Editor's note: Many readers write to ask questions, most often about the frequently overwhelming or infuriating experience of being the parent of a teenager or a young child with confounding emotional quirks. We now offer some answers in a column called Second Opinions. In it, Dr. Lynn Ponton and Dr. Lawrence Diller take turns addressing reader queries about childhood behavioral issues and adolescence. Dr. Ponton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oct. 24, 2002 | Dear Dr. Ponton,
How much do I tell my 12-year-old daughter about sex? Her best friend has an older sister and the girls were reading the sister's notes to a pal. Apparently, they were notes about sex because my daughter came home and asked me what a blow job is! I tried to explain, but I'm wondering, does she need to know this now?
-- Seattle Mom
When to tell? What to tell? How much to tell? I first began to study the issue of children and parent communication about sex while writing "The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Hidden World of Adolescent Boys and Girls." I had many questions and was searching for some clear answers. I discovered no shortage of answers. In fact, the murky nature of sex seems to lend itself to a large number of self-described experts who insist that they are the single, omniscient bearer of truth. An example of this was recently revealed by the slew of books that rigidly outline sexual talk, focusing on behavior and dating. Almost all of these are directed at women and teenage girls. A quick perusal of these books is sadly informative.
"The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right," a grandmother in this genre, encourages girls and women to adopt a pre-feminist stance and focus on playing hard to get. Many of the rules underscore the manipulative strategy of this type of sexual etiquette book, emphasizing withholding sexual activity (oral sex included) as the most successful technique in what sounds like a barter system. The strategy includes tips such as "Don't talk to a man or boy first and don't ask him to dance" (Rule 2) and "Don't call him and rarely return his calls" (Rule 5). Advice like this encourages women and girls not to be themselves if they want successful dating experiences. A teen version of this book is now available. It's more moderate (by offering advice, not rigid rules), but it still encourages character surgery. Rule 24 is "Don't ask a boy if he loves you."
A contrast to the older guides is a recent article in the October edition of Rolling Stone magazine, detailing the sexual advice of an American girl named Jordan. Entitled "Do Me or Else," the language is different from the older books, but her advice reveals a similar attitude about relationships. Jordan's Rule 1 is "Be a guy." Rule 2 is "Get, don't give" (which refers to oral sex). In typical Rolling Stone and teenage-girl fashion, the last rule is "Forget the rules," perhaps the best advice Jordan has to offer. Unlike her predecessors, Jordan refers directly to blow jobs and doesn't mince words. When asked if she ever gives them, she says: "I'd consider it ... but only if he'd gone down on me numerous times, and, like, really pleased me." From my reading, the barter operation underlying this strategy appears to be one of getting as much as you can, even if you have to change yourself to accomplish it. And that looks a lot like the older rules.
Why do girls (and many women) seem to need rules about sexual behavior? First and foremost, finding out about sex has always been a primary task of teenagers. Like the daughter described in this letter, teens ask questions and want to know about the subject. An interest in rules may be a part of healthy curiosity. Recent studies also indicate that teens want to have more conversations about sex with their parents.
An examination of the current sexual landscape for adolescents helps us understand why sex may be even more confusing today than in past generations. There are many pressures on teens today. These are brought on by their own bodies (earlier puberty for both sexes), the media (sexual exploitation of teen bodies to sell products, a process that leaves many young people feeling that their bodies don't measure up), societal changes that include a return to restrictive gender roles and the double standard for girls, and more restrictive sexual education (49 states are now taking money for abstinence-only education, so not only is there no mention of condoms, but there is also little discussion of oral sex). The strong double standard that devalues sexually active girls is one reason that girls, more than boys, are seeking rules.
This sexual landscape is the legacy to our children. Parents have the power to make a vital difference. Conversations do count. The mother in this letter is extremely fortunate that her daughter is asking her about sex. This offers an ideal opportunity for mom to share basic information, beginning with a definition in simple words, followed by a conversation in which she checks to make sure of her daughter's understanding and pauses to answer additional questions.
I encourage parents to think back on their own adolescent feelings before they have conversations with their children about sex. Teenage sexuality can bring both pain and pleasure to young people and to the parents who love and support them. If more people could view and discuss adolescent sexuality as a potentially positive experience, rather than simply warning that it is fraught with danger, young people would have a better chance of developing healthier patterns and making more positive choices. It's also key to remember that explorations of sexuality are intensely personal. They continue throughout life. Exploring sexuality is an important part of life for children, teens and adults.
Here are my guidelines (not rules!) for effective communication with children about sex:
1. Speak directly to your teen and use simple language to describe both feelings and activities.
2. Start conversations about sex early with discussions about biology, language your child may hear outside the home, and messages about sex in the media.
3. Remember that sexuality is confusing for teens. Talk with them about the extremes in our cultural attitudes toward sex, from Victorian embarrassment to sexual exploitation.
4. Talk about your feelings and lessons you've learned without describing specifics. Explore stories about other teens and ask your child for his or her opinion and ideas.
5. Maintain an ongoing dialogue and communicate morals, values and examples.
6. Understand that all teenagers have sexual lives, whether with others or through fantasies. This is an important part of adolescence that helps them to discover and develop their individual sexual identity, a vital part of everyone's identity.
7. Recognize that adolescence is about taking risks, sexually and in other ways. Encourage your teen to talk with other trusted adults about sexuality.
8. Look out for red flags indicating dangerous sexual behavior such as unprotected intercourse, repeated exposure to victimization in unhealthy or dangerous sexual relationships, or a history of sexually abusing others. Other psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, self-mutilation, and clusters of unhealthy risk-taking, might occur at the same time.
9. Educate yourself about the spectrum of adolescent sexual behaviors. Attempting to enforce rigid gender roles or sexual orientation can be extremely damaging.
10. Be aware of how you speak and act concerning sexual and gender issues in front of your teens. Adolescents respond best to suggestions rather than directives, highlighting the importance of the parent's role as guide during these crucial years.
As a last look at this letter, it's noteworthy that this girl did not ask her mother what cunnilingus was. Maybe we have our former president to thank for that, but it is important when discussing sex with our sons and daughters that we mention it right along with fellatio. This is an area where even basic knowledge is deficient for most of us. For further information, consult the Sexual Health InfoCenter. This subject has been taboo for so many years that it still holds the lost shock value of many other areas of sexuality.
As an interesting side note, the term "blow job" does not refer to the action (despite generations of teenage girls confused about whether to suck or blow). Strangely enough, the term probably comes to us from the poet Walt Whitman, who penned it in his poem "I Sing the Body Electric," in which "white-blow" is a reference to male ejaculation.