A teen sex guru speaks

Kids -- and their parents -- need to tackle taboos, says psychiatrist Lynn Ponton.

Published January 10, 2001 8:01PM (EST)

It has been a hot and heavy season for studies on teen sex. American teenagers have been prodded to provide, in graphic detail, the who, what, where, why and even -- perhaps especially -- the how of their sexual desires and practices to curious (and sometimes salacious) journalists, talk show hosts and researchers. Adults, one-time teenagers who betray a haunting self-loathing about their own adolescence, wring their hands and debate issues of morals and values, while a new presidential administration prepares to make its mark on the country's always impressionable, always malleable and frequently demonized youth.

At the moment, there is a great deal of support -- cultural and institutional -- for programs that suggest adolescents should not have sex lives. Forty-eight states use federal funds for abstinence-only education -- that is, programs that teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage. And last week, a federal study splashed down in media large and small to claim that the "virginity pledge movement," a campaign initiated by the Southern Baptist Church in 1993 that requires teens to abstain from vaginal intercourse until marriage, is effective in delaying sexual activity among adolescents.

But what, exactly, counts as abstinence? Last month, the Alan Guttmacher Institute published the first national study to look at the sexual practices of adolescent boys, ages 15 to 19. Researchers found that while 55 percent of boys in this age group claimed to have had vaginal intercourse, two-thirds of the boys surveyed said they had engaged in oral sex, anal sex or "masturbation by a female." More than one in 10 boys had engaged in anal sex, half had received oral sex from a girl and slightly more than a third had performed oral sex on a girl. What's more, many of these teens said they do not consider oral or even anal sex to be sex -- some even called it "abstinence."

Lynn Ponton is a San Francisco psychoanalyst and adolescent psychiatrist who has spent more than 20 years talking directly to teens about their school, family and, yes, sex lives. She is the author of "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do" and "The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls." She is also the mother of two teenage girls.

"All adolescents have sex lives," writes Ponton in "The Sex Lives of Teenagers," "whether they are sexually active with others, with themselves, or seemingly not at all ... If more people could view adolescent sexuality as a potentially positive experience, rather than sanctioning it as one fraught with danger, young people would have a better chance of developing healthier patterns and making more positive choices."

Salon interviewed Ponton about the current American (adult) obsessions with teenage sexuality.

The recent Alan Guttmacher study tells us more than we've ever known about the sex lives of boys. Are they getting the kind of sex education they need to deal with the activities they are engaging in?

Put simply, conversations with boys -- as reflected in "Sex Lives" -- indicate that they function with very little information and many myths about sexuality.

The most obvious risk comes from the myth that boys won't -- or can't -- transfer HIV to girls via oral sex. You could say that they create this myth out of self-interest; but the truth is, they've never really had discussions. Many of the boys I talk with say they've had fewer than two hours of sex education in their entire middle school and high school lives. So they have a very limited amount of sex education of the sort that would be useful.

And what sort is that?

Here's what I think would be useful in sex education: Conversations with role-playing would be useful; conversations in groups about morals and values would be useful; debates where [each student] takes a different side of an issue would be useful. There are ways that we could get our young people involved. [Teenagers usually] have a semester-long course in sex education -- which is probably 15 to 20 hours -- but a lot of that course involves very passive activities. You know, watching movies, reading a book. There's very little actual discussion.

I would also like them to know more about girls' orgasm and pleasure and what's involved in that. We're beginning to see studies -- and it's a big point in my book -- that tell us that girls are not having orgasms. And many girls see their first sexual episode as being forced. Large numbers of girls -- 63 percent in one study -- reported that they felt afraid of their first sexual experience, compared to only 17 percent of boys. In 1994, the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that 74 percent of the girls who had intercourse before the age of 14, and 60 percent of those who had it before the age of 15, reported having had sex involuntarily.

But in talking with boys, I hear that they are concerned too. They don't want to be seen as forcing sex upon girls. The fact that they are more aware of that gives us an ideal opportunity to work with our boys and to educate them, too, about what's involved in girls' sexual pleasure.

Girls are really educated about what's involved in boys' sexual pleasure -- not in class, but by their peers. They spend hours devoted to how to give a good blow job. And they talk about technique. I don't want to go into it in great detail, but there's a lot of discussion about it.

In my entire existence -- some 20 years of listening to kids talk about sex -- I have never, ever heard a group of boys discussing how to give girls good [oral sex].

One of the things that I found interesting in the recent study on teenage boys' sexuality is that while 50 percent of boys claim to have received oral sex from a girl, only one-third claim to have performed oral sex on a girl. Has the emphasis on avoiding intercourse put girls at a disadvantage?

Absolutely. It has shifted the focus. One of the negatives to abstinence-only education is that within many of those programs, maintaining virginity is the top priority. So it's to girls' advantage to view oral sex, or even anal sex, as not being "sex." Oral sex and anal sex have always been there. I did my first study on oral and anal sex rates among teens in the early '80s. We surveyed kids in San Francisco and found very significant rates, even for anal sex. I was surprised: Twenty percent of girls reported that they were having anal sex. So that's been around for a long, long time. It's nothing new.

I actually think that vaginal or penetrative intercourse [among teens] is probably declining slightly. And that's consistent with the decline in pregnancy rates, and other things would indicate that. But we would hope that [a decline in teen intercourse] would result in girls' having increased self-esteem and feeling better about their sexuality.

What seems to be happening is that girls are still being pressured to serve boys -- and that's what I hear about, you know, that all boys now expect oral sex, that the boys themselves say, "This isn't sex," and that they are intent on getting it. It's put more pressure on girls in this area.

I don't think that the Guttmacher statistics accurately reflect how many boys perform oral sex on girls. If you ask boys: "How many times did you perform oral sex?" I think you're going to get, "Well, I tried it. Once." If you ask the question "How many times have you brought a person to orgasm via oral sex?" you would have many, many girls checking that box. With boys, I'd question whether you'd have 4 or 5 percent.

Wow. What does that do to the overall sexual health of teenagers?

Well, I think the focus on abstinence only is not necessarily a good one for all kids. I believe that we need to focus instead on healthy sexual lives. So what are the parts of healthy sexual lives? Good self-esteem. Reciprocity. You need to have a reciprocal interaction, where you can give, you can take. Trust. Intimacy. Pursuit of pleasure, but also giving pleasure. Those are the parts that we hear very little about, at least when we are talking about teenagers.

The early part of "Sex Lives" is about the return of studs and sluts, these mentalities. I think that the abstinence-only movement has even more clearly defined girls as sluts if they become sexually active. If -- that's the caveat. So it demarcates -- if you're sexually active, with intercourse, you're a slut.

In the last year and a half, perhaps ever since the Monica Lewinsky incident, we've seen a great interest on the part of adults in teens who have oral sex; they're talking about teen oral sex as if this is the first generation of teenagers ever to have oral sex. Do you think that there is a movement by adults to brand this generation of teenagers as being more promiscuous than previous generations?

Yes. Interestingly enough, often when an adult makes a mistake -- and in this case, it was the president of the United States who made a mistake -- then the kids are branded [as bad]. I don't think that he caused the teens in this country to have more oral sex. I think he actually brought out what was happening. I've received hundreds of e-mails from men and boys saying that they supported the president and that they did not believe that oral sex is sex.

Do women and girls agree with men and boys that oral and anal sex is "not really sex"?

Yes, but it's disturbing to me because, again, I do not believe that girls are recipients. I believe that girls consider giving oral sex to boys not to be sex, and don't see the service aspect to all of this. So I don't really see it as a sexual interaction for girls. I don't think that it brings them a good deal of pleasure. It brings them status within their community, with their boyfriend, but not trust, pleasure and an understanding of their own sexuality.

A smaller percentage of girls than boys say that oral sex isn't sex. There is a growing number of young women who are more informed about their sexuality. They're still a small percentage, but they are out there.

There is a girl I talk about in the book, Miriam, who had sex at 15. She was very informed about orgasm, her body, her feelings. A small group of girls like her is present. But it takes a while, I think, to understand how girls' sexuality is not served in our culture.

I think that we can educate our girls about the double standard. And we could also educate them about how to protect themselves in a world that validates male sexuality, but not female.

How would you do that in the classroom?

You can role-play. One of the most successful things is to reverse genders, to have girls be boys and boys be girls and to play different roles. That helps with the double standard because you allow [boys] to see what it's like being asked to give oral sex.

And there really are gender differences. Girls tend to rely on relationship-based issues to develop their morals, whereas boys, in general, will rely on principles. This in itself is not bad, but it's something that certainly would come up in debate and discussion.

"Morals and values" is such a loaded phrase. Many times it is used to indicate one thing: abstinence. How do you talk about morals and values to kids who have decided to be sexually active?

For so long, we've looked at kids who are sexually active and said, "They are immoral" or "They don't share our values." I actually believe that teens learn morals and values best by first watching ours, and second by discussion. They don't learn by having somebody like me lecture them. They learn by participating in a discussion where they are pushed to define their own particular morals. That's why parents need to be willing to talk about it.

In this country, the perception is that these [values] are just adopted lock, stock and barrel from an older generation. That is not how morals and values are learned. In fact, quite the contrary occurs: Kids don't listen to that type of format and they lie about what they are doing -- they go behind their parents' backs.

Many of the boys in the Guttmacher study seemed to be participating in activities that adults are uncomfortable talking about. Adults have a hard enough time talking to kids about vaginal intercourse. When it comes to oral sex, and especially anal sex, you're talking about a group of activities that a large number of adults consider immoral, and are in fact still banned in many states.

In 20 states, to be exact.

I have a hard time imagining a sex education instructor in this climate walking into a public school with a copy of Jack Morin's "Anal Pleasure and Health: A Guide for Men and Women."

Anal sex is not the place to begin sex education, but it's something that our kids are doing, so we have to be aware of it. Now that oral sex is such a topic of discussion, we have an opportunity to really educate our kids about this.

We are a sexually restrictive culture, with strong taboos, poor communication and restrictive gender roles. But to begin to have more discussion you have to look at what the kids are actually doing. A study like the one done by Guttmacher helps us to understand what kids need to talk more about.

Let's talk a little bit about Bush's choices for Cabinet positions. What do you see as the future of sex education under this administration?

Well, the nominee for secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson, is the former governor of Wisconsin. I think with him, we really don't know what's going to happen. But I am fearful that we might see a movement toward less sexual education and more abstinence-only education. And most of that is, you know, abstinence until marriage education.

Just to clarify: When we say that 48 states take abstinence-only money, does that mean that once they accept the money, the only sex ed programs they can teach are abstinence only? Or can the funds be used for, say, a portion of a semester-long sex education curriculum with a broader scope?

It means that a particular program is regulated. It doesn't affect the entire educational program, but it affects the part that the money is being used for. For the states using large amounts of abstinence-only money, there is a board that reviews the program and can cite or remove teachers who are too open. There also are sanctions involved with abstinence-only money that many parents are not aware of.

With the country as fractured politically as it is right now, adults can't even agree on issues such as gay and lesbian rights, much less whether or not premarital sex is acceptable. Does it still seem possible to have a sex education curriculum in the public schools that serves everybody?

Remember the recent Kaiser study? It came out about three months ago. Three-quarters of the parents in the survey felt that sex education programs in this country are limited and that kids need more education about a range of issues.

Parents may not want their child to be gay, they may not want their child to be sexually active, they may not want the child to have an abortion, but they recognize that for the good of their child, and other children in this country, this type of education is necessary. So I think that's the mandate that we need to respond to. If, in any other situation, such a large group wanted this to occur and we did not do it, there would be an outcry. Unfortunately, small groups that are very noisy about their discontent can prevent education for the majority.

Parents are now recognizing that if my daughter is not educated about, say, rape, I am depriving her of something she really needs. But it's going to take a long time to backtrack and rework our sex ed.

A quarter to a third of all parents have fairly negative views toward teenage sexuality. I think that's what we really have to worry about. We need to have sexual readiness workshops for parents in middle school and high school. Parents could come in, hear lectures, ask questions and participate in discussions. You think about sex ed for kids, but many of our parents are not ready to parent kids throughout this period.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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