What Parents Need To Know About How Teen Sex Has Changed

by Sharon Holbrook
Originally Published: 
teen sex talk
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OK, I realize you may already be cringing just at the thought of talking to your kids about sex, but I’m afraid I’m about to make it worse. Sex as we know it is not sex as our teens know it, and they need our guidance now more than ever. There have been big changes since we were teenagers:

Kids are sexting.

This you probably know already—kids are having so much fun online, texting, and Instagramming and all of it, but teenage years spent online also means extra pressure to engage in sexual interactions by text, photo, and video. Perhaps more alarmingly, this also means the real possibility of a permanent, shareable record of those interactions.

Peggy Orenstein wrote that among the girls she interviewed for her new book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, “the badgering to send nude photos could be incessant, beginning in middle school.” Middle school! (I didn’t even have anything to flash in middle school. Probably a good thing. Once one kid has the photo, there’s no guarantee that these photos (including screen shots when a girl thinks she’s just flashing one boy in a private chat) won’t be posted or passed around.

Psychologist Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, sees the same intense pressures among the middle-school set and compares this to when we were teens. Teens have always been impulsive, she says, but if we’d even thought of taking a nude for a boy, we would have had to find the camera, make sure it had film, get the photos developed, and somehow get the photo to the boy. All of that work and time and expense involved would have gifted us with plenty of opportunities to rethink our dumb idea. Now, it’s instantaneous…click and, oops, there it goes onto the internet.

Porn is everywhere.

Teenage boys have always tried to sneak peeks at the stack of Playboy magazines hidden in the neighbor friend’s dad’s closet. Maybe a friend got a VHS tape from somewhere—the seedy backroom of the local video rental store or from an older brother?—and boys would likely see pornography at some point. Now, though, like everything else, it’s on the internet—anytime, instantly.

Girls & Sex reports that current research shows that 40% of kids ages 10 to 17 have been exposed to porn online, and that by college, 90% of men and a third of women had viewed porn during the previous year. Almost half of college men use porn weekly. Research has shown that porn users—maybe our sons?—are more likely to treat sex as purely physical and women as playthings and conquests. Regular porn users are more likely to perceive porn as realistic sex.

But wait, there’s more.

Porn is getting harder and harder.

If you’re not familiar with porn, or you haven’t seen it lately, hold onto your hat. It’s not just sexy videos. With internet viewers who can easily click over to something else for a new thrill, porn is pushing the envelope farther and farther. According to Girls & Sex, a large-scale study of the most popular porn videos reported that over half depicted anal sex (and, of course, always as pleasurable and pain-free). In 41% of the videos, this is followed immediately by the woman performing oral sex on the penis that was just in her anus. I could go on, but you get the idea. I know—I’m squirming uncomfortably too. Oh, and did I mention that, although boys do look at porn more, Orenstein talked to a lot of teenage girls who were looking at porn to learn about sex?

Girls tend to confuse the pleasure of sex with whether or not the boy had pleasure.

Both Damour and Orenstein found that girls today tend to perform oral sex casually without any thought of their own sexual pleasure. (In fact, many don’t even seem to understand the idea of sexual pleasure, confusing it with their looks and feeling hot or sexy.) Oral sex is now widely considered by teens to be just a step beyond making out and to be much less intimate than intercourse. The resulting landscape is one where boys are receiving physical pleasure from casual hookups; romance and feelings may or may not follow hookups (not the other way around); and American girls are largely dissatisfied with the early development of their sexual lives. I imagine that boys often want more than this too—at least I hope so.

What can we do? Besides moving your family to a deserted island, I mean. The answer from both Damour and Orenstein is lots and lots of openness and talking. If we don’t get into all this with our kids and explain what healthy sexual and romantic relationships should look like, they’ll take lessons from their peers and, heaven help us, porn.

This means an ongoing dialogue with our boys and girls—not one big “talk.” We can start early by talking openly with young kids about topics like puberty and anatomy so both parents and kids can establish a comfort zone with these things—let’s call it starter sex talk. We can talk about and question images in the media that sexualize girls. We can talk about TV and movie plotlines that emphasize casual, unattached, or one-sided sex and what that means in real-life dating. We can talk about what their peers might be doing (sometimes that’s easier than talking about what they’re doing). We can talk about porn, and what we’ve heard it involves, and how crazy unrealistic it all is.

We can—and need to—go beyond the low bar of just talking to our kids about consent and sexual risks and help them develop a positive picture of what sex can and should be. We need to share our values with our kids—whether that’s sex within marriage, sex within love, or sex within commitment. No matter what your values, I think we all want our kids to have sexual relationships that are healthy, safe, and mutually pleasurable and respectful.

That means, starting right now, we need to get talking.

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