Monday, January 08, 2007

Talking With Kids About Sex, Love & Character



For both schools and families, the task of teaching sexual wisdom is made much more difficult by the fact that young people today are growing up in a world that pushes sex at them constantly. A mother of an 8th-grader picked up a copy of Teen People magazine for the first time and was "amazed . . . it was page after page of young teens dressed in very provocative ways and in very provocative poses."

The sexualizing of the young and the way it warps their development are evident all around us. A colleague who directs a character education center recounted a conversation with a 13-year-old boy who "spoke enthusiastically about all the pornography he watches with his friends. All kinds of sex—oral sex, anal sex, you name it. He says older kids rent these videos from the adult section of the video stores and then pass them around to the junior high kids. He said he and his friends also play ‘Truth or Dare,’ in which they perform sexual acts on each other."

A 6th-grade girl in a nearby small town told her school counselor she had sex with her boyfriend in 5th-grade and didn’t understand why she was upset afterwards. Through tears she asked the counselor, "Why didn’t someone tell me not to do this?"

A 3rd-grade girl in another small community asked her student teacher if she had watched Beverly Hills 90210 the night before. When the student teacher said no, this 8-year-old said, "Oh, you missed a good one, because Dylan is smoking pot now, and Brandon and Kelly had sex." Beverly Hills 90210 was the favorite show of most of these 3rd-graders.

The educator James Coughlin sums up this scene: "We socialize kids to have sex. No culture in human history has ever done this to its children."


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Talking With Kids About Sex, Love and Character

I lost my virginity when I was 15. My boyfriend and I thought we loved each other. But once we began having sex, it completely destroyed any love we had. I felt he was no longer interested in spending time with me—he was interested in spending time with my body. ~ A 22-year-old young woman

I wish someone had been preaching abstinence in my ear when I was in high school. That was when my sexual activity started. I don't even want to think about my college years. I wish I had saved this for my wife. ~ a 26-year-old husband

Sandy, a bright and pretty girl, asked to see her 9th-grade health teacher, Mr. Bartlett, during lunch period. She explained that she had never had a boyfriend, so she was excited when a senior asked her out.

After they dated for several weeks, he asked her to have sex with him. She was reluctant, but he persisted. She was afraid of appearing immature and losing him, so she consented.

"Did it work?" Mr. Bartlett gently asked. "Did you keep him?"

Sandy replied: "For another week. We had sex again, and then he dropped me. He said I wasn't good enough. There was no spark."

She continued: "I know what you're going to say. I take your class. I know now that he didn't really love me. I feel so stupid."

Brian, a college senior, recounts his first sexual experience: I first had intercourse with my girlfriend when we were 15. I'd been going with her for almost a year, and I loved her very much. She was friendly, outgoing, charismatic. We'd done everything but have intercourse, and then one night she asked if we could go all the way. A few days later, we broke up. It was the most painful time of my life. I had opened myself up to her more than I had to anybody, even my parents. I was depressed, moody, and nervous. My friends dropped me because I was so bummed out. I felt like a failure. I dropped out of sports. My grades weren't terrific. I didn't go out again until I got to college. I've had mostly one-night stands. I'm afraid of falling in love.

As parents and educators, we worry about many areas of our children’s decision-making—sex, drugs, drinking, drinking and driving—where the wrong choices can carry a high cost now and in their future. But we sense that they are most vulnerable, most at risk emotionally as well as physically, in the sexual area of their lives. The damage to our children’s health, heart, and character from premature sexual involvement may go deeper, and last longer, than the effects of any other mistakes they might make. "I’m 42 years old," a high school teacher said to me after a workshop on this topic, "and I’m still dealing with emotional issues stemming from sexual relationships when I was young." Because sexual decisions have such important life consequences, a strong home-school partnership—committed to helping our children make wise choices—is nowhere more important than it is in this domain.

Sex, however, is delicate territory. Raise any sex-related issue—premarital sex, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, sex education in the schools—among ten adults and you’re likely to get eleven opinions. Sex is the battleground for most of our country’s culture wars.

But 30-plus years after the sexual revolution, there is an emerging consensus about some things. Sex is not a trivial matter. It’s not a recreational sport. Sex has strong consequences, even if you rarely see them depicted on TV or in the movies. It can create a new life. It can wreck a life. It can express a beautiful love. It can be the furthest thing from love.
Sex is powerful. And because it’s powerful, societies around the world and down through history have sought to surround it with prudent boundaries that channel its power toward constructive ends, ones that serve the individual good and the common good, ones that build healthy families and a strong society.

Despite the continuing battles about sex education, there’s emerging common ground there, too. Sex is not for kids. Abstinence is the wisest choice for many reasons. More than a half-million unmarried teens get pregnant each year. Having a baby when you are an unmarried teenager is the surest route to poverty for you and your child. The U. S. has the highest teen abortion rate in the developed world. One in three sexually active singles gets an STD by age 24. Until the mid-1970s, there were only two common STDs—syphilis and gonorrhea; now there are more than 20. An estimated 70 million Americans have a sexually transmitted disease.

Condoms haven’t solved these problems. Condom use over the past 20 years has increased most among teens, but teens show the greatest increase of STDs during that same period. Two decades of medical research3 on condoms, pregnancy, and STDs, including a 2001 National Institutes of Health report, have produced these findings:

• The typical first-year failure rate for adult couples using condoms to prevent pregnancy is 14%. The failure rate among teens is significantly higher because alcohol or drug use often reduces their ability to use condoms correctly or at all.

• Condoms reduce sexual transmission of HIV/AIDS by about 85% if they are used 100% of the time, leaving a 15% risk of HIV infection even with 100% use.

• Very few persons use condoms 100% of the time. Most people infected with an STD don’t know it because they do not yet have any visible symptoms. Even among adults who knew their partner had HIV, for example, only 56% used condoms every time.

• Condoms do not prevent STD transmission caused by skin-to-skin contact with an infected part of the body not covered by the condom.

• Girls are more susceptible to STDs than boys because they have a larger surface (the lining of the vagina) vulnerable to infection than males. The risk of a girl contracting HIV/AIDS from a boy is eight times greater than the risk of a boy getting HIV from a girl. Women suffer more of the severe health complications of STDs, such as cervical cancer and infertility, than do men.

• Even with 100% condom use, there is no evidence of any risk reduction of human papilloma virus (HPV), the cause of virtually all cervical cancer.

• Even with 100% condom use, there remains a 50% risk of contracting chlamydia, the fastest growing cause of infertility.

For human beings, of course, sex is about much more than the body. It’s the emotional and spiritual dimensions of sex that make it distinctively human. "Sex is essentially deep," observed the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. Our entire person, soul and body, is involved. That’s why sex has uniquely powerful emotional and spiritual consequences. And there is no condom for the heart.

To educate adequately about human sexuality, both schools and parents must address the emotional hurts and regrets that commonly follow temporary sexual relationships. According to a 2000 survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 63% of teenage youth (72% of girls and 55% of boys) who have had sexual intercourse say they wish they had waited. Many adults express similar feelings. Wendy Shalit, in her book A Return to Modesty, cites a 1998 issue of Glamour magazine reporting that the women most happy with their sexual decisions were those like Nina, 30, who had had only one lover—her husband. She says she is grateful to have "experienced the thrill" of having only her spouse as her sexual partner. Women who were unhappy with their sexual decisions tended to make comments like those of Ellen, 29: "I wish I hadn’t given so much of myself—I feel that some of my experiences thinned my soul, and such an effect takes time to undo." A 21-year-old woman from Canada wrote in to say that she had had 17 partners because she was "looking for comfort in my first year of college."

A young married woman confided to her counselor: "I had a lot of partners before marriage. I know it’s affected my ability to bond with my husband." Says Dr. John Diggs, a physician-abstinence educator who talks to students about human relationships: "You can have many friends, but it doesn’t work to have many sexual partners."

Although the emotional fallout from uncommitted sex is only recently getting attention, we’ve known about it for a long time. At a 1999 "Beyond Relativism" conference at George Washington University, Dr. Armand Nicholi, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, commented:

Not long after the sexual revolution was underway [in the late 60s], clinicians—even orthodox Freudians—observed that the new sexual freedom was creating a psychological disaster. We began to study Harvard students who complained of emptiness and despondency.

There was a gap between their social conscience and the morality of their personal lives. The new sexual permissiveness was leading to empty relationships and feelings of self-contempt. Many of these students were preoccupied with the passing of time and with death. They yearned for meaning, for a moral framework. When some of them moved away from moral relativism to a system of clear values—typically embracing a drug-free lifestyle and strict sexual code—they reported that their relationships with the opposite sex improved, as did their relations with peers in general, their relationship with their parents, and their academic performance.

Dr. Carson Daly says that when she was a college English professor, many students—usually young women but sometimes guys—would come to see her, ostensibly about a paper they’d written for her course. Once into the conversation, they would tell her about problems they were having in a relationship. Sex was almost always involved. She says:

I don't think I ever met a student who was sorry he or she had postponed sexual activity, but I certainly met many who deeply regretted their sexual involvements. Time and time again, I have seen the long-term emotional and spiritual desolation that results from uncommitted sex.

No one prepares young people for these effects: the lowered self-esteem; the despairing sense of having been used; the self-contempt for being a user; the unease about having to lie about or at least conceal one’s activities from family members and others; the difficulty of breaking the cycle of compulsive sexual behavior; and the self-hatred of seeking, after each break-up, someone else to seduce in order to revive one’s fading self-image.

"No one tells young people," Dr. Daly says, "that it sometimes takes years to recover from the effects of these sexual experiences—if one ever fully recovers."

Finally, there is a growing recognition on the part of schools and society that sexual behavior, while a matter of personal values, is nevertheless subject to ethical evaluation because it affects the welfare of self and others. Ethical sexuality, acting with respect for oneself and others, is part of good character. Sex education must therefore be character education. It must, in the words of Boston educator Dr. Kevin Ryan, teach students "to see sexuality as an area of their lives that calls for the presence of virtues." Our children should realize, Ryan points out, that learning to bring self-discipline to their sexuality is a means of developing their character—and a means of preparing themselves for a deep, loving relationship as an adult.