With teen-agers, sex on the mind is a no-brainer

May 25, 2003|By Susan Reimer

I AM CURIOUS enough to take magazine quizzes and fill out online surveys, but they never turn out well for me.

My scores always indicate something dreadful -- that I am not saving enough toward retirement, that I am probably depressed, that my marriage is in trouble and that I do not have the proper items in hand in the event of an emergency.

So I should not have been surprised when the results of an online quiz designed to test the good sense of teens on the subject of sex indicated that I am "in the know -- most of the time."

At least I was not "completely clueless." But I was disappointed with my results to the point of dismay.

I earn my living writing regularly about the consequences of teen sexuality. I think I have a right to expect a perfect score -- if you will excuse the expression.

The quiz was produced by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy as part of teen pregnancy prevention activities this month, and you can find it online at www.teenpregnancy. org

It is short -- just seven questions -- and it asks teens to consider what they would do in certain sexual situations: prom night; older boyfriend; Mom finds out; the dreaded virgin reputation; a party and the parents are out of town; alone in the family room with parents asleep upstairs.

What should you do, what should you say, the teens are asked.

I should have known the right answers, if for no other reason that I know what I want my own kids to say in these circumstances.

More to the point, I tell parents what to tell their teens to say.

I should have seen the right answers coming at me like the high beams of a truck, and yet I scored just a notch above "completely clueless."

How humiliating. No wonder my children don't listen to me.

"The answers weren't supposed to be obvious," says Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the mother of three teen-age daughters.

"Young people live in a very complicated environment. We think the subtleties better reflect the lives of teens."

The fact is, kids rolled their eyes at last year's quiz. They said it was too long, and besides, they could tell which answers the adults wanted them to choose. "The kids know what they are supposed to say," says Brown.

This year, the right answers are not so obvious. For example:

Daphne tells her friend Marie that she and her boyfriend had sex for the first time after the prom, and Marie demands, "Please tell me you two were safe."

Then Daphne tells Marie that it doesn't matter because everybody knows you can't get pregnant the first time.

"If you were Marie, what would you say next?" the quiz asks.

As far as I can tell, there are three "right" answers, including one in which Marie explodes at her friend's stupidity.

But according to the authors of the quiz -- which included teens themselves -- the right answer is the one in which Marie tells her friend never to have sex without protection and adds that she shouldn't be having sex yet anyway.

"This year, the kids told us that they really had to think to get the answer," says Brown.

That's the key.

Our kids already believe they have all the answers, and they will tell you that without your even asking.

The challenge is to get them to shut up and think. To stop in the middle of their busy lives and think for just one minute. To think before they act.

An online quiz is what it is: a gimmick. It isn't going to change behavior. Our teens are becoming sexually active at younger ages, and I don't know if we can ever get the genie back in the bottle.

The most recent research indicates that one in five teens has had sex by his or her 15th birthday, and of those who have had sex, one in seven becomes pregnant.

We can arm our children with all sorts of information about contraception and pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and they will spit it back at us like the smart children they are.

But knowing the facts doesn't get it done.

"That's why this is not a fact quiz," said Brown. "They know the facts. It is understanding what to do in a complex situation that is important.

"We want them to think about what they will do before they get in those situations, so they are not just reacting."

The quiz does something more, too. It gives kids a script. It gives them something to say to their boyfriend in the clinch, to their girlfriend when she asks for advice, to a kid sister when she steps over the line.

If it is hard for our children to know what to do in these sexual scenarios, it is equally hard for them to know what to say. The answers provided in the quiz are not just a jumping-off point for a discussion about sex with parents or among peers. It gives our teens the words to use.

Sarah Brown told me not to worry that I didn't have all the right answers. The right answer, she said, was that when it comes to sex, you have to use your brain. That's what we want our teens to learn from this quiz.

To take the quiz, visit www.teenpregnancy.org. Urge your teens and their friends to take the quiz and then talk with them about the results using the online discussion guide.

Can't get your kids to talk to you about their answers? That's not unusual, so urge them to talk with their friends, and you can talk with other parents. There are discussion guides for both.

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