A year after the election that catapulted her to fame, Sarah
Palin—mother of the most famous teenage mother in the country—swore to
Barbara Walters that she had no idea that her daughter was having sex when
she announced her pregnancy. Many
Americans, including myself, scoffed, figuring she was simply spouting
something that’s more politically convenient than likely. Levi Johnston’s insinuations that the
Palin family knew felt more true; how can parents not figure it out when their
teenagers are sexually active?
Turns out that perhaps Sarah Palin’s purported ignorance
might not be as unusual as it initially seems. A
recent CBS poll demonstrated that only 22 percent of parents think their teenaged
children are sexually active.
Unfortunately for them, 46 percent of teenagers are actually
sexually active, which means that more than half the kids having sex are
managing to hide that fact from their parents.
“So what?” you might ask. It’s a good question.
After all, one’s sexual activity is a private matter, and even though
teenagers may live under their parents’ house, they still have a right to a
private life. Many parents accept
this, which is probably why teenagers are able to hide their sexual
activity—their parents respect their privacy and don’t root through their
email, cell phones, or even perform the old-fashioned underwear drawer
search. Perhaps one could even
argue that this level of privacy encourages contraception usage. It’s true that kids who are ready to
have sex but not ready to share that with their parents are probably going to
be more likely to use contraception if they can do so without their parents
But despite this, we should still be concerned that so many
American parents are living in denial about teenage sexuality. In the moment,
denial might be the best of all bad choices, but we should understand that
denial is a symptom of a larger problem of shame and fear about sexuality,
especially teenage sexuality. And
shame and fear about sexuality are linked to sexual irresponsibility that then
leads to teenage pregnancy and STD transmission.
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Don’t take my word for it. Look at the evidence.
In January 2008, I
reported on a study that compared attitudes towards teenage sexuality in
Holland and the U.S. Holland is of
particular interest, because while their teenagers have sex at the same rates
and ages as ours, their STD transmission rate and teenage pregnancy rate are
much lower. What researchers found
should have been earth-shattering, even as it seems sort of obvious in
retrospect. It was something very
simple: Dutch parents were more likely to respect teenage sexuality and treat
teenage love affairs as the real deal, instead of some sick thing for teenagers
to avoid. In fact, Dutch parents
were way likelier to allow teenaged children to have sleepovers with their
romantic partners. Not living in
denial about their kids’ sexual activity, not like American parents.
I said it then and I’ll say it now—young people show a
tendency to rise to the expectations we put on them, and this research shows
it. If you respect young people’s
sexuality and expect them to behave like responsible adults about it, you will
get far more young people actually taking health precautions and behaving
respectfully. If you treat sex
like it’s a dirty secret that must be denied and hidden, kids will be more
prone to have furtive sexual encounters, without taking as much time and energy
to consider contraception and basics like vetting their partners for good will
The irony in all this is that most of us had sex as
teenagers, and most of us went to great lengths to conceal this fact from our
parents. You’d think we would have
learned the dangers of shame and denial, from the unfortunate lack of
preparedness (thinking you can’t have condoms on hand, because what if they
find out!) to the gaping lack of guidance from your elders on how to conduct
relationships, due to the fact that you were hiding the exact nature of those
relationships. We were right to
fear judgment in our puritanical society, but what’s baffling to me is how the
very people who thought they were right to have sex as teenagers then grow up
to pass on denial and shame to their own kids.
It shouldn’t surprise me, though. A lot of us repeat the mistakes of our parents because we
don’t realize there are other options. This is particularly true of sex. The gulf of knowledge and understanding
between generations about sex persists because we believe that because it’s
always been there (as far as we know), it’s just the way things are and always
will be. But as the Dutch example
shows, there’s nothing inevitable about the wall of silence between generations. There can be more openness about sexuality,
and everyone would benefit from a little more honesty.
Obviously, I’m not talking about sharing the details. We don’t need to know our parents’
proclivities or frequency in order to grasp that they do have sex, proving that
one can know that something’s happening without having to know all the gross
out details. All I propose is that
the same sort of “we know of it, but we don’t need to know all the details”
attitude that is extended towards adult relatives, friends, and even between
sexually active teenagers themselves can be extended to teenagers from the
adult authority figures in their lives, especially their parents. And even though teenagers often feel
the urge to shut their parents out of their business, knowing that their
parents know and don’t judge leaves the door open for teenagers to come to
their parents for help if they need it.
And you don’t get that if denial and shame are the standards.