Teens need honest talk about sex more than ever

Parents need to overcome qualms, explain meaning of intimacy


When author Sabrina Weill was going over a national survey on teens and sex for her new book, one figure in particular jumped out at her.

When asked whether sex should be romantic, nearly one-fifth of 1,059 12- to 17-year-olds answered: "Don't know."

Coupled with the recent news from a large government study that teenagers who have not yet had intercourse are having oral sex, the information tells Weill that today's young people have no idea what intimacy is.

And that it's up to their often-squeamish parents to tell them.

In The Real Truth About Teens & Sex (Perigee, 2005, $23.95), Weill says teenagers' sexual behavior has gotten increasingly public -- and casual.

She reports that nearly one in four 14-year-olds claim they knew peers who had had sex at home -- while their parents were home. One in 10 teens agreed that it is "normal for someone my age to have sex with someone they met at a party."

As a teen magazine columnist and editor -- she was founding editor of CosmoGIRL! and is a former editor of Seventeen -- Weill has spent years talking and corresponding with teenagers about sex.

The topic needs to be discussed much earlier than most parents think it does, Weill says. Her survey, produced in conjunction with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, shows that by the time they are in ninth grade, a third of teens are having sex.

"I think parents don't want to seem uncool," Weill said. "When I tell parents that middle-school kids are looking at porn in their school library, they're floored. I think that, for a lot of parents, it doesn't occur to them to say to their 12-year-old that this is what pornography is. There's really a generation gap and a communication gap."

As a result, many teenagers aren't sure just what the rules are. "If you knew for sure your parents didn't want you having sex, you probably wouldn't be having it when they were home," Weill said.

She says that while teenagers appear to have become more sophisticated and more casual about sex, their judgment and emotions are still as fragile as they ever were. And that's an explosive combination.

"I rarely hear from girls that 'I'm into friends with benefits, it's good for my self esteem,' " Weill said. "I think boys do have feelings too, and they can feel hurt after and they can feel used. They don't always want what they say they want to do."

But the good news is that parents who do send clear messages to their kids can have a lot more impact than they may think.

In a separate 2004 National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy poll, 87 percent of teenagers said they believed it would be easier for teenagers to postpone sexual activity if they could have more open, honest conversations about the topic with their parents.

Robert Blum, a professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies adolescent sexual behavior, said research shows that teenagers can process messages about sex from their parents that may seem contradictory. "They can understand messages of 'not now,' and messages of contraception," he said.

The messages shouldn't come in the form of one big talk, Weill and Blum said, but in a running conversation and commentary. Parents should start by watching television with their teenagers and listening to their music. When they see sexual situations, they can start talking about what's on screen in an open-ended way. What are the potential ramifications of what's happening? How might the characters feel the next day?

Parents must walk a fine line. On one hand, they can't appear judgmental, Weill said. "If you talk about another girl at school and say they are a slut, a teenager will wonder, 'What are you going to think about me or my friends?' " she said.

But Blum said parents shouldn't be afraid to let teenagers know they care about what they're doing. "Parents need to be in their kids' faces," Blum said. "They need to give ongoing messages that we're watching you; we know what's going on in your life."


Tips for talking with your teen about sex

In The Real Truth About Teens & Sex, author Sabrina Weill offers tips on how to talk to your teen about sex -- and how not to:

Start opening the lines of communication about sex by watching your teenager's favorite TV shows and listening to their music. Ask questions or make comments about the sexual situations that come up, and you'll learn a lot about what your teenager already knows.

Communicate your hopes for your teen's behavior, including how long he stays a virgin, as wishes, not demands. Making sex too much of a "forbidden fruit" can drive a teen toward it.

Help your teen understand the need to plan ahead for protection from pregnancy and diseases -- or for abstinence -- by including her in advance planning for other big decisions, such as a move or vacation.

If you suspect your teen is sexually active but isn't admitting it to you, give her the information you feel she needs anyway.

Try to have talks about sex and dating when you're one-on-one with your teen. If two parents or partners approach a teen together, he can feel ganged-up on.

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