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Sex Positive Parenting: The Teenage Years

The Teenage Years Over my career with working with families and young people I have been surprised how common it is for parents to think that child rearing begins just at the point it should be drawing to a close. How many parents with whom I worked only started looking into issues of how to teach their children about sex once they begin to show physical signs of sexual maturity? By the time your child is 15 years old, it is too late to build values and attitudes about sex or any other major part of life. I have long used the analogy that during early and middle childhood the parent is filling up a cup of influence with their child only to be used up when their child becomes a teenager. The goal is to build up enough influence with your child so as to not run out before they become young adults. The ability for parents to shape their children's values and choices about sex is also coming to an end just at the point the kids become focused on sex. Why is it that parents seem to miss the whole concept that by the time their kids are fourteen, their own power to control or even manage the kids sexual values and behavior is done and gone. Sure parents try to use force to keep their kids from sex, but in the real world such attempts at force are nearly always counterproductive. The only power parents have over their teenage children's sexuality is based on respect, not power or fear. With this approach in mind I will move right into the Sex-Positive Parenting goals for the teen years. Transform the parent child relationship from one based on authority to one based on mentorship Your child will transform the family Sex-Positive habits about sexuality into their own, internalized, sexual values Your child will explore their sexuality at their own pace and avoid external pressures for early sexual debut or identity foreclosure Your child will avoid the debilitating effects of unrealistic body image expectations Your child will avoid the most serious pitfalls of the sexual learning process Transform the parent child relationship from one based on authority to one based on mentorship This first goal is one that many parents find extremely difficult. For those of you who are not yet parents, let me clue you into an irrational truth of parenting. In our children, all parents see a reflection of their own self-worth. Thus in the teenage years when their children are most seeking to distance themselves from the orbit of their parents, their parents feel obligated to do all they can to pass on their own values. This leads to a common conflict between parent and child and an even more common angst among parents of teenagers that they should have done more to help their children. How many times have I sat at my desk talking to the parents of a teenager who is making poor choices and seen the dismay in their faces when I say there is little they can now do to help their child make good choices. What I don’t say is that their child is acting on the lessons they learned at home when they were young, but it is almost always true. So, the best approach is for the parent to be proactive in transitioning from authority figure as they have been from birth to a mentor and supporter by the time they are upper classmen in high school. This involves a planned and deliberate process of increasingly sharing power with your child. Ideally this begins in the pubescent years, but it really must shift into high gear so that by the time your child (and or their friends) are driving their own cars your children know that the power over their own conduct is in their own hands. Counter to old school thought, this explicit power sharing that evolves into to power ownership by your child will not lead him/her to go crazy trying everything, but rather will give your child years to get comfortable with the idea that with personal power comes personal ownership of the outcomes. The worst possible approach is for the parent to try to keep all the power over their child’s conduct even while circumstances dictate that they no longer have the ability to enforce that power. In these cases the teenager does not have the ownership of the consequences of their actions because the parent sill claims that right. This leads the teen to simply not care about the end results since they do not own that. I recommend very few rules should be left in place by the time your teen is 16, and those rules fall into two categories. First house rules. In our case we have always had a no underage drinking by visitors rule in our house. We did not tell our kids they were not allowed to drink, but rather we voiced concern about underage drinking and only banned it in our house. The same is true for language, we flat out banned abusive and overly crude language in the house, though we made it clear that they can choose to talk how they want elsewhere. These house rules actually empower teens to let them know that we as the parents know exactly where our authority ends and where their responsibility begins. The other set of rules are negotiated. A family, like any group is a community and one of the important things to understand is that communities exist via agreed upon standards of behavior. Outside a very small group of house rules, all other behavioral expectations are negotiated. A common point of conflict between teens and parents is curfew. I believe it is a mistake to have a fixed time to demand the kids be home, especially in the age of cell phones. A better approach is to share an ethos of mutual respect and concern. In our case the agreement was all family members who would be out late would tell the others when to expect them to be home. The funny consequence of this approach is that to this day our 20 year old wants to know where we are going and when we will be home. We oblige him and he in turn does not feel put upon when we ask the same of him. This kind of mutual respect gives us the room to still influence his decisions without impinging on his sense so self-efficacy. Increasingly there is a tendency for parents to relinquish their authority without cultivating a mentor relationship. This shows itself in the absent parent who simply drops out of their teenager’s life entirely and in the parent (usually a mother) who wants to become simply their child’s buddy. This approach can be just as problematic as that of being overly controlling. Your teens are not yet adults. They still need guidance and a backstop when things get out of control. The trick is that they want the right to have their independence most of the time but still have a safety net when they want it. That is where the mentor comes in. As mentor you continue to be a role model. And unlike when they were young, your children will see, and point out, any inconsistencies between what you say and what you do. Their newly developed cognitive skills allow them to realize their parents have flaws in their persona of all knowing provider. It hurts when your kids point out that they see inconsistencies between what you say and what you do. As a mentor we must own our failures as well as our strengths and role model that acceptance as well as the ideals we profess. Finally as a mentor you must know that your mentees (your kids) will do in excess many of the things you do in moderation. This is true in your sexual behavior as well as in other areas of life. You will need to think carefully about how and when you discuss or display your sexual behavior. A little role modeling goes a long way and many teens will become more uncomfortable with your sexual life as their sex life begins to blossom. So, just as if you were a professional mentor, you need to carefully choose what to expose and how to expose it. It is not uncommon that the discomfort with parental sexuality will take an arc from normalized when they are pre-pubescent to increasingly disconcerting through puberty and early adolescence back to normalized and even admired in the late teens and early adult years. As their mentor, it is important that you respond to their discomfort in an honest and respectful manner. While not denying your sexual behaviors, it might be wise to make them less visible during the difficult transition years for your teens if you perceive it is making them “grossed out”. As a mentor parent it is always that influence you are courting in your relationship with your children. Every child will have different needs and it is your job to know what those needs are and to be there to meet them when your child is ready to accept your help. Your child will transform the family Sex-Positive habits about sexuality into their own, internalized, sexual values I have from the very beginning of this series presented Sex-Positive Parenting as a way of life not simply a discreet set of behaviors. The sex positive parent began normalizing positive sexual behaviors and attitudes before their child’s birth even if the parent had to work diligently at doing so. As the sex positive parent’s children progressed through early and middle childhood they will come to see sex positive behaviors and attitudes as the normal way of life; however, they are still not yet cognitively developed enough to see beyond the idea of normal behavior to the underlying principles that that behavior expresses. This is not a problem in the childhood years because their world is still dominated by parental control and there are very few difficult choices that children must make on their own regarding sexuality. However, by the middle teen years the choices and dilemmas of adult sexuality will come raining down on your children with increasing ferocity. It is not enough to have just had positive examples of their parents sex-positive behaviors, they must consolidate the thousands of discreet examples into broad, unifying principles. Much of this must be done on their own and you as parent must trust that you have provided enough sex positive examples over the years to help them at this difficult time. That is not to say that you no longer have a role. As I said in the prior section, your role is now of mentor and mentors look for opportunities to counsel their charges. Beginning in the early teens parents need to begin avoiding talk of behavioral rules as much as possible and shift their focus onto principles. The safest and most productive way to do this is not to discuss their behavior but your own. Though many parents might find this difficult, it is important that you begin to open up the working of your own decision making process in everyday life. Though this discussion is about sex positive, realize that sexual positivity is just a part of a larger framework of moral and ethical living that you hope to pass on to your children. So, consider opportunities to discuss with your kids why you make a certain financial decision as much as why you decided to put a new nude portrait on your wall. Realize that during their teen years your children will be watching you for any hypocrisy or inconsistency between what you say and do. Often times what appears to be sexual hypocrisy to your kids is in fact something quite different. For example, when our children were in their mid-teens we had several discussions as to why mom might proudly go topless at the beach but we never told grandmother about that. We explained that telling her about mom’s beach attire would greatly offend grandmother if she knew, so they were never to tell her about what mom wears at the beach (or what she wears to parties). The principle is that we have sexual freedom but that doesn’t give us the right to knowingly offend others. Similarly, our daughter worked as my photo assistant on a couple of nude photo shoots when she was in high school, but by then she had internalized that principle of respect for grandmother so she knew not to mention that when grandma was around. As parent of a teenager you walk a fine line of being overly “preachy” and being under involved. The key to successfully helping your teenage children internalize the underlying sex-positive values is to keep from appearing to be trying to coerce or judge them. Forcing conformity is the surest way to prevent internalization. If you have set the sex-positive example over the prior 15 years, this process will be greatly expedited; however, to the extent you have let your own sex-negative past creep into your parenting over the years it will be significantly more difficult. Your child will explore their sexuality at their own pace and avoid external pressures for early sexual debut or identity foreclosure Young people today have come under the influence of two powerful but opposing sets of developmental pressures. On one hand the concept of childhood, as defined by the period of time before an individual takes personal responsibility for their own physical and financial needs has rapidly extended from 16 years old in the nineteenth century, to 18 in the twentieth century to well past 21 years old today. It is now common (even expected) for middle class young adults to be 22 and older still living by the largesse of their parents. This extended period of financial dependence extends the period where young people are exempt from the demands of self-subsistence up to a full decade after adolescence. In contrast to this new and extended period of childlike behavior, young people are under increasing pressure to develop and express an adult sexual identity at ever younger ages. One of the pernicious impacts of critical queer theory is that a whole generation of teenagers (and pre-teens) are being told that they must find and then adhere to one of the myriad of sexual identities that are propagated primarily through identity groups and social media. Identity formation has been an area of psychological study for many decades. The term foreclosure is used to describe the bypassing of an extended period of growth and reflection before a young person settles on a personal identity. The classic example of identity foreclosure is the son of a farmer seeing himself as a farmer in his young teens and maintaining that identity without ever seriously considering other identity’s. Sexual identity should be a process, just like political, religious and social identity. It is quite normal for young people to try on many types of identities through their middle teen years. Teens drive their parents crazy by often changing identities at a whim. And during the time a teen has embraced a specific identity they are often sure they have finally “found” who they really are. The problem parents have is they have a tendency to promote adherence to identities they like and challenge identities they do not like. This too is normal and to the extent parents seek to counter other social identity pressures that their kids are coming under, such behavior can be helpful. We must be aware that while teenagers are still under the influence of their parents, they are also under the influence of people and groups that have a vested interest in encouraging their teens to conform their identity to the group. As a teen, in a matter of months, the fundamentalists Christians led me to foreclose my entire identity around their ideology. Social/political groups of all sorts fight for the identity of teenagers, many have a sexual component and some are primarily sexual. Make no mistake that the monosexual gay and lesbian community actively seek to pressure teens who have same-sex interests or experiences to foreclose as gay or lesbian. Teens more often than not, at some point, have some same-sex experience or attraction; however, they are far more likely to eventually identify as strait or bisexual than to identify as gay or lesbian, unless pressured into a premature foreclosure to a sexual identity. On the other hand, premature foreclosure as 100% straight is even more heavily pressured (especially for boys) which can lead to a whole host of later feelings of guilt and repression. It is not a parent’s job to find their child’s sexual identity, but it is your job to push back on the pressures that promote early foreclosure. I have read a number of stories of parents who publicly label their children’s sexual identities well before the teen years. This is of course impossible since young children lack the cognitive, social or sexual development to understand such labels, let alone the impact of such pronouncements. Inevitably such parents are expressing their own political-sexual beliefs by projecting them upon their children. Parents who do so are causing irreparable harm to their children. In short, parents need to let kids be kids and let their adult sexual identity develop over time during those teenage years. Discouraging pressure for early sexual debut is related to sexual identity, but not the same thing. At what age is a young person old enough to choose to engage in sexual activity? The problem with that question is that I define “sexual activity” as everything from flirting to kissing to intercourse. So at what age is it appropriate for a child to kiss his or her crush? I remember distinctly when I was in 4th grade I had my first “girlfriend”. We had a good time throwing rocks into the local pond and talking and enjoying each other’s company. One day we decided we should start being physical. Being the mid-1970’s we had only had TV examples of how teens are supposed to do this. First we stood and pressed our lips together, and then we tried doing that laying on the ground. I even got on top of her. Soon we were quite board, so we went off and did something else and never tried again. Contrast that to the modern world. A few years ago a kindergarten teacher came to me frantic because out on the playground a little girl was found sucking a little boy’s penis. Though the two instances have very different implications, the root of the two behaviors were the same; young children were mimicking what they saw teenagers doing on the television (now the computer screen). Of course for kindergartners or 4th graders to be having oral sex is inappropriate, but we live in a world were kids of this age see oral sex, but no one tells them “that is something grown-ups do, not children.” By the way that is what I had the teacher in the above case, tell the parents to explain that what they were doing was a grown-up thing to do, like driving a car or drinking beer, and children should never do it. So back to the question, when is it appropriate for children to begin engaging in specific sexual activities? Sadly there are only a few fixed rules on this, but I will give some guidelines. Oddly, the political environment has begun to dictate things that are far more restrictive than is truly developmentally appropriate. Until the last few years I would have said I would not worry about a hug or kissing between elementary school kids; however, I think the risks of your child being charged with sexual harassment or worse has changed the equation. Thus, I would say prior to middle school all physical displays of affection should be discouraged. In addition to the legal issues, the much lower age for onset of puberty means your 4th or 5th grader might be ready for sex, but they are not remotely emotionally or cognitively ready to make the kinds of decisions sex takes. I would approach the middle school years as a time to normalize sexual feelings and pre-sexual behaviors. Masturbation, phone sex, and even manual genital stimulation of partners are all appropriate for this age group. It is in this time that relationship-positive and body-realistic images of nudity and sexuality can be of great benefit to your child. Young adult reading with explicit sexual content is also an excellent pre-sexual activity. Sadly the schools no longer teach explicit sex education to middle schoolers (as they did when I was that age), so you as parents need to take on that role. In the US the most common age of consent is 16; however, in most of those states there are close age exceptions or restrictions. Sixteen is when we trust kids to drive and work and a whole host of things. It is the age most teens become truly independent and I think it is a good age to tell your kids “please wait until you (and your partner) are 16 and are both fully desirous and ready to have intercourse”. The age of consent laws give parents a way to not condemn their child while also encouraging them to wait till they are a little more mature. In our case our daughter was very excited to tell Mom that she’d had sex the first time, but she was still a few months short of her 16th birthday. We told her we were supportive of her (and her use of a condom), but we also asked if she could refrain from doing so again until she was 16. She did. This is not to say all or most teens should have sex at 16; rather I set that as a floor. Many young people will not be ready for sex until they are out of their teens entirely (as in the case of our son). There are a few ways to keep your kids from moving too fast sexually. The single most important is to be open about sexuality so that you can guide your children. The internet is a huge issue and I am not generally a fan of looking over your child’s shoulder; however, if you could find a way to verbally discourage them from looking at unrealistic body images, “commercial porn”, and negative/violent sexual images it would help you to engage into your child’s sex decision making. You don’t even have to direct your disapproval at them, but just a conversation in their presence about the difference between good erotica and exploitive unrealistic porn would go a long way toward validating their interests and viewing of sex-positive images without having to give them an “approved list” of sites. I’m not saying that would be a bad thing, but I don’t see many parents or teens being comfortable with that approach. The goal is to guide your child as they develop their sexual wants and by doing so you will be close enough to effectively delay things that are moving too fast. Like, in our case, you don’t have complete control over their choices, but you want to help them make good plans and not get into sexual situations for which they are not yet ready. One of the most contentious issues in some families becomes one of an inappropriate age difference between the teenage partners. Despite a daughters physical development, at 14 she has no business dating a 17 year old. The power and cognitive differential is too great to have a balanced relationship. A developed bustline does not a developed brain make. Most states specifically have age of consent rules that codify no more than a 2 year difference between sexual partners if one is under 18. I would start teaching that as a standing principle long before it becomes an issue. This one thing pushes far too many young people to a sexual debut before they are ready. By remaining supportive and proactive, it is not only possible but probable that you can help your child avoid the pitfalls of early foreclosure or too early sexual debut. Remember, at this age even a delay of a year in these things is significant. Your Child Will Avoid the Debilitating Effects of Body Image Expectation A great deal has been written about girls and the false images that are presented by the media about how girls should look; however, this issue is larger than that simple argument and applies equally to boys and girls. When children are young they simply presume they are the center of the universe and that they define what is right and normal; however, once they begin going to school they not only find out quickly that they are not the center of the universe, but they inhabit a world of social hierarchy. When I worked as a school social worker, I noticed a pattern in kindergarteners on the playground. At the beginning of school the children played in an ever changing group with no apparent social hierarchy; however, by the end of their kindergarten year there were patterns of play that reflected a very definite social hierarchy. This stratification was very much built on socioeconomic status and physical appearance. The social division I saw year after year seemed to have to do with the cognitive development of the 5 & 6 year olds because I did not see a similar pattern among the prekindergarten students. The specifics of this pattern might have many causes, but the effect is that by the start of 1st grade children are already socialized to aspire to be certain things. Those aspirations appear to be pretty, smart and well dressed. This pattern cannot be fairly blamed on Hollywood, but appears to be a human trait, and as such is not something parents can easily impact. For instance, you can dress your kids well and raise them in a language rich environment, but if they are significantly late bloomers and struggle with social & cognitive skills, they will have difficulty being part of the trend setting group. The best you can do is work with your child not to be negatively impacted by their social status. The reason I chose the wording “avoid the debilitating effects of body image expectation” instead of simply saying “avoid the feeling of body image inferiority” is that these feelings will for most children come early in their schooling and come with regularity. In study after study we find that “pretty” people are treated better in society than less pretty people. Further, studies with infants indicate that the core sense of beauty is present from birth and is universal regardless of race. This innate sense of beauty is trained by social factors to a great degree, but the desire to choose pretty people comes with our humanity. When children go off to school, the pretty children will get disproportionate amount of attention from teachers and peers, simply reinforcing this innate advantage some children have over others. Home life factors come into play as some children grow up in homes rich in language and experience giving them a huge advantage when they begin school, that only widens in time. Socioeconomic factors give some children financial resources, racial/cultural advantage and/or other group affiliation than leads to preferred treatment at school. And then there is the issue of physical prowess, the stronger, faster, earliest developing children also have distinct social advantages. All of these things combine to impact a child’s body image as they proceed through middle childhood. It is only with the age we now call the “tweens”, beginning about eleven years old that children have historically turned their gaze clearly out to media to shape their sense of what their body image should be, and yes this focus is most clearly impactful for girls. Despite the hullaballoo over the body shape of Barbie dolls, young children are not building their expected body image from their dolls whether it is Barbie or Bozo. Tween girls are however, highly impacted by the images of pop stars and supermodels. They are not yet imagining they should look like those women now, but they are building aspirations for the future. Here in is the root of later body image beliefs that can lead to serious debilitation. So what is a parent to do about such unrealistic expectations? First is the concept you as a parent want to instill in your children that his/her value does not lay in their body. That is not just a simple matter of weight and nose configuration, but a whole approach that their intrinsic value lays not in their body, but in what they do with the body they live in. Their body is like a car, they can have a Lamborghini and drive it around all day showing off, but to do so they have accomplished nothing positive. On the other hand if they drive an old Chevy and use it to deliver food to the homeless, they have accomplished a great deal. Their body is a tool, not their essence. Younger children will not be able to grasp this kind of body/soul dichotomy, but tweens and teens will. Sure, one could use a fancy car to deliver the food and it is not wrong to occasionally ask the powers that be “Why does that jerk have a Lamborghini and I have an old Chevy?” Such questions are natural and for a parent to dismiss such questions out of hand is a mistake. To dismiss such questions is to delegitimize their natural feelings and to tell your kids you are not an honest broker. To such questions there are no answers and “I don’t know.” Is an honest answer, but “I don’t know, but what can we do to fix up your old Chevy” is an even better answer. How to do the most with the body your child has, is something you as a parent can do. First you need to build on what they can do with their body. As an existentialist I believe our meaning in life comes from what we choose to make it. Help your child develop their natural talents into a basis for their self-esteem that can rival the natural desire to get self-esteem from their appearance. As a former Christian minister, I tried to teach my children that their self-worth can be tied to how they positively impact those around them. The more your child’s self-worth is tied to things they can control the less damage poor body image will inflict. All this is not to say that as a parent you cannot take measures to help your child’s body image. To pretend that your child should not care how others see them or how others respond to their appearance is naive to the extreme. Appearance to teens (or adults) is only partially a matter of the perfect body shape or nose, rather it is an amalgam of many factors. Sure basic body shape matters, but so does grooming, dress and carriage. Many young people do not just naturally pick up on these things, especially late bloomers. But if you as a parent wait till your child is shunned as an 8th grader, you have waited too long. You need to begin using the enormous power you have in early and middle childhood to both model how you care for yourself and how you present yourself and to actively teach your child these skills. You may need to sacrifice buying yourself a new car to get your child braces or sacrifice your time to engage in family outdoor physical activities, but as a parent you need to be proactive on these issues before they are a major issue for your child. Before I close with this topic, I need to address the body image concerns related to secondary sexual characteristics your child develops in puberty. In particular the new culture where teens nearly universally have looked at hundreds (many many hundreds) of images of nude teens and adults via the internet and cable television, teenagers are subject to a very distorted image of what is normal in human body variation. When addressing false body images we often first think of female’s breasts. The image of the female breast from media is nearly universally that of a naturally perky 32-D or a surgically created, round 34-E. Both these standard media breasts have a small round areola and a pencil eraser shaped nipple with no moles, or other blemishes. Of course that media image is not by any means realistic and leads girls and women to wrongly think there is something wrong with their breasts and/or potential partners will not like them. However, it is not just girls and not just breasts that are now compared to the “porn standard.” A disturbing new trend has emerged of girls and women deciding that their labia is not up to some sort of asthenic standard. The new and rapidly growing practice of labiaplasty, or removal of part of the labia, is a direct result of women comparing their labia to those popularized on the net. This trend of girls finding their labia to be ugly or shameful should be of concern to parents and is worth the time (and embarrassment) for mom to address with her daughter. While media in general lead to the issue of breast shame, and the internet in particular is the cause of the rise of labia shame, the internet is simply the best single solution for girls, if they have a little guidance from mom. Never before have girls been able to closely look at the variety of breasts and labia’s on everyday young women. With only a little effort mom can easily put together a slideshow for her pubescent or teen daughter of normal women from images on the web. Given the ubiquitous nature of internet porn, such a mother-daughter sit down should now be a normal part of the parental sex-education process. The benefits of an open and frank discussion of breasts and labia’s will be many, not just the primary purpose of showing the range of normal; but, to destigmatize the discussion of sexual body parts and function. Like so many things I suggest, this will be an easy step if the daughter has been raised in a sex-positive home. Though I have not seen any research on penis shame, I have begun to see anecdotal evidence that young men are now suffering from the same false body image problem as young women. Though research says the average erect penis in the US is between 5 and 6 inches long, the average erect penis on the net is easily 7 or 8 inches long. Similarly, flaccid penises are commonly no more than 2 ½ inches from base to tip, yet to see such a penis on the net is exceedingly rare. Solid research shows that by age 14, kids regularly look at internet porn, thus boys are getting a false perception about their penis size verses the real normal size of other boys and young men. The result of this penis shame can be devastating and impact boy’s view of both themselves and sexuality in general. Further, the internet mythos is that only guys with big penises are desired by girls as lovers and partners. There is very little in the internet world that praises the value of being a compassionate and tender lover. There is very little that focuses on the role relationship and sensitivity in building a sexual relationship that is fulfilling to a woman. The media & internet image is that only athletic, macho guys with an 8” penis can please a girl/woman. To counter this, the approach needs to be twofold. One is the same approach as with girls. Find images of young men in the normal range. This will be much more difficult than for young women, but it can be done. The best source might be nude beach sites since they seem to be the only place that display nude young men with average sized penises. The second phase is to look for teachable moments to counter the media narrative of the kind of men that real women want for serious relationships. Your son needs to know that just because he is 5’ 7” or skinny as a rail, or shaped like a potato or has a 5” erection, that he is not incapable of being a great partner or lover. I will close this section with a final reminder that your goal can not be to erase the struggle with body image, because that is unrealistic. Your goal should be to empower your children to win the struggle over body image before it becomes debilitating. Once more I will go back to the refrain that your children will be far more impacted by observing you modeling this sex-positive behavior than anything you tell them. So, if you want your children to have a positive body image, you must first win that battle in your own life. Your child will avoid the most serious pitfalls of the sexual learning process By the time we become parents the difficulty in learning to integrate our adult sexuality into our lives is a distant memory, usually scrubbed of the most difficult moments and colored in a romantic hue. However, if we really work at conjuring up the events from our teenage years, we can get a more complicated and difficult story than we usually tell ourselves and others. Like the issue of body image in the last section, a realistic goal is not that our children will avoid all pain, but rather that our kids will avoid the most serious pitfalls. Pain, in truth, is a great teacher and though we never like to see our children hurt, we must understand some lessons in adult sexuality are best learned and remembered through pain. The process of learning about our own sexuality and how it interacts with the sexuality of others can be a bumpy process and social factors often play a problematic role. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon and blame the current media saturated culture for our children’s difficulties in knowing how their sexuality is part of a well-rounded and successful young adult life, but it is simply not true. In modern cultures, there has never been a time when the transition from childhood sexuality to pubescent sexuality to adult sexuality has been easy. This is especially so if your goal is that your children will both expect their sexuality to be respected by others and that they will in turn respect the sexuality of others in the same way. Issues of gender and class have always taught adolescents that all people’s sexuality is not of the same value and their sexuality’s value is dictated by their sex and their class. The only difference is that today we talk about such issues and before we did not. One problematic concept we have inherited from long dead civilizations is that of virginity. The whole concept of virginity dates back to when girls were commodities to be sold and traded between family groups or tribes. Virginity was the promise that the girl was not already pregnant before her purchase, and hymen inspections were conducted to ensure the purchaser’s semen was the first to enter the girl’s womb. Of course, there are many reasons a girls hymen could be broken other than sex, but woe to the bride-to-be if her seal of freshness was gone. We now know that “virginity” is a social construct that has no biological basis and no place in a world where young women own their own sexuality, yet still it lives on. Even more oddly, due in large part to evangelical Christians, we also have the concept of male virginity though the very idea would never have occurred to those ancient societies. Myths and dreams around the so called loss-of-virginity continue to be perpetuated even in otherwise sex positive homes. The simple fact is your child does not lose anything when they have their first sexual experience. They are no less fresh or valuable as a partner than they were before their sexual debut. The very concept of virginity leads to expectations of some perfect sexual experience with the right person when they “give it away”. In some cases that perfect moment comes, but for far too many teens they wait for the perfect moment (even if they have to manufacture it) and then are let down. You as parents can help your child by discouraging the whole concept of virginity and replace it with one of sexual debut. “Losing one’s virginity” is about your child’s partner, sexual debut is about your child. My long standing recommendation for teens has been that they are better off having their first sexual experience with a trusted friend rather than a “boyfriend” or girlfriend”. The whole atmosphere of teenage romance is fraught with challenges and in such a milieu of emotions it will be difficult for your teen to tell their romantic interest that they aren’t ready yet, or if they are ready to tell them “you aren’t doing it like I like it”. I am assuming the teen in your sex-positive home has long been masturbating and knows what feels good, and that you have had at least a few talks about sex that include the need to give your partner direction to know how to give them pleasure. But, if they are crazy in love, the way only teens can be, it will be difficult to give clear directions as to what they want their partner to do (and not to do). By the nature of their young love, they are fixated on their lovers pleasure not their own. This leads to a disappointing first sexual experience and can lead to a pattern of putting their sexual pleasure on the shelf as long as their “one true love” is happy. Further, there is a growing body of evidence that teenage boys are feeling pushed into sex by their girlfriends in ways that we traditionally only associated with the way boys pushed girls. By decoupling sexual debut with romance, this empowers both your daughter and son to have more control over their first sexual experience. Therefore, the better approach is for your teen to have their sexual debut with a trusted friend rather than with a person with whom they have an infatuation. Our daughter and other teens under our counsel have taken this advice and have been very glad they did. No matter if your child’s sexual debut is with a trusted friend or a romantic friend, as a parent you need to be supportive of this move and provide a positive and normalizing environment to both teens as well as a safe place to take as many sessions as they need to learn about sex. This normalizing of your child’s sexual activity leaves you with much more influence over your child’s sexual behavior should the circumstances become of concern. To this end, well before he/she is ready to actually become sexually active, you want to let your child know that you would like their sexual debut to be in your home. In this way, you have the opportunity to make a powerful sex-positive statement and at the same time give yourself the opportunity to influence your child (and their partner) to wait if you think they are being pushed. For years those who worked with teens disbelieved pregnant teens when they said it happened on the first time. Current evidence gives credence to that claim. Teens are apt to make rash choices; this is especially true if your child is carried away by their first love affair. Research in the past few decades confirms that females who are in their fertile phase of their ovulating cycle are significantly more likely to engage in sexual activity with a new partner. All too often this first love and biological drive for a new semen donor leads to pregnancy in the first sexual experience. By having already established a safe and waiting environment for your child’s sexual debut (or their partner’s), you as the adult are in a powerful position to ensure condoms are readily available and used. I say condoms, not just birth control, because it is imperative to establish that oral contraceptives are not “good enough” from the very beginning. Condom accessibility is routinely an issue that teens bring up in interviews regarding safer sex. You as parent, by providing both the bed and condom, can help do your part to prevent the wonder of your child sexual debut becoming a nightmare. It takes time for young people to discover that their own means of sexual satisfaction is not likely to be the way others find it. This difficulty often leads to one or the other partners disinterest in further sexual contact. Though this is perfectly normal, it can be hard on your teenager. Once again, the advantages of normalizing your teen’s sexual behavior come to the fore. Your teen is not a failure if (when) their first sexual relationship does not work out; however, they might feel like one. Your parental comfort and guidance through the emotionally draining teen years can make the difference between your child suffering long term damage or having the ability to go on and live another day. Finally they must learn that their choices about when and with whom to have sex will have consequences. In the closed world of high school, your child must be aware that sex with schoolmates will almost surely become known. They will likely need your help to first project how this knowledge will impact their social relationships and if they get negative responses, they will need your help to minimize the hurt. As much as you have worked to build a sex-positive home, the larger society still has many sex-negatives that will want to punish or rescue your child. If your child is a girl, this process is also impacted by the lingering double standard of sexual behavior of boys and girls. Like so many things, as a parent you do not want the first mention of the social impact of a sexual debut to be after it happens. Rather, it should just be a part of a discussion that considers both the upside and potential downsides of their sexual debut and their ongoing sexual behavior. Teens may act like they don’t care what their parents think and say, but that is rarely true. Your words matter and will matter more if they are seen to be fair and consistent with your overall lifestyle. In the end, your goal is that your child will be able to navigate the period before their sexual debut, have a positive experience for their debut and then learn to integrate their adult sexuality into their everyday life. Teens and young adults far too often struggle to either repress their sexuality or they let their sexuality define their life. Neither is good. You as parent, through the normalization process, show that while sex is positive and an important part of your life and their life, it is not the center of any of your lives. You have been showing your child for the past 16 or 18 years that you are sexual but you also have a career, hobbies, non-sexual relationships and of course are committed parents. If you have modeled this well, your child will have little trouble integrating their sexual behavior into a well-rounded life.

Sex Positive Parenting: The Teenage Years

The Teenage Years Over my career with working with families and young people I have been surprised how common it is for parents to think...

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