The last straw about teen sex

July 10, 1999|By Susan Reimer

THERE, ON the front page of the Washington Post this week, was a delightful news flash for parents of young teens:

Oral sex, it said, has become a party game among some middle-schoolers. School counselors and health professionals were quoted saying that it is now an "expected minimum behavior," an act dismissed by some kids with a "what's the big deal?" shrug.

A companion story suggested this is happening because parents aren't giving strong, clear messages about sexual limits to their teen-agers and are not supervising their teens sufficiently.

So there you have it: oral sex going on among 13-year-olds, a new horror du jour for parents who can now castigate themselves for, among other things, not making it clear to their daughters that performing oral sex on their male classmates is not "age appropriate."

(Although the Post did not make clear who is performing oral sex on whom, I know where I am putting my money. One more opportunity for male satisfaction and female degradation in the name of adolescent sexual curiosity.)

OK. Fine. I'm listening now. Tell me -- when was I supposed to bring this one up?

Excuse me, but if this conversation is part of my job description as a parent of a middle-schooler, I'm leaving the house key under the doormat and heading for the hills. I am outta here!

If my child and her classmates are this far beyond the horizon of my anxieties, I am overmatched, I admit it, and I quit.

Silly, old-fashioned me. Here I was, thinking oral sex is a level of intimacy beyond heavy petting and sexual intercourse, and kids who are barely teen-agers are using it as a substitute for spin the bottle.

What's next on our list of conversations to have? Do we tell 12-year-olds, many of whom are still sleeping with stuffed animals, that anal sex will not result in pregnancy either, but, like oral sex, it can cause sexually transmitted disease of the most horrifying kind?

I'm sorry, but I am not up to these conversations. And I am certain most middle-schoolers sat down to discuss such things would run screaming from the room.

"Do you have to talk about oral sex with a 12-year-old?" asks Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, whose own 12-year-old daughter was still asleep -- with her stuffed turtle -- while her mother read the same news report that morning.

"A conversation like that is frightening and disgusting for a young child, and it is more likely to break off communication than encourage it," Brown says. "She is going to think she is dealing with a wild woman."

For most parents, it probably makes more sense to say what behavior is tolerable -- instead of what behavior is not -- and that is true for teens of all ages.

"A lot of kids at 13, 14 and 15 hold hands, kiss, hug a little bit. You can tell your children that anything beyond that is not acceptable without listing 25 sexual practices that are not OK," says Brown. "That might take some of the sting out of this conversation."

"We have to figure out a way to talk about this," says Debbie Roffman, who teaches human sexuality in several Baltimore private schools. "Oral sex is a form of human behavior that we need to give kids information and guidance about, and the only reason we don't is because we are so terribly uncomfortable about it."

What is true for 12-year-olds is not true for 17-year-olds, and every year our conversations with our children must be repeated and updated, with new details added. This isn't something you do once and then cross it off your parents' list of things to do.

"We have to be specific," says Brown. "We can't just send them off by saying, `Behave!' and `You know what we expect of you.' The truth is, they won't know unless we tell them."

Next week will no doubt bring some new unseen horror. Some other grave danger to our children that we never considered until we picked up the newspaper. But our role as parents will be the same, Brown says.

"To supervise, to guide, to set limits," she says.

"And by `supervision' I don't mean `in the house with mom.' All the mothers don't have to quit their jobs and stand in the kitchen with a plate of cookies."

We need to know where our children are going and who they are with. We need to know their friends, and we need to talk to the parents of their friends. We need to make sure there is not too much empty time in their days. But "supervision" means more than that in these complex times.

We need a depth of involvement in our children's lives that engages the hairs on the backs of our necks. We need to be able to feel it when something is not right, when something new, different, scary or dangerous has come into their lives. "We have to be right next to them every inch of the way," says Roffman. "We have to know what is coming their way. We have to be one step ahead of them, so they get our spin instead of somebody else's.

"We have to be willing to do this."

I know that's true. I believe she's right. But I never saw this coming.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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