October was just "national talk to your teens about sex" month, and started many great conversations. But this is a topic that deserves more than a month of our time. Many parents, teachers, and even some clinicians cringe at the idea of talking about sex with teens. And when adults do talk to teens, conversations usually focus just on the dangers of sex and romance -- STD's, pregnancy, and heartbreak.
But when we dramatize teenage sexuality by focusing only on its risks, we don't give young people the tools to mature into sexually and emotionally healthy adults. However well-intentioned, messages like "teens cannot control their raging hormones," "boys just want one thing," or "sex can ruin your life" don't make for healthy conversations between parents and children.
How can American parents and other adults talk with teenagers about sexuality and romantic relationships in more positive terms, while bolstering young people's capacities to protect themselves against potential negative experiences and consequences?
The first step is to recognize that the majority of teenagers engage in some form of sexual intimacy before leaving high school, and that the question of under what conditions sex takes place is as important as whether it happens at all. Parents may feel most anxious about the question of whether "it" has happened and if so, whether "it" is still happening, but conversations may be easier if parents pay more attention to what I call the ABCD's of adolescent sexuality: Autonomy, Building healthy relationships, Connectedness, and Diversity.
We tend to dramatize teenage sexuality through the assumption that young people are unable to exercise control over their urges and interactions. But they can do so, provided we help teens develop autonomy in relation to sexuality. Too often, we emphasize only one aspect of autonomy: saying "no" to sex. But to fully understand and communicate about boundaries, young people need to also understand their sexual wishes, distinguish these wishes from others' expectations, decide how to act on their desires, and take responsibility for their choices. We can encourage such self-knowledge and ownership by urging teens to move slowly when they explore, progressing only when both partners feel comfortable and really want it. We might ask teens: "What do think 'being ready' for sex means?" "When is a couple ready?" "If you felt ready, where would you get condoms and other contraceptives?"
In our society, we have few cultural scenarios for discussing healthy intimacy that don't revolve around marriage, yet we do not want teens or even those in their early twenties to embark on marriage. While we send the message that marriage can wait, relationships do not, and young people need to learn that building healthy relationships requires mutual interest, respect, care and trust. To start that conversation, we might ask: "Among your friends, are there couples you admire? Why? What makes that relationship special?" "Are there couples whose relationship bothers you? What might improve their relationship?" If romance proves too loaded a topic, we might start by asking teenagers about their friendships.
Parents are often troubled by teenage sexuality because they feel it is an area in which they have little control, as many teens, particularly girls, hide their sexual lives from their parents -- for fear of disappointing them or being judged. However, maintaining parent-teen connectedness is critical for teenage wellbeing, sexually and otherwise. Experts often urge parents to clearly communicate their values, but I would add the recommendation to state clearly: "The most important thing to me is my relationship with you; even if you behave differently from what I would wish or believe is right for you, I want you to feel that you can talk to me." By keeping that connection strong and the conversation open, parents are able to have more influence.
Teenage sexuality is an arena of life in which Americans see some of our greatest personal and cultural diversity. That diversity can be hard to talk about; it encompasses a range of orientations and beliefs that many parents find troubling. At the same time, it offers parents and educators a great opportunity to enter into conversations about accepting and respecting difference within a community: Much as teens want to be and look like everyone else in their peer group, sexuality is an arena in which each person is unique. And young people need to learn that teenagers range in the pace of their physical and emotional development; vary in sexual orientations, and may hold different beliefs about sex based on their religion and culture.
The ABCD's go far beyond what we usually think of as "the talk." Like all healthy relationships, they take time. Conversations about knowing when you're ready, building good relationships, staying connected despite disappointment, and honoring uniqueness in oneself and in others take more than a one-time talk. But when placed in the context of human emotion, connections, and respect for difference, sexuality can lose some of the "ick" factor that drives parents and teens to avoid the topic altogether. When we focus on young people's emergent autonomy, their burgeoning relationships, on our ongoing connection with our children, and our recognition of diversity, we can educate from hope rather than fear.
Amy Schalet is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a specialist on adolescent sexuality and culture in comparative perspective. Her new book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex was released on November 1, 2011 by the University of Chicago Press,