Not talking about condoms won't stop teen sex

May 07, 2000|By Susan Reimer

ONE OF MY teen-aged children phoned me at the office and demanded in an accusatory tone to know if I had written about condoms.

There was an awkward pause during which I failed to compose myself. Then I said, as defensively as this sounds, "Well. Ummm. I sort of, you know, had this report and it was important, and, um --"

"Well, just cut it out, OK?" came the sharp response. That was the end of that phone call.

I had written that disturbing new research shows that while more teens are using protection -- usually condoms -- the first time they have sex, fewer report using protection the last time they had sex.

I said that parents have to make it clear that we don't think sex is good for teen-agers, for all sorts of medical and emotional reasons, but if they are having sex, they need to use protection every single time.

I am not surprised that a column like that infuriated my kids. It infuriated some readers, too. And I am not surprised about that, either.

"Your cavalier attitude toward teen-agers engaging in sexual intercourse tells me one thing -- you don't have a beautiful 14-year-old daughter," said a reader's e-mail. (In fact, I do.)

"If they have to be taken by the hand to the doctor and the drugstore why not just pull the bed clothes back and fluff the pillows while we are at it?"

The writer suggested the kids be told to "keep your pants up and your knees together."

Her point, I think, is that any conversation we have with our kids has to be about abstaining from sex, that any advice about contraceptives carries unspoken permission, if not encouragement, to violate that prohibition.

These are the two sides in the teen sex wars, and their trenches are deeply dug. It is "abstinence only" vs. "abstinence plus contraception," and the abstinence-only side is winning.

That is why there is no talk of contraception in our public schools except to emphasize its failure rates, and why local and state governments will only pay for public service ad campaigns that promote abstinence.

But this can't be the way we talk about teen sex anymore.

Teen pregnancy and teen births are down, but sexually transmitted diseases are a real threat because they can be life-changing or deadly, and they are rampant. In addition, the age of sexual initiation is dropping, and the only group showing an increase in sexual activity is kids under 15.

Parents can say "My child will never ...," but that didn't work when we took a vow against fast food, carbonated beverages and commercial television. What makes us think we can make the abstinence pledge on the behalf of nearly adult children who drive and spend great chunks of time out of our sight?

If you are lucky, the "Keep your pants on and your knees locked" conversation may work with your teen-ager, but the numbers are against you. If you don't have the rest of the conversation, you are putting your child at risk.

Besides, there is other research, too, and it shows that kids who are candidly instructed by their parents in contraception use actually delay first sex and have fewer sexual partners.

Studies like the one I reported on are disturbing, certainly. But they give parents a glimpse inside the heads of teens. This is how they think, people. It doesn't make sense to use protection the first time you have sex and then stop, but there you have it. That is what our kids are doing.

Would you rather not know? Who would that help?

Pub Date: 05/07/00

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