A new book explores parental delusions about their teens' sexuality
“Not my kid!” It’s the refrain heard regularly not just on trashy daytime talk shows but, as sociologist Sinikka Elliott found, when parents talk about their teenagers and sex.
The North Carolina State University professor interviewed parents in an unnamed red state for her book, “Not My Kid: What Parents Believe About the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers,” and found an impressive level of denial. “Teenagers’ actual behaviors,” she writes, “do not seem very significant in terms of shaping the sense parents have that their own teens are young, immature, and naive.” Drug use, vandalism, even pregnancy often fails to destroy this fantasy. The same is true of parents’ own memories about what it was actually like being a teen. At the same time, though, sexual threats are seen as ever present — from someone else’s sex-crazed kid, someone else’s corruptive parental influence, someone else’s perversion. Rarely do parents attribute the risk to their own child’s sexual desire or agency. Surprise, surprise.
Elliott was inspired to write the book after attending heated Texas Board of Education meetings in 2004 about sex education: The polarizing arguments she heard there, on both sides of the debate, didn’t match her own experience as a parent and she wondered, “What do parents who are not involved in the battle over sex education say to their kids about sex and sexuality?” After interviewing parents at all points on the political spectrum, she found that she wasn’t alone: The polarizing rhetoric about sex ed in this country didn’t reflect the more complex and ambivalent attitudes of they expressed to her. Rather then take a side in this ongoing fight, she argues for a move away from this “danger discourse” in which adult sex is portrayed as inherently good and teen sex inherently bad. “Adults are not, just because of their age, immune to the negative consequences of sex,” she writes, “just as teenagers are not immune to the positive effects.”
Elliott talked to Salon by phone about parental denial, the similarities between abstinence-only and sex-ed arguments and why the Netherlands is so much smarter about teen sex.
Parents tend to see their own teens as asexual. Why is that?
As I talk about in the book, parents tend to think of their own kids as young and immature. I talk about a couple of reasons why; the most obvious one is that the kids aren’t fronting at home. [laughs] Parents are more likely to see their kids when their guards are down.
Parents would often talk about their kids as young and immature but then they would describe a lot of things that we would think of as pretty mature, like smoking pot, getting drunk, going for joyrides, engaging in vandalism and getting picked up by the police. A lot of times, parents followed up these stories with, “So they’re not really that interested in sex.” What I see happening is that parents are constructing their kids in this way, as little and young, to think about them as not being interested in sex. Parents don’t want to think of their kids as sexual beings.
We’ve done a really good job of constructing sexually active teens in a highly negative way, in a way that really emphasizes the risks, the peril — and not the pleasure. When’s the last time you heard anything about teen sexual activity that was positive? Parents aren’t hearing anything positive about teen sexuality, they’re hearing about the profound physical, psychological and social consequences of sex. So of course when they look at their teens they don’t want to imagine their kid encountering those risks.
You found that parents tend to view other people’s kids as sexually active and dangerous –
Right. So, at the same time that we have this danger discourse, this idea that sex and teens equals an inherent risk, we also hear a lot about teenagers as vessels of raging hormones, as especially motivated to have sex. In our country we tend to think of kids as risk-takers, thrill-seekers and that magnifies parents’ fears. I think parents are calling on that to say, “I know how teens are these days, but I’m not seeing it in my own kid.”
Somewhat related, has the rise in fears about stranger danger and shows like “To Catch a Predator” influenced parents’ perceptions of teen sexuality?
That’s a great point. Over the past four decades or so there’s been this real movement to shift the way we think about child sexual abuse, and part of that has been really important in terms of shifting responsibility off of children. It’s kind of bizarre to think that in the ’60s, psychologists might have talked about the child as enticing the abusers, or thought about the child being active in the interaction. It’s been really important that we’re no longer thinking that kids are leading on their accusers, but as some historians have nicely shown, the way that we did that was by saying that kids are totally innocent, sex is outside of their understanding. We kind of [erased] what might have been thought of as a child’s natural interest and curiosity about sex.
The parents I interviewed talked a lot about not just stranger danger, but ever-present danger, and they typically referred to the media when they did that. Like, “I just heard about a grandmother who molested her grandson!” There’s this sense that it could be anyone. In addition to concerns about their children’s peers they’re really worried about adults. When parents talked about sex and teenagers they tended to characterize it really negatively and it’s always suggested that sex as an adult is a positive experience — but when they talk about these predatory adults, and some parents talk about their own sex lives, they really revealed that false binary between teenagers and sex being bad and adults and sex being good. Lots of adults are struggling with sexual issues, lots of adults don’t have happy and fulfilling sex lives.
It seems like there’s this desire to believe that magically once their kids became adults and got married they would have a healthy, happy sex life, that they wouldn’t need any guidance about, say, sexual pleasure.
The parents think kids are hearing a lot about pleasure. They see TV, they see ads for Abercrombie & Fitch, they see this notion that sex is a pleasurable thing everywhere.
So parents perceive that there are these messages about the pleasures of sex, we live in a highly sexualized culture, so they feel they need to counter that positive message — but those positive messages are so detached from sex itself, and from pleasure.
And sometimes they’re not even that positive, right?
Did you find any parents who were able to talk about sexual pleasure with their kids?
I explicitly asked parents this and most said that would be risky and morally wrong to do. But I had a few parents who really thoughtfully said, “You know, I did this when they were younger because I really do think it’s important, but it’s become a lot harder to do this as they’ve gotten older because of the ‘ew’ factor,” or “As they get older, they have a better sense of what I’m talking about, they start to think about me doing those things.” Parents think that when they’re talking to their kids about specific sexual acts or pleasure that they may be immediately thinking about them doing those things and might be, as parents put it, “grossed out.”
I have one parent in particular, she’s a sexual health educator and identified as very liberal on the political spectrum, and she said pleasure was a big focus of her conversations with her teen daughters. Her stance as a parent was to introduce the idea that her daughters were entitled to pleasure and that sex should be pleasurable; she even told them that masturbation was a way that she had learned about her body and helped her be more comfortable with sex. But she still struggled with these conversations and the implications of them for her daughters’ sense of self and sexual safety.
From what you found in your interviews, how did parents talk to their teens about sex? What did these conversations look like?
Most of them are saying that you may want to have sex now but it’s a mistake, sex is something that should be happening later in life, you’re not mature enough, there are all these dangers. A lot of parents said it was their job to teach their kids about the dangers of sex and held themselves very morally accountable for that. I asked all the parents if they’d let their kids have a sleepover and invariably they said, “Right, so I let my kid have a sleepover and two months later she’s pregnant? What are people gonna think?” The default is that sex is a dangerous enterprise — and I do think it is. I don’t think parents are mistaken, because it is more dangerous in this country to have sex than it is, for example, in the Netherlands, where they have kids getting access to free contraceptives and there’s an open dialogue about it. We have a higher teen pregnancy rate than these other nations, so you can see how there’s kind of a feedback loop.
Debates about sex ed are so incredibly polarized between the beliefs that knowledge is either protective or dangerous. Is that division representative of parents’ feelings and experiences when it comes to talking to their kids about sex?
Not really, it’s more complicated. I saw a real intermingling of sexual conservativism and sexual liberalism. Parents were a lot more uncertain than I think has been characterized in the media.
I talked to a dad who identified as very conservative on the political spectrum, who saw himself as a very devout Catholic and really wanted to raise his sons within the faith. Of course a big thing was that condoms aren’t part of that equation, he didn’t want his son to use contraception, but he and his wife were actually using it to limit the number of children they have. His son actually found his condoms, he caught his son trying on a condom of his, so he was like, “How do I say. ‘I don’t want you to do this, this is against our religion, but on the other hand, yes, I do this’?” He was really opposed to sex education in schools, at least in the beginning of the interview, but partway through he said, “It’s hard to admit, but I’m actually kind of glad that he’s getting information somewhere, because I’m not able to have that conversation with him.”
You argue that both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex ed camps treat teenage sexuality in a similar way. How so?
Well, that was one thing that really struck me when I was at these public meetings about sex ed. I thought, wow, this is a really divisive topic, people are really up in arms about this — but then I realized that they’re all saying the same thing, essentially. They’re basically saying that this is an uber dangerous enterprise for teens. One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.
How can we change the discourse on teenage sexuality? What is a better approach?
I think we can and should shift the discourse, but we need to start talking about the evidence there is that teens are actually being quite responsible when it comes to sex. There was research that came out a year or so ago that showed that sexually active teens were more likely to use condoms than were sexually active singles in their 50s. We can highlight those sorts of findings that suggest teens are capable of engaging in sex responsibly and that there are specific things we can do to make that more so. Making access to contraception easier is one thing. At the same time, I think access to good healthcare is important. Parents are right on to be concerned about STIs, but we also have a really great health infrastructure in place to detect and treat STIs. I think all teens deserve to have access to that kind of healthcare, and that can lower the stakes. Parents talked a lot about HPV — they worry about it because it’s been linked to cancer — but as I say in the book, we have ways of detecting that at a very early stage and treating it well before it develops into any kind of cancer — if teens have access to those kinds of medical services.
I also talk about some of Jessica Fields’ argument — she wrote a book called “Risky Lessons” about sex education — and she argues that we should start framing sex really broadly, not just focusing so narrowly on sexual intercourse. Her argument is: Why are we talking about sexually active teens as only those who are engaged in some form of sexual activity? We’re all sexually active because we all have bodies and we all live in a culture that’s imbued with sex. It challenges us to fundamentally rethink how we’re talking about teens and sexuality.