Students in my sociology of sexualities class often tell me their parents never talked to them about sex, yet these same students say they felt their parents expected, if not required, them to be straight. If parents are expressing their ideas about sex and sexuality even when they aren’t talking, it’s worth asking: how do parents view teen sexuality?
I interviewed nearly 50 parents of teenagers from different walks of life—rich to poor, black, white, and Latino—in an effort to answer this question. Each interview lasted about two hours, during which time I asked parents to tell me about their experiences raising teens, focusing especially on puberty, dating, and sex.
The parents I spoke with viewed their own children as naturally heterosexual but at the same time immature and sexually naïve. Portia, for example, was shocked when her 15-year-old son came to her with the news that his girlfriend might be pregnant because, as she put it, “he was such a young teenager.” Teens who have sex, in Portia’s view, are more mature than her son who she saw as “just exploring.” Although a year has passed and her son is now 16, Portia has not yet talked with him about sex and contraception. He is no longer dating the girlfriend (who, as it turns out, was not pregnant), she explained, adding, “He is a good kid who just got in over his head.”
In describing her son as a good kid who does not need to learn about condoms, Portia made a distinction between her (good) son and sexually active (bad) teens. Other parents I spoke with also talked about teen sex in negative terms, such as “acting out,” “promiscuity,” or being “driven” by raging hormones. And although parents described their own children as sexually naïve, when I asked them about teenagers in general (other than their own), they said the typical teen is growing up faster than ever and highly sexually active. Why do parents see teens and teen sexuality in such black and white terms?
Parents want good things for their children’s lives, and when it comes to teen sexual activity, they are likely to hear bad things: that it is linked to pregnancy, disease, low self-esteem, compulsion, or poverty. These messages make parents worry about how having sex might affect their children’s social status and chances in life. Parents also feel responsible for protecting their children from harm and producing good kids who avoid these bad outcomes. Yet when parents described what they say to their children to scare them away from sexual activity, they often used sexual stereotypes connected to race, class, and gender (for example, that low-income girls might use a pregnancy to trap college-bound boys into relationships).
While it would be easy to conclude that parents are in denial about their kids’ sex lives, the fact is, we don’t deal with sexuality very well as a culture, especially not teen sex. My book talks about the things we can do as a society to better support families and diverse sexualities so that parents feel less anxious about their children’s sexuality and better able to accept that their good kids are sexual beings.
By Sinikka Elliott on recently published book, Not my kid: What parents believe about the sex lives of their teenagers, reviewed in the October 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here.