit ANY question they may have, describes its core values as having a foundation based "equality, respect, dignity, fairness, consent, liberty, freedom of thought and expression and other core human rights." Compare that to the bully generation practically created by our blind investment in slut-shaming, homophobic, abstinence-only sex ed. Of course, if all of this is making you think about your own attitudes, "What You Really Want: The Smart Girls Guide to Shame-Free Sex" is a good place to start, regardless of whether you are a mother or a father.
WATCH: Al Vernacchio, "Sex Needs a New Metaphor"