Talk to middle-schoolers about oral sex

July 19, 1999|By Deborah M. Roffman

JUST as parents are recovering from the rash of school shootings, here comes another matter destined to rock their world: Increasingly, middle-school students are engaging in oral sex.

This activity is being reported anecdotally by health officials, parents, teachers, school administrators and counselors and the youths themselves (there's no hard data because researchers have been reluctant or prohibited from asking about this delicate subject for political and other reasons).

Most shocking for many parents are reports that this behavior is occurring in middle- and upper-class suburbia, forcing them to talk to their children about intimate matters of which they were unsuspecting.

The reasons youths give for such behavior: Many of them say they want to experiment sexually and they see oral sex as a way to hold onto their virginity and avoid pregnancy. They wrongly conclude that the virus that causes AIDS can only be transmitted through intercourse.

Before we become engulfed in hysteria, let's gain some perspective. First, sexual experimentation among young teen-agers isn't new, even if it has previously taken other forms. Moreover, this type of behavior among middle-school students is still relatively uncommon.

Parental guidance

Second, young adolescents still look to their parents for guidance in such matters, and only absent parental direction turn to peers and the media as primary sources.

And, of course, many of the messages sent by the media are distressing. Open any major daily newspaper these days and you're likely to see a full-page ad featuring a teen-age girl modeling skimpy underwear or clothing for a large department store.

Exactly which message do we want our sons and daughters to get? "Don't mess with oral sex, it's potentially dangerous and way beyond your years." Or, "Come on, you hot young thing. Bring that sexy, nubile body right over here where it belongs."

And if it's the first not the second, just how, exactly, do we think we're going to get it across without talking about sex -- including oral sex -- openly and directly.

Expert advice

As a sexuality educator, there are atleast six pieces of advice that I offer parents who want to take a proactive stance:

Don't keep putting it off. Studies show universally that youths whose parents talk openly about sexuality are more likely to delay sexual activity and act more responsibly when they do become involved.

Don't use the word sex as a synonym for vaginal intercourse. This is how children (and apparently even President Clinton) get the idea that oral sex isn't "real" sex. Make sure they understand that all sex is real sex, and behavior for which they are to be held accountable -- physically, socially, emotionally and morally. Insist that sexual behavior of any kind is never acceptable unless it is honest, mutual, respectful and caring.

Do your homework. If you think certain sexual behaviors are improper -- or simply not appropriate for a teen-ager -- make sure you know why you think so. Talk it out with another adult if you don't. Adolescents of all ages hate and resist arbitrary rules, but will respect and thoughtfully consider a carefully crafted argument, especially when they are invited to share their own views.

Be sure to make connections for children between sexual behavior and peer expectations. Much of the angst I hear about this problem (and rightfully so) is that, in many situations, it appears that boys are pressuring girls to perform oral sex to help "prove" their masculinity. Many girls volunteer to "service" boys to get dates, popularity and status. Young people often don't realize how unhealthy and exploitative such behaviors are.

Understand that talk is not enough. Young adolescents need firm limits and close adult supervision. Just because they look and act mature and often balk at constraints on their independence, does not mean we should diminish our adult presence, nor do they want us to. That means no unchaperoned parties, no having friends over when no adults are home -- even if it is "just to study."

Look for logical openings to bring up the subject. The fact that sex is so prevalent in our society is bad and good news: It means that there are teachable moments everywhere. TV shows, news articles, scientific breakthroughs and legal and political developments can be great discussion starters. In fact, why not start with this article right now?

Deborah M. Roffman has taught human sexuality education at The Park School and other area schools since 1975. She is the author of the forthcoming "Sex and Sensibility" (Perseus Books).

Pub Date: 7/19/99

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