Many of us just take it as a given that teen sexuality is something fraught and dangerous – and that if we’re to be responsible parents, it’s also something we need to do our best to prevent from happening.
There are a lot of reasons for this view.
One is that we live in a very sex-negative world, and nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to teens and sex (something I was reminded of by the slew of negative comments I got after writing about how to be a sex-positive parent for this site).
But there’s something else going on as well: A lot of parents came of age when teen sex looked a little different than it does today.
Indeed, between the 1970s and the early 2000s, a lot more teens were having sex than are today and a lot more were experiencing things like unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (which has been given to ninth through twelfth grade students in public and private schools across the United States since 1991), despite what many are lead to believe, over the past 25 years, there have actually been a lot of changes in teen sexual health.
For example, in 1991, 54% of the teen respondents had ever had sexual intercourse. In 2013, that number was 47%. Similarly, while over 10% of 1991’s respondents had sexual intercourse before they were 13, in 2013 that number dropped to 5.5%.
Really, in a range of areas, from the amount of partners, to the rates of teen pregnancy, the numbers have declined. And the one place where we have seen an increase? The percent of sexually active teens who used a condom the last time they had sex. This rose from 46% to 59%.
But a lot of parents don’t realize this and assume that whatever recollections they carry from their own youth are still relevant today.
Additionally, people are finally having public conversations about sexual assault and consent, and about sexual orientation and gender identity. This can include some pretty serious stuff for parents to digest. But just because we’re currently talking about certain formerly taboo topics doesn’t mean that these issues didn’t exist in the past. It just means that people who were suffering or marginalized had fewer places to turn for help and support.
When you combine these new conversations with parents’ inaccurate perceptions, the default belief becomes one where teen sex is assumed to be more prevalent – and more dangerous than ever – when in reality, the opposite is true.
That parents hold these mistaken views might not seem like such a big deal, since a lot of people just assume that it is simply common sense to discourage teens from having sex. But the result of this notion is that if young people get any message about sex at all, it’s often that sex is shameful.
Yet research has demonstrated that teens who can be open about their sexuality with their parents fare better in every aspect of their sexual health. And study after study has found that sexual shame harms people in myriad ways.
From heightening the likelihood of substance abuse and eating disorders, to increasing STI and HIV risk, to preventing survivors of sexual assault from reporting the crimes, to compulsive pornography consumption, there is no doubt that framing sex in negative terms has real world consequences.
So how can we counter the media messages, abstinence education programs, and our own biases that contribute to all this? Well, we can start by respecting our teen’s sexuality.
And here are three ways parents can do that.
1. Don’t Deny the Possibility That a Teen Can Be Queer
Sometimes, parents act as if teens who comes out as LGBTQIA+ don’t actually know what they’re talking about.
As one teen wrote into the LGBTQIA+ teens site that I edit:
I’m bi, and my parents don’t believe me. They say, ‘You’re too young to know’ or ‘It’s just for shock value.’ I’ve known since I was like eight, and they still don’t believe me.
This is a pretty common situation.
Parents may be in denial, truly believing that teens are too young to know their sexual orientations or gender identities. Or they simply don’t want a queer child and hope that acting as if it isn’t possible will have the desired effect.
It won’t. And neither will any of those “conversion therapy” programs that claim they can change gender identity or sexual orientation.
Such programs are incredibly damaging, and people often emerge from them feeling bad about themselves and experiencing guilt when they’re not able to change.
As a result, not only has basically every legitimate medical and psychological organization derided them, but more and more states are banning conversion therapy programs altogether.
So for the record, not only is it definitely possible for teens to be LGBTQIA+, but it’s also definitely impossible (let alone immoral) to do anything to try to change this.
What you can try to change is how you respond to a queer or questioning child.
Though there are lots of ways to demonstrate love and support, you may have to do some personal work, like confronting your own homophobia and biases, to be able to do so.
But in order to truly respect your child and best set them up for a positive future, that work is worthwhile.
2. Avoid Positioning Your Teen’s Sexual Desires as Problematic and Shameful
Remember those studies I mentioned earlier on sexual shame? The ones that found that shame leads to terrible outcomes?
That’s pretty scary stuff.
But just as parents can contribute to their teens’ sexual shame, they also have the power to counter some of these messages.
Yet when it comes to teens, many of us pathologize the simple fact of adolescent sexuality without realizing how damaging doing so can be. That isn’t surprising when we remember that so many parents are carrying with them their own lifetime of discomfort with sexuality.
Plus, parents often think they’re doing the right thing by reinforcing the messages that teens get in their school sex education programs, where far too often, the message is a negative one.
Indeed, in 25 states, schools are required to stress abstinence before marriage. These programs teach kids and teens – including those who are queer or victims of sexual assault – that having any sex outside of a heterosexual marriage is shameful.
As Think Progress reports, programs compare teens who have sex to used tape, dirty chocolate, chewed up gum, a cup of spit, and a rose without petals, among other things.
But it isn’t only in schools and at home that kids learn that sex is a terrible thing. This message is reinforced through the media, and it’s written into laws specifically designed to punish teens, and particularly young women, for having sex.
As Meredith Clark asks in a piece on the dangers of shaming teens about sex, “Why does so much legislation come from fear of young women being sexually active? Why is it that the only thing scarier than teenage girls being coerced into having sex seems to be teenage girls choosing to do it?”
3. Talk About Sex – And When You Do, Make it Positive
A lot of us are used to framing teen sex as a negative thing. We tell teens that they aren’t ready for sex. We warn them of the risks. We prohibit them from learning about the subject.
But when you only talk about sex in negative terms, or when you don’t talk about it at all, this sends a pretty clear message that sex is off limits and illicit.
So it can be really tough to flip the script. But doing that isn’t impossible.
We can talk positively about pleasure and consent. We can reassure teens that their sexual thoughts are normal. We can explain that having sexual experiences doesn’t brand or tarnish them. We can stop the victim-blaming and sex-shaming that come so naturally.
We can also take a leaf from the organization Advocates for Youth who offers these tips on how parents can demonstrate respect for their teen’s sexuality.
- Be willing, even when uncomfortable, to talk with your children about sexuality, relationships, love, and commitment.
- Encourage strong decision-making skills by providing youth with age-appropriate opportunities to make decisions and to experience the consequences of those decisions. Allow young people to make mistakes and encourage them to learn from those mistakes.
- Encourage teens to create a resource list of organizations to which they can turn for assistance with sexual health and other issues.
- Encourage your faith community to offer a sexuality education program for young people.
- Actively support comprehensive sexuality education in the schools.
- Actively voice your concerns if the sexuality education being taught in local public schools is biased, discriminatory, or inaccurate, has religious content, or promotes a particular creed or denomination.
- Encourage your teens to see healthcare providers for reproductive and sexual healthcare and make condoms, if applicable, available in your home for older teens.
- Support the development and operation of school- and community-based adolescent health centers.
- Request an education program on parent-child communication about sexuality from your employer, faith community, and/or local PTA.
Taking these steps can show your teen that not only are you there for them on a personal level, but also that your commitment to teen sexual health goes beyond simply your own family and is part of your larger values system.
So often, we demonize teens’ sexuality without even realizing we’re doing so.
We do this when we punish teens for having sexual thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We do this when we frame our conversations about sex only in terms of the worst-case scenarios. We do this when we blame teens for having bad experiences with sex. We do this when we deny teens’ sexual orientations and gender identities.
And we do this when we carry our own negative experiences with sex over to them.
But these are all things we can change.
Respecting our teens’ sexuality may not come naturally, and it might take some work on our part. But doing so will help ensure teens are healthier in a whole range of ways!
Ellen Kate is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometimes writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen runs a middle and high school health education program and teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.