Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes
Chapter 9 – Teenage sex and human values
A Discussion on Sex: Six Parents – Six Different Views
A group of mothers deeply worried about their teenagers met to discuss a common concern. The subject was sex. The discussion illustrates how differently six persons from on community feel about this issue.
A: I come from a strict and old-fashioned family. Sex was never discussed in our home. Love was something spiritual and private. I dreamt of romance but I never talked about it with my parents. I find it terribly upsetting when my daughter asks me questions about sex.
B: I have the same problem. Whenever my teenager asks me anything about sex, my face turns crimson. I freeze. I stutter. Despite all my efforts, I feel embarrassed. My son laughed at me when I once said that two rabbits got married. I couldn't bring myself to say they mated.
C: Sex has always been a puzzle to me. I don't know what's right and what's wrong. My mother used to say that “All men are alike. They want only on thing.” I was taught that sex was ugly. I don't want my son and daughter to feel that way.
D: In the old days, self-control was a virtue. Now it is a vice. “Chaste make waste,” says my nineteen-year-old daughter, “Chastity has no more value than malnutrition.” My college sophomore believes that it is all right to have sex, provided there is mutual love. Her older brother, a college senior, is more “advanced.” He believes that it is all right to have sex without love, as long as there is mutual enjoyment. “Sex with love is fine,” he explained, “but sex without love is better than nothing.”
E: I am a liberal mother. I do not believe that virtue depends on abstinence. But I am concerned about my beautiful daughter. I don't want her to be exploited. I don't want this flower to end up in a fool's buttonhole.
A: I have tried to keep my daughter away from boys. I have told her true stories, about what can happen to young girls. I wanted her to be safe. I'm afraid I have succeeded too much. My seventeen-year-old is so naïve, I wish she were more sophisticated and world-wise.
E: You daughter could use some “bad” influence and some sex education. Morality depends on knowledge, not ignorance. I think teenagers should know about sexual matters, about lovemaking, conception, and contraception.
B: It's not easy to change old attitudes. Despite all intellectual education I'm a prude. I wish I weren't but I am. All this talk about sexual liberation and meaningful relationships means only one thing to me: premarital sex. I can't sanction it. I still believe it is a sin.
D: I'm concerned with the welfare of my daughter. If she were mature, I would not worry about her behavior. But she is not. There is a terrible gap between her sexual wants and her emotional maturity. Only time can bridge this gap. What do I do till then?
E: It's time to stop teaching old prejudices about sex. Teenagers fall in love and make love. There is little we can do about it, except to instruct them in the safe use of contraception.
C: Many young people don't want to use contraception. They prefer to live dangerously. They feel invulnerable. They play Russian roulette with their young lives.
E: I am tired of the double standard. If women are to be really free, sex education and birth control must be accepted openly. For me, the issue is not “chastity versus loss of virginity,” but “responsible love versus promiscuity.”
A: Sexual freedom is fine, but not for my daughter. All I can see is that it will lead to superficial infatuations, erotic involvements, and heartbreak. It may be good for boys, but not for girls. “The bee may fly from flower to flower, but the flower must never go from bee to bee.”
F: When I was young I pasted on my bathroom mirror Hemingway's ethical manifesto: “What's moral is what you feel good after. What's immoral is what you feel bad after.” I made love without guilt or remorse. I was determined to be free of culturally induced complications. I was not indifferent to my parents' feelings but I wanted to be independent of their moral judgments. But now I am a mother of a teenage daughter. And I am confused. Intellectually, I can accept the idea that she will have sex before marriage. But I don't want to know about it. I don't want her to consult me or to share with me, and of course, I don't want her to get pregnant.
C: If I live through this week, I am immortal. I'll never die. Three days ago I found my daughter all curled up in bed crying like a baby. She thought she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. My sweet, beautiful Linda, the apple of her father's eye. My first impulse was to kill her and butcher the boy. But an inner voice warned me: Don't attack. Be helpful! When things go wrong, do something right. I said, “We don't know for sure that you are infected. A doctor can tell us.” Today we found out that Linda had not been infected. We were relieved of a nightmare. But we had paid a terrible price in anxiety, fear, and shame.
D: It's obvious that the fear of venereal disease and of pregnancy does not stop young people from sex. Therefore, we must show them how to handle their sexuality. We must provide them with knowledge and protection. We cannot put a dam on the flow of life but we can teach how to swim in turbulent waters.
A Conflict of Values
This discussion reflects a deep conflict of values. Some parents feel that the time has come to accept the new reality. They are worried about sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and ruined reputations. They hope to avoid these dangers through candid sex education. Some of them would supply their older teenagers with information and contraception.
Other parents reject these measures, indignantly. They fear that such liberty will encourage license. They feel that society cannot sanction teenage sex because early erotic awakening may endanger civilization. As one father put it: “The main task of youth is to study and to acquire knowledge. To accomplish this task it is best to keep the ‘lid on the id.'” Some parents find even discussion of sex repugnant and in bad taste. Another father said: “Sex may have gone as public as AT&T but I want not share in it.” Some parents fear that sex talk will stimulate sex acts, even when the goal is self-control. These parents believe strongly that even in this era of changing mores appropriate parental models can assure desirable teenage conduct. As one parent put it: “Only when we adults set a decent example and demand decent behavior will children become the kind of people we want them to be.” The question is: How can teenagers maintain desirable standards in a society that is frankly sex-oriented?
A Public Paradox
In matters of sex, attitudes speak louder than words. What is our society's true attitude toward sex? What is our conception of high morality? We have models of wealth and ideals of heroism. We know what is great in art and who excels in science. But as a society, we lack models of moral excellence.
Thoughtful teenagers are puzzled by a prevalent public paradox. On the one hand, our society is sex-obsessed and money-motivated. For fun and profit, sex is smeared on screens, blown up on billboards, and used for commercial enticement. On the other hand, society says it believes in premarital abstinence. This situation creates conflict and tension.
The Tumbling Taboos
The temper of our time is candor and freedom. Sex is not longer a forbidden subject. It is taught in school and discussed at home. Even in church, morality is reevaluated in light of reality. And in reality, sex has always been popular.
Why Sex Education?
Teenagers are eager to learn all they can about sex. They are bothered and perplexed and want realistic and personal answers. When offered and opportunity to discuss sex seriously, teenagers talk freely and sensibly. They look for standards and meaning. They want to come to terms with their sexuality, and to integrate it into their total personality.
Should sex education be offered to teenagers? This question comes too late. Sex is already being “taught” – on screen, in the school yard, and in the streets. In words and pictures, our children are exposed to sex that is often sordid and vulgar. Our streets are a ceaseless source of misinformation. Smut sellers never hesitate to share sex. Peers gladly tell of experiences, real and imagined. It is the parent and teacher who often fear to share intimate information.
Says sixteen-year-old Selma :
“I can't ask my mother anything about sex. It I do, she starts wondering why I asked the question. ‘What do you want to know for?' she insists, ‘unless…'”
Says fourteen-year-old Juliet:
“My mother believes that ignorance assures innocence. She gets mad when I ask her anything about sex. She says, ‘Your husband will teach you all you have to know.”
Says fifteen-year-old Joshua:
“My father always blows his horn about being frank and truthful. But his honesty stops where sex begins. This is one area where my candor is not welcomed.
Nineteen-year-old Natalie, a college sophomore says:
“My parents and I live by the grace of an unspoken code: ‘No deep questions, no real answers.' They really don't want to know what goes on. And I can't tell them. I am, so to speak, a good girl with conventional morals. I like to date. The first few meetings are pleasant. Then comes pressure. You're invited to parties with liquor and drugs. It's taken for granted that you'll go to bed. As they say, ‘If you do, the world smiles with you. If you don't, you'll cry alone.' So, I'm full of integrity and tears.
Twenty-year-old Jonathan accepts this cynical situation. He says:
“For college boys, sex is a symbol of maturity and masculinity. For girls, it's a safeguard against unpopularity and loneliness.”
The preceding discussion indicates that sex education is now needed to serve as an antidote to sex propaganda. Society can no longer passively permit the street and the screen to set its sex standards.
Information and values
Sex education has two parts: information and values. Values are best learned at home. Information can best be given by experts. What should a parent do when a teen asks for sexual information? Within the limits of knowledge and comfort, answers should be provided. Other questions are best referred to experts. Information imparted with objectivity and honesty may decrease hostility and increase trust between the generations.
All of us should affirm that, honesty and responsibility pertain to all human relations. All situations, simple or complex, social or sexual, require individual integrity.
It is a girl's task not to allow herself to be used as a tool. It is a boy's obligation not to use a girl as an object. Both boys and girls need to know that not all is fair in love and sex. It is unfair for a girl to tease and provoke a boy. It is unfair for a boy to place the whole burden of decisions on the girl. In the old pattern, a boy tried to go as far as the girl would let him, without questioning her readiness or his responsibility. Young people need to be taught to face such issues honestly. Open discussions about mutual responsibility can enhance our teenagers' capacity to make wise decision about love and life.