When "yes" means "'cause if I say 'no' he'll be mad"

Yet another survey shows that teens need real-life sex ed.

Published June 7, 2006 7:38PM (EDT)

Somewhere amid all the hype about girls gone wild and freshly HPV-vaccinated teens gleefully joining "sex cults" are real kids trying to figure out how to handle sexual relationships. With no help, I might add, from the Sex Doesn't Exist 'Til Marriage crowd.

And a new survey published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has confirmed, not surprisingly, that teens are not necessarily getting the hang of it. Among the 279 Indianapolis-area girls ages 14-17 who were interviewed for the study, 41 percent said they'd engaged in unwanted sex. The most common reason for doing so: fear that their boyfriends would be angry if they didn't. Unwanted sex was also tied to lower contraception use, meaning a higher risk that sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy could add injury to insult. Never mind the risk of anxiety, depression or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the Alan Guttmatcher Institute (PDF), sex ed is not mandated in Indiana schools. If it is taught, abstinence is to be "stressed" (as opposed to simply "covered"). Discussion of contraception is not required.

Surely many teens, in Indiana and elsewhere, manage to have healthy sexual or proto-sexual relationships (and maybe even effective sex ed). But that doesn't change reality for those who don't. "We need to give guidance to teens on how to communicate with each other," lead study author Margaret J. Blythe, a pediatrician at the Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis, told Reuters, adding that the importance of cluing in boys to what constitutes pressure -- and educating them about sexual relationships in general -- "is often the untalked-about part."

Well, yeah. Just teaching girls to fend off male advances -- like the "role-plays" we did in high school -- doesn't seem to cut it; seems to me sex is something teens need to learn to negotiate together as peers, not warring clans. Girls need to learn -- and not just in sex ed! -- that (setting aside the sometimes real threat of violence) the world will keep spinning if they say no when they want to ... even if he gets mad or, God forbid, leaves for someone else. Girls need to understand that, actually, not all guys will get mad if they say no. And girls need to see identities for themselves, in the present and future, beyond "girlfriend." Likewise, boys need to be offered life goals other than getting a girl to say yes, and, more broadly, not to be treated as if they're the marauding macked-out enemy. Girls and boys need to be brought to understand that -- despite what they may see or hear among their peers or in "the media" -- not all relationships are made up of hounding guys and acquiescing girls to begin with.

While this study itself is small, and mainly serves to echo previous research, it at least adds to the pile of evidence that sex education needs to say way more than "Just don't."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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