Teenagers are a fascinating sub-group among us, by definition not quite children and not quite adults, in the midst of the closest thing to an alien invasion known to humans. They are figuring out the consequences of the full-scale assault launched by hormones on their bodies and – more frightening – by their bodies. Suddenly, the little human beings that once existed, change shape and personality and learn group-think. The teenage years aren’t all about sex, but it certainly looks and feels that way sometimes.
Teens have a distinctive tendency towards stark definitions, and one prime example of this is the definition of sex. Whether it is because of inadequate education or because the subject takes time to grasp, sex tends to be defined as intercourse, or vaginal sex. This is a perspective that should expand with age to include oral sex, anal sex, masturbation and many, many more non-genital erotic acts.
One dangerous outcome of such complete categorization is that teens can be involved in behaviour that is intimate enough to have repercussions on their mental state and their health, but for which they aren’t psychologically prepared. If avoiding pregnancy is enshrined as the central concern, then “proper sex” is to be avoided or carefully prepared for. But what of the wider scope of consequences?
Research done at the University of California, SF (Brady & Halpern-Felsher, 2007) asked 14-15 year olds about their sexual activity and their feelings towards it. The most interesting thing about this study is the insight it provides on the advantages and costs of sex for young teenagers. The answers are all dependent on whether you are a girl or a boy. This, despite years of trying to fight the double standard.
Boys who are sexually active tend to feel better about themselves and to be more popular. Girls who are sexually active, whether popular or not, are twice as likely as boys to feel bad about themselves and three times more likely to feel abused.
This is all quite obvious, after all, teenage girls, not unlike the women they grow into, are encouraged to be attractive and seductive, but then when it comes to being sexual, they are often penalized for not abiding by archaic standards. The difference between the social pressures at different ages is that teens are ever more susceptible to public opinion and could end up punishing or hurting themselves more easily. They also create sexual behaviour expectations that they may not have the skills to renegotiate.
When measuring the different effects of those teens who partook in vaginal versus only oral sex, the researchers found that although oral-sexists, if you will, had fewer complications with pregnancy (really?), STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) and shame, it also radically reduced the enjoyment factor. It would seem that sexually active teenagers, and especially the girls, either have “full-blown” sex and are left with various physical consequences and bad feelings about themselves, or they have oral sex and don’t land up enjoying it. We can’t be doing such great sex education if this is where the teenagers are at.
So here is where I diverge from the pro-abstinence lobby. The fact that teens are still not having the healthiest of sex does not mean we should be telling them to kick the habit altogether. How will they ever learn healthy sexual skills that way? The point of these crazed teenage years is to learn to know themselves, their bodies, their wants and to gain assertiveness about how to get what they want and leave what they don’t.
Sex, which means the whole gamut of sexual activities, should be treated as a potentially good thing when it comes with informed consent. If abused, it turns into something that can be dangerous, oppressive and demanding of intervention and treatment. These are two separate messages and getting them confused with each other leaves scars on later sexuality. Remember that their future attitude towards sex and sexual communication skills are being formulated here.
At the end of this somewhat disturbing look at teen sex, there is a note of comic relief, even if it comes from a rather tragi-comic place. Somehow, the expert researchers always end their studies on adolescents by giving advice to parents on how to communicate with their teenage kids. Parents should inform and provide skills, based on discussions of different practices, their implications and their dangers; for starters, there is the oral versus vaginal sex discussion, they say. (Insert: astounded laughter).
Maybe should begin by ascertaining whether the parents know the material and can say the words “oral sex” without producing secondary trauma to their horrified off-spring. Of course it would be a really positive message when parents or teachers succeed in speaking of sex comfortably, but if they are the type of communicators that break into a sweat and infuse the situation with embarrassment, they should take a training course or keep their conversations to a minimum.
The most important message that children need to be given is that when they come to discuss sex or sexual repercussions with their parents, they will not be punished for their openness. If the elders of the family are not sure that they are giving the facts straight, or if they are aware that they may not be sending a positive, comforting message, rather leave it to other references, like books or sex education classes. Either way, don’t leave them without information or they may find themselves being mis-educated by Linda Loveday.
One final positive note is that adolescents and young adults practice safer sex than older members of their communities. Granted, safer sex behaviour patterns vary across countries, cultures and educational levels, but as a rule, it seems that since the 1980′s, teens that have come of age with the HIV reality, tend to be better with condom use than the older age-groups in their own societies. We don’t need to bemoan the promiscuity of the teen set; after all, for generations, claims have been made that kids of its day are more sexually expressive and deviant than in previous generation. This is not necessarily true: the fact that we are catching more paedophiles through the internet, that teens are expressing themselves more openly and that fashion has become more erotic, does not automatically mean that the culture has changes, merely that it has become more overt. And when that which is suppressed is raised to the surface, we can take it on and deal with it. Maybe the future is looking up after all.