Teenagers and Sex: Are They Ready? by Tim Hartnett, PhD and Amy Cooper, DHS

“When should a person become sexually active?” a fellow counselor asked an audience of parents and middle school students. The question was meant to be rhetorical, a springboard from which to lecture on the subject, but a sixth grader spontaneously blurted out his answer. “Not until you are thirty.”

The young man was surprised when his comment received laughter and grateful applause from many of the parents in the room. Was he aware what a relief it would be for parents if all teenagers had this attitude? Does he know the agony parents suffer over teenage sexuality?

Many otherwise confident parents find themselves baffled about how to deal with teenage sex. Should we use a strong hand to protect our children from making serious mistakes? Or should we be non-judgmental, so that our kids will feel safe to talk to us about their sexual decisions? Maybe we should let sleeping dogs lie, and just hope that our kids won’t be sexual until they are ready.

What is the Law?

The question of when a person is ready to have sex is one American society has not yet figured out. Even the law is ambivalent. The “age of consent” (when a person can legally engage in sexual activity) ranges from 14 to 18 in the United States. In each state the specific legal age depends upon many factors including the type of sexual activity and the age of the teenager’s sexual partner.

What is Normal?

One might be tempted to ask what is the “normal” age for people to start being sexually active. The data on this, however, also fails to settle our cultural ambivalence. Recent findings from The National Survey of Family Growth report that 46 percent of males and 47 percent of females, age fifteen to nineteen, claim to have had sex. With this relatively even split, one might conclude that it is both normal for teenagers to have sex and normal for them not to have sex.

What is Right?

A family’s views on sex are likely to be derived not just from the law or norms of what other people do, but from their ethical or religious views. Values about sexuality vary considerably. Some hold the “sexually liberated” view that sex is a healthy human pleasure to be enjoyed whenever it is safe and consensual. Others believe that sex is morally appropriate only for procreation and should only occur within a marriage. Given the differences, it is not surprising that there is much controversy about whether and how to provide sex education to teenagers. Most people’s values, however, fall somewhere between these poles. They respect that sexual readiness is a personal decision which depends on many factors. And most parents would agree that teenagers should not be having sex before they are ready.

What Defines Sexual Readiness?

So how does one determine if and when a teenager is ready to be sexually active? We propose that the qualifications are not merely a matter of age. Having a certain number of birthdays does not prepare anyone for safe and successful sexual experiences. Rather, it is our preparation for the ethical, psychological, social, and physical aspects of sex that determines our readiness. Two teenagers of the same age may have very different degrees of psycho-social maturity. They may also have different access to sexual health information. These differences can determine whether their sexual activity is likely to be healthy or potentially disastrous.

A rational basis for determining sexual readiness must therefore take multiple considerations into account. We have outlined eight areas of concern below.

Consideration #1: Knowledge of Disease and Pregnancy Prevention

Responsible sex requires that participants know how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Some sexual activities do not pose a health or pregnancy risk. Others pose risks that can be mitigated. And some very common sexual activities court serious consequences. Being uninformed on these topics can result in crisis situations that may alter the trajectory of a young person’s life. Thus, having accurate and up-to-date information is an important prerequisite to becoming sexually active.

Consideration #2: Reflection on the Impact of Pregnancy or Disease

Knowing how to have sex safely does not insure that safe sex practices will be faithfully employed. Having sex responsibly requires that participants give serious thought to the possible consequences of sexual activity. “What if your method of birth control fails?” “What if you are deceived by the information you get from a sexual partner?” It is important to face the reality that sexual intercourse, for example, is never completely safe. One should consider, “Is any level of risk worth taking at this point in my life?”

Consideration #3: Addressing Moral and Ethical Issues

The decision to be sexual or not can have a profound affect on your sense of identity. It forces you to choose between competing sets of values. Your family, church, and peers may all try to influence you. They may claim that your honor, your goodness, your popularity, or your manhood or womanhood is at stake. Only if you are confident that your worth as a person is not based on whether you do or do not have sex are you free to make your own decisions. Still, it is important to realize that people may shame you or judge you, whatever you decide. How will you respond to such judgments?

Consideration #4: Self-Esteem and Decision Making

Sexual situations present very strong challenges to a person’s ability to make their own decisions and stay committed to those decisions. Peer pressure and biological drives can both exert a powerful influence. Responsible decisions about sex can only be consistently made if you have the personal maturity to follow your own best thinking in spite of what others may want you to do or what your body desires. What are your limits around being sexual? What pressures might affect your resolve to stick to your own decisions?

Consideration #5: Ability to Communicate Sexual Needs and Feelings

Creating positive sexual experiences for yourself requires that you be able to express your sexual preferences, needs, and feelings. If you are not yet comfortable talking about sex, then you are unlikely to be able to insure that your sexual experiences will be consensual and mutually satisfying. . Can you say the names of sexual body parts? Can you describe sexual activities that you consent to or do not consent to doing? Can you talk this way with the person you would consider having sex with? How specific can you be about your needs and your limits?

Consideration #6: Ability to Handle Relationship Dynamics

The dynamics of relationships are often very emotionally challenging. Strong feelings of rejection, jealousy, and guilt can all be part of any teenage dating landscape. The intensity of these feelings is often dramatically increased, however, when sex is involved. Have you thought about how you will feel if your relationship changes after having had sex?

Consideration #7: Knowledge of Sexual Anatomy and Functioning

Much of the traumas people report from their first sexual experiences are due to a lack of understanding about how to have sex in a mutually satisfying way. The many unrealistic myths about sex that are portrayed in the media often set young people up for disappointment and humiliation. Understanding how male and female bodies actually function is important background information for healthy sexual experiences. This includes both learning about your own body through masturbation, as well as learning about how the other gender experiences sexual pleasure. Do you know how male and female bodies contain or build sexual energy? Do you know how they reach orgasm? Do you understand that individuals differ in these regards?

Consideration #8: Making Sense of Childhood Sexual Experiences

Many teenagers have already had sexual experiences as children. Sometimes these experiences constituted abuse. Other situations may have been age-appropriate explorations (like playing “doctor”). They may have involved partners of either gender. Usually these sexual contacts occurred without thoughtful discussion. Thus, questions about the meaning of these experiences may linger. If so, these unresolved experiences might influence our readiness for new sexual encounters. What sexual experiences have you already had? How have they affected you, your feelings about sex, and your feelings about males and females? Would it be helpful to talk about this with a counselor to help you understand your prior experiences better?

These considerations offer the basis for a more thoughtful answer to the question of sexual readiness. Some parents may use this outline to articulate why they believe their teenager is not ready for sex. Others may decide that their teenager is sufficiently prepared to justify supporting them to begin sexual relationships. When rational considerations determine sexual readiness we can become less fixed on the idea that chronological age is the only pertinent factor.

This outline can also be used to discuss sexual readiness with a teenager. Talking with your teen about sex is a challenging task. Fortunately, there are many good books available on the subject. Parents who are not comfortable discussing the topic themselves, however, can still help their teens by finding an informed adult that can help. Much as we might like, not all teens are going to wait until they are thirty. They may need someone to talk to now.

© 2008 Tim Hartnett

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax.

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