Cover all the bases in talks about sex

January 02, 2001|By Susan Reimer

YEARS AGO, MY husband was coaching his first T-ball game when one of his 5-year-old players whacked the ball off the tee and started to run.

To third base.

The coach was as startled as the parents at this sports blooper, until he realized what had happened.

"I guess I should have told them which base was first base," he said. "I guess you aren't born knowing that kind of stuff."

Never has there been a more apt anecdote to introduce this discussion about sex, since baseball has long been its working analogy: We talk of "getting to first base, second base or third base" and "scoring."

New research has been released confirming anecdotal reporting in the popular press that oral sex has become the official substitute for vaginal intercourse for a generation of teen-agers who have had it drummed into them not to get pregnant.

And the adults are horrified.

Suddenly, "first base" for these sexual initiates is something their parents might have reserved for after "scoring," if at all. For our generation, making out, not oral sex, was the first thing you did with a partner. We are as startled as those T-ball parents to find that our kids are running to third base first.

"The adults who are doing the research, and who are talking to teens while cooking supper, have this sense of the intimacy continuum," says Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and, incidentally, the mother of teens.

"There has been, for us adults, an unstated sequence, and these reports are upsetting because they violate our sense of that sequence."

"Family Planning Perspectives," a publication of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, reports that while half of the 15- to 19-year-old males surveyed have had intercourse, two-thirds reported having non-coital sexual activities - primarily oral sex.

"It seems they have heard us say, `Don't get pregnant! Don't get pregnant!' " Brown says. "And they are saying to us, `OK. We get it. But we are still sexual and we are going to do things and you never talked to us about these other things.' "

We never told them, in other words, which is first base and which is third.

We seem to be stuck thinking that sex is the act that gets you pregnant, that when we talk about sex, we mean only the act of intercourse. But we haven't been talking about what leads up to intercourse, or what kids might do instead.

When we say, "No sex until marriage," we think we have covered all the bases, to continue the baseball analogy. Our kids conclude, quite rightly, that we are mostly worried about pregnancy, and, because it is in the nature of kids, they look for any dodge or loophole they can find.

What they clearly don't understand is that sexual diseases are transmitted orally, too. One of the ways researchers are tracking this activity among teens is by clinic visits for pharyngeal gonorrhea.

Even more revealing is that many of our teens - indeed, many adults and health educators - agree with our president that oral sex does not constitute sex.

In a companion editorial in "Family Planning Perspectives," associate editor Lisa Remez writes that a number of surveys demonstrate that more than half of our high school and college kids - and plenty of adults - do not consider oral sex to be "sex."

Well, if oral sex isn't sex, what is it? Because it sure isn't bowling.

It appears that we adults have not only failed to explain to kids where oral sex falls on our idea of a sexual continuum, we have failed to convince them that it is even on that continuum." `Sex' vs. `no sex' is not working for this generation," says Brown.

There are stages and layers and complexities involved in the pleasure of personal closeness that this dichotomy does not address. And many of us have not addressed it for ourselves, either.

Not only have we substituted one health crisis for another with half-baked conversations about the consequences of sexual activity of any description, not only are we creating a generation of technical virgins who think they have our implicit permission to use each other as sex toys, but we are also failing to help our children understand the enormous range in sexual communication, sexual sharing, sexual trust.

The first step should be for adults to figure out how they feel about all the sexual hijinks that begin with holding hands. Then, we had better be prepared to tell our kids what we think is right, and when.

"We have to get over our shock," Brown says. "Face up to what is going on. Develop an opinion on it. And then communicate that opinion to our children."

My husband the T-ball coach is right. Kids aren't born knowing this stuff.

They won't know which direction to go unless we tell them.

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