Missing the Point on Teenagers and Sex

One of the most peculiar aspects of the American approach to sex education is the incredible concentration on intercourse.

Sex is a big picture _ love, reproduction, family life. Why limit the attention to the fun between the sheets?

In an article on Medscape.com, “Why must we fear adolescent sexuality?,” Dr. Amy Shalet reports on her 10-year study comparing parents’ attitudes toward teen sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands, countries chosen because they have the highest and lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, respectively, and because they are similar in terms of wealth, education and reproductive technologies.

Her conclusion, in brief, is that U.S. parents just want their teens not to have sex _ or at least not now or soon. The Europeans, on the other hand, are mainly concerned that their teens initiate sex in a loving, long-term relationship and that the teens are responsible about pregnancy and disease prevention.

I am not here to say which is a better approach. Here I take no position on contraception or even marriage. Instead, I argue that we should get our attention off intercourse itself, some of the time, and look instead to the long-term results of a sexual union, which is to say a family or a semblance of one.

Apart from trying to scare the kids with the specter of troublesome babies and ugly diseases, we could help kids imagine themselves in the role of mom or dad, just as you would have them study careers as a way of imagining themselves in the role of an adult worker. Kids do not find the role of mom and dad particularly sexy. This is good; associate those responsible roles with sex.

On the other hand, relationships of any kind are pretty interesting to kids, even those with sisters or uncles. Eleven- and 12-year olds are by no means ready to have a family of their own, but they are tied to a family, and are thinking about and often grappling with it.

Given that literally any post-pubescent can make a baby, no matter the age, intelligence, education, work skills or ability to support a baby, it only makes sense to instruct kids in at least in an introductory way to the responsibilities and rewards of family life before they are likely to conceive.

The sixth grade seems like prime time.

These days, sex and parenting roles are far from rigidly defined. If anything, they are unhelpfully undefined. So discussing these critical roles out loud and ahead of time would go a long way toward helping pre-parents better prepare _ and understand the wisdom of postponing _ the crisis of childbirth. After all, world literature is mainly about families, behavior and interaction. Studying family roles in different cultures, according to different traditions and values, would provide an academic way of exploring the issues. The point would be to get kids thinking about what it would be like to be the responsible party, to be the parent and not the child.

But educators, probably more than others, are keenly aware that all children come from families, and that in the United States today, less than half of those families are configured according to the biological ideal _ that is, both DNA contributors committed to the child, to each other and to a community (tribe, herd) that is reciprocally committed to them.

In the last 50 years, the traditional family ceased to be the norm. We now understand that a high-conflict nuclear family is worse off than a calm, nurturing single-parent household. So no hard-and-fast rules govern what a family should be. A household of people genuinely committed to caring for one another is a high-functioning family no matter what the blood relations.

Still, everyone had a mother and a father, if only for one night. Even if one or both parents exited the scene, all children have a mental model of their parents and what mother and father means to them. Adoptive parents sometimes wish they could wipe that biological origin from the kid’s hard drive, but alas, they cannot.

Adopted children commonly seek their biological parents, if only to satisfy what appears to be an instinctive curiosity. On the other hand, some adopted children could not care less. All kids and families come with their issues. Again, world literature has examples of all types, convention and unconventional, happy and unhappy, in all sorts of circumstances.

So, for example, it would be helpful, rather than the reverse, to acknowledge modern realities, such as the ache so many children feel for their often-absent fathers, especially in the urban core. There are other such realities. But I can hear the educators now, rising up and demanding why they should allow such a rats’ nest of feeling to be stirred up on school time.

Two answers: first, how will you ever raise test scores unless you can help children use their education to get past the obstacles they find in their lives?

Read books, study history, see films about people who have endured loss and overcome it. Trying to teach pubescents anything that doesn’t at least somewhat overlap with their interests doesn’t work anyway. Rather than shy away from what kids are thinking about, help them give it language, and help them have empathy for those in different family situations than their own.

Because, secondly, kids need to enter the phase of potentially active sexuality with a much stronger sense of the impact of their actions. By being irresponsible, you the sixth-grader could one day cause a child to ache because of your absence.

Curiously, Americans would rather let their child live in ignorance than risk the child being exposed to distasteful facts, feelings or opinions not their own. Kids are already well-exposed to graphic, loveless sexuality by the TV that is their daily fare. But every kid is the product of their parents’ circumstances, sensibilities and backgrounds, about which we remain mum. A sensitive understanding and discussion of all kinds of family circumstances, along with some dreaming and planning of their own, might well contribute to preventing what social services see as chronically repetitive family patterns that are not good for kids.

By the way, Amy Shalet’s study shows that, on average, both European and American teens become sexually active around 17 or 18. In that they do not differ. What is different about the two cultures is that one wants to be assured of the presence of love and a sense of responsibility, and the other acts as though they wish the whole subject would just go away.

I concede that in the foreseeable future we won’t agree on whether or not to teach about contraception, for example, but surely we can agree that the subjects of love, responsibility and their connection to one another are sorely lacking both from school curricula and from the culture itself.

(Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, can be reached at juliasteiny(at)cox.net or c/o The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.)