When are we going to get serious in the way we engage with young people about sex and sexuality? News Flash: young people are having sex! It is happening younger than ever before and with so much ready access to negative depictions of sex and sexual behaviour through the internet and digital communications, it beggars belief that parents and educators continue to bury their head in the sand when it comes to developing strategies to initiate meaningful dialogue with young people about sex and sexual behaviour.
Let’s stop pretending that sex is not happening amongst teenagers and adolescents and instead focus on how we can make these experiences better, safer, more enjoyable and respectful, for all involved. Just resorting to hackneyed old ‘safe sex’ lectures and warnings about sexually transmitted infections is ineffective, particularly when they are not supported by initiatives that would assist young people in gaining easy access to condoms or the contraceptive pill. Surely we are better off incorporating these messages into much broader, sophisticated strategies that will provide meaningful information about all aspects of the sexual experience.
Yes, making sure young people are protecting themselves from pregnancy and STI’s is very important, but surely it is just as important that they are thinking beyond consequences. After all, whilst wearing a condom might be safer for all concerned, it doesn’t mean that the sex will be respectful or mutually satisfying. Then again, maybe that is the strategy. Let them fumble around clueless in the hope that the experience will be so bad that they will never want to do it again. Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
Surely it is better for all concerned that young people are enjoying their sexual experiences and treating each other with respect, rather than just whacking on a condom and going hell for leather for two minutes. It is particularly important that young women are empowered to demand a sexual experience that is pleasurable and in which their role is more than simply being a notch in the belt of a boy whose tactics and skill in luring them into bed are infinitely more creative than anything they produce when they get there. Teenage sex does not have to be ‘wham, bam, thankyou ma’m” moments in which young women are almost rendered inconsequential to the entire experience.
Yes, by all means, place a strong emphasis on messages advocating safe sex, but let’s also engage in open dialogue about how to have good sex. This is particularly important in a world in which explicit, hard core pornography is available online at the click of a mouse. Such imagery creates false representations of what sex is supposed to be like and puts pressure on young men to put pressure on young women to replicate these quite often extreme scenarios. Research undertaken by the Children’s Commissioner in Great Britain recently found that 100 per cent of Year 9 boys – 14 year olds – were accessing pornography. Furthermore, about 50 per cent of the girls were looking at porn, but most insisted they were being made to by the boys. Anybody who thinks that things are different in Australia is kidding themselves.
Instead of just ignoring the fact that young people are accessing pornography which, for many of them given the unwillingness of parents and educators to talk openly about such matters is the only ‘instruction’ they are receiving, we need to make young people understand that these scenarios are not typical and are constructed for purposes of entertainment and titillation rather than the pleasure of the participants. Engaging in mature, open discussions with teenagers and adolescents about sex might actually result in a more mature approach to the way they go about their sexual practices.
Even the mainstream media is becoming increasingly sexualised which, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as we make sure that young people are able to discern between the fantasy realms of the sex and sexual scenarios they see in films and on television and the practical realities of their own sexual experiences. It is important that young people realise that the explosive orgasms (faked) and ridiculously over-the-top (and sometimes quite violent) and often degrading sexual practices they encounter in both pornography and more mainstream fare is far removed from anything they are ever likely to experience. Instead of trying to emulate these scenarios, young people need to be seeking more meaningful and realistic experiences in which genuine pleasure (for all participants), rather than spectacle, is the priority. Whilst it is ridiculous to expect teenagers to accept that sex and love are intrinsically linked, having young people understand that the act needs to be one of mutual pleasure is important. Boys shouldn’t be using girls to ‘dump and run’ and girls shouldn’t have to tolerate bad sex because they don’t know any better. Of course, the mutual pleasure principle should apply across all types of relationships regardless of gender and/or sexual orientation. After all, if you are going to do anything, you should want to do it well.
Of course, a key ingredient to young people becoming more adept at sex revolves around breaking down the taboos associated with discussion around those things such as masturbation. The old ‘you keep doing that and you will go blind’ is still regarded by many parents and the only dialogue in which they are prepared to engage when they stumble across their teenage son wanking furiously or discover the crusty coating of their cum-stained sheets. Sometimes, of course, such realisations might result in parents attempting to mask the awkwardness or embarrassment they feel by dismissing it as merely what ‘teenage boys do’, and hoping that it will never, ever be discussed again. This attitude, of course, doesn’t do anything to alleviate the stress that young men endure as a result of the clandestine nature of what they are doing and their constant fear of being ‘caught’, as if to suggest that this is somehow an act of which they should be ashamed or embarrassed. As for girls and masturbation, it seems to me that adults, by and large, don’t want to acknowledge that this even happens, let alone discuss it amongst themselves or, heaven forbid, with their children.
Given that girls probably have the most to gain through such explorations of their own bodies and developing an awareness about what is, and isn’t, pleasurable, to provide them with knowledge and the confidence to make their subsequent sexual experiences more enjoyable, surely these are the conversations that parents should be prepared to have if they are serious about ensuring their daughter is ready to navigate the prickly path that is teenage sexuality.
Yes, there are dangers in the ever-increasing sexualisation of western society and there is cause for concern around areas such as the almost epidemic nature of ‘sexting’ or the distribution of sexualised (often quite explicit) imagery between young people online and via digital devices. Furthermore, the constant bombardment of advertising and imagery espousing the virtues of penis enlargement or plastic surgery procedures to make better (sexier?) bodies for women, along with the boom in industries dedicated entirely to the removal of body hair (there seems to be a waxing salon on every corner) which, it seems to me, exist purely to enable/encourage young women to replicate the look of pre-pubescence and/or replicate what they are being told through porn and other media imagery is the expectation of men (heck, even the recent film release Trance saw Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) remove all of her pubic hair to make her more sexually appealing to James McAvoy’s Simon), is something that perhaps needs to examined more closely.
Obviously part of any efforts to open the lines of communication between young people and the broader community does need to include frank discussion and education about the potential dangers and long-term ramifications of rash decisions such as sexting or succumbing to media pressures to conform to particular body types and/or behaviours, but we need to do this as part of a much broader and more mature approach to engaging young people in open and honest discussions about sex, sexuality and sexualised behaviour.
In my experience, any attempts to discuss such matters with young people (whether it be from parents, teachers or others such as school nurses and the like) have either retreated to the safe ground of encouraging abstinence or have been nothing more than condescending ‘safe sex’ presentations where they might show demonstrate how to put on a condom or try to scare the bejesus out of people with images of infected genitals or treatise on the hardships to be endured as a result of teen pregnancy. All of this, including strategies to ensure that young people clearly understand precepts such as consent, is not without merit if delivered in a way in which those giving the information are not obviously wishing they could be anywhere else. However, none of this is going to stop young people having sex, often times which might not be under the best circumstances, such as succumbing to pressure from a partner, errors in judgment or being taken advantage of in some way or simply as a reaction to the sex that pervades every aspect of popular culture. However, this is not always the case and it is important, I think, that young people engaging in sex are armed with the knowledge to make these experiences something to be cherished and enjoyed rather than awkward, embarrassing or downright unpleasant.