Teens and Sexuality

Posted on Apr 2, 2013 in Articles, Sexuality, Teens

 I wrote this article for Lynbrook High School’s Aletheia publication in Feb 2012. 

Aletheia – Expressing what often remains unspoken. That is what you will find on the title page of the Aletheia Lynbrook website. We can understand the many ways this statement is applicable to the topic of choice for this month  – SEX – and what is said in and between the lines by the writers of the many submissions. Sex is a challenging and complex word and idea to get our heads around. From the purely physical to the intricately emotional, the word sex catches most of us off guard.

When told that I would write an article about teen sexuality for the Aletheia publication, many of my colleagues and friends said, “Really, you want to tackle that?” I am certain that is how many feel – parents, educators and students as well. So what is it that we mean when we say sex? Why is it such a “hot” topic and what are teens saying and thinking about S-E-X?

WHAT IS SEX?

The New Oxford Dictionary’s definition of sex is that which refers to sexual activity, including specifically sexual intercourse. Pretty cut and dry for such a complicated yet totally natural part of human life.  Each person is a sexual being from the time of birth – and the adolescent and teen years are important developmentally for not only the physical aspects of one’s body and sexuality, but values, opinions and behaviors. It is easy to see from the words of the many writers in Aletheia, that this development can feel wonderful or treacherous. Attitudes regarding sexuality swing from the very open and embracing, to the more moderate or conservative. What is most important is for each individual to consider and identify what his/her own morals, values and beliefs are regarding sex and and to make a personal plan (more to come on that).

WHAT ARE TEENS SEEING AND HEARING?

This is probably ridiculously easy to answer. Sex is “sold” everywhere as the ticket to being wanted, desired, liked, loved. What we find out from some teens is it can also be a direct path to being judged, hated and maybe even disowned. Between magazines, TV, movies and music, there is no escaping it. Pictures and advertisers try to convince you that sex is what almost always happens between two partners (or even two people that hardly know each other) and they want you to believe it is perfect and effortless – and required! Something tells me teens are smarter than this.

We don’t all look like the models with rock hard abs or perfect faces and hair.  Humans vary as much as our ideas about what sex may or may not be like. What most media is also not telling you is that sexuality is as much about emotional intimacy as it is about physical connection.

David Schnarch, well known author on sexuality, intimacy and relationships wrote the following:

Sex can express the best that humans can be and also be a powerful vehicle for getting to that point of personal development. Sex can be ecstatic, self-realizing, and self-transcendent all at once. The great feelings of self-affirmation and declaration of our personhood can make our most powerful genital sensations seem like mere trifles. Experienced together, the physiological and the psychological make a very interesting concoction.

WHAT ARE TEENS SAYING AND THINKING ABOUT SEX?

Well, you’ve read the submissions! Teens are thinking and talking about sex and are in various camps regarding being sexually active – from engaging in sexual intercourse to being sexually active without intercourse to abstaining from it all. Teens may feel pressured to talk or joke about sex with peers. Others feel a strong influence from parents  or their faith which advise (or dictate?) that they wait for marriage. Judgement coming from peers brings on feelings of shame. Judgement aimed at others might feel well deserved.

What is common to all of these vignettes in this edition of Aletheia is that each person has specific and individual opinions or attitudes about being sexually active during high school and wants to be understood, not criticized.  At times, the judgement comes from a position of viewing some teens as hypocritical.  One student writes that some are comfortable dressing provocatively and “freaking” at a dance, but then label others with pejorative names  based on the belief or knowledge that the person is sexually active.

SO WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Let’s think together about what your thoughts and beliefs, values and ideals are regarding your own sexuality. In doing this – in really understanding who you are and what you want for yourself, you can create a personal plan for yourself. With self-respect and other-respect as foundational in this approach, you solidify what is right for you. If you want to engage sexually with another, perhaps you want it to be with someone you are in a long term relationship with. Maybe your plan includes remaining abstinent until later in college or until marriage. Or, there are a myriad of variations on this from one end of the spectrum to the other.

What is most important is that it feels right to you and for you. And why have a plan? Because making a decision about sex on the fly, in the heat of the moment is really difficult if not impossible. You are under the power of your surging hormones and maybe the influence of another, or at a minimum, with another.  But having a plan set in your mind, thought about and considered in weeks and months (maybe years) ahead of that heated encounter, gives you a better shot at sticking to your plan. Remember, respect of self and the other is a cornerstone of feeling positive, engaged and fulfilled in a sexual relationship.

WHAT I DON’T HAVE TO REPEAT, BUT WILL

I could spend pages showering teen readers with facts about the risks and dangers of engaging in sexual relationships or practices.  Teens have been taught time and time again about STD’s, HIV and AIDS, pregnancy and more. The bottom line for all involved is protecting yourself and your partner.  Take responsibility for your actions and know and consider the possible consequences. This is where having a plan before things heat up is so important and helpful. And remember, if you are old enough to be sexually involved with someone, you are old enough to talk to your partner about all the ‘what ifs’.

I want to write briefly about three things you probably know, but may need to see in ink.

Masturbation – it’s normal, healthy (in most cases) and pretty common for both genders. Notice the “in most cases”. Masturbation to an extreme can be problematic – and brings me to the next topic.

Pornography – Yep, it is out there, everywhere and ripe for the picking. This isn’t your Dad’s playboy hidden in the closet. This is vivid, seemingly real, usually edgy and live from your own laptop. You can see anything you want and as often as you want. So here is the issue: Pornography usually is not representative of a healthy adult sexual relationship. It can depict deviations, sometimes to the extreme, and sex detached from relationship, responsibility, meaning and intimacy. Repeated exposure can result in overstimulation and possibly addiction. This type of sex/porn addiction is similar to any other type of addiction – leading to a compulsion to view it and often seeking release through masturbation.  The viewer becomes less sensitive to the material, needing more and also more often to get the same feeling or effect. This can have profound results for the sexual addict –  including compulsion, isolation, shame and depression.

And finally –

Sexting –  The current law basically says that if you are distributing (like texting or with your cell or computer) explicit images or video featuring a minor, you could be found guilty of distributing child pornography. So, most of your friends are minors, and if you “sext” these pictures of you, your friend or just pass along something that happened to wind up on your phone, there could be big problems for you (charged, probation, registered as a sex offender….) Even though the state of California is considering a lesser and maybe more reasonable charge for minors involved in sexting (expelled, counseling) you know that it won’t be good – for you, your family and friends or your future. Think twice or three times before snapping the shot and hitting send!

SO PARENTS, HOW ABOUT YOU TOO?

Well, let’s face it.  Talking about sexuality with your teen, or maybe anyone, could feel awkward. But teens want to know that they can talk to us – parents. Whether they speak with you directly about their own thoughts, desires and behaviors or they couch it in stories about their friends or peers, teens want to be heard, but not judged.

So parents, if you are talking to your teen about sexuality! Fabulous. If you haven’t yet, it is never too late to start! Approach it with an open and non-critical posture. The best thing is, as a parent, you don’t really even have to talk. JUST LISTEN! Of course you will want to offer your own opinions and may even feel the undeniable urge to lecture and warn of the dangers. Some of you may even forbid something or everything.

But see if you can take a deep breath and open the channels of communication between you and your child. If respect for their thoughts is apparent, the favor will be returned and your relationship with your son or daughter will strengthen and deepen. This then opens the space to discuss more about your own personal values including any that are influenced by your culture, faith or spirituality. Appreciating and supporting your teen’s development into becoming a sexually healthy adult will aid them in making informed, responsible and well thought out choices. And never forget, humor can go a long way in breaking into this subject. So take this Aletheia edition on sex and start the conversation with your son or daughter! Let what often remains unspoken, be expressed.

Mary-Stone Bowers, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Campbell. She has worked for several years with adult individuals, couples and children up through the teen years.  Mary-Stone provides psychotherapy and support in the healing process for clients with depression, anxiety, trauma history, life transitions, sexual or gender concerns and relationship struggles.

Confidential voice mail: 408-380-1223

Mary-Stone Bowers, MA, MFT
2155 S. Bascom Ave., Suite 203
Campbell, CA 95008