Why 17 Pregnant Teens Are a Wake-Up Call for All Parents
By Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: In June 2008, news coverage of the 17 Massachusetts high school students who are reported to have deliberately gotten pregnant this year stunned parents across the country. The reports prompted parents to wonder how to better address the issue of sexuality with their own adolescents. We asked psychologist Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D., author of The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear from You About Sex (Avery, 2008), to share her advice on how parents can deal with the sexually charged world our kids are growing up in.
Pregnancy pact? Did 17 high school girls in Gloucester, Mass., really get together and decide to get pregnant?
The idea itself is so outrageous that we don’t even know how to think about it, never mind how to respond.
Frustrated, we look for someone to blame. Parents? Surely something at home isn’t right if your daughter thinks that getting pregnant is a group activity. Media? We give unlimited attention young celebrities who consider marriage or even a relationship irrelevant to reproduction – as if their every move holds some key to success.
Some blame sex education; others, the lack of sex education. Both seem irrelevant considering reports that these girls wanted to get pregnant. What about the disintegrating family? Blaming just wastes time, while giving us the illusion of doing something.
Meanwhile, our kids roll their eyes and turn on the MTV series A Shot of Love with Tila Tequila (check it out), follow the “success” of former N.Y. Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s $800-per-hour call girl, or click onto Buddypic.com, where they can rank each other’s sexiness on a scale of 1 to 10.
While parents are stuck grappling with the pros and cons of safe sex vs. abstinence – blurring public safety issues like the spread of sexually transmitted disease with personal questions of morality – our kids are learning a whole new way of thinking about sex, relationships, love and, yes, baby-making from a culture that will grab their attention at any cost, in order to sell them stuff.
Everything is being transformed into a product. Sex, it seems, is not about relationship and intimacy; it’s a benefit, a booty call, something that can be bartered for power and prestige. Even babies have been packaged into “the new cool thing to have.”
I started my profession working with underprivileged girls who would talk to me about wanting a baby so that they could have someone who would love them. These girls were emotionally alone in the world; they had few resources externally or internally and didn’t see any way to make their lives better.
I don’t know anything about the girls in Gloucester. What I do know is that they have given
every parent a wake-up call.
Start talking to your kids about sex. By 8 years old, most kids have heard something about sexual intercourse, so if you haven’t said anything by then, begin now.
Beyond the Birds and Bees
Dig deeper than a biology lesson or even a terrifying talk about sexually transmitted diseases. Our kids need to hear how we think responsible men and women are supposed to handle this amazing energy we call sexuality.
We need to think past what our sons and daughters are going to do in middle school and high school and remember that we’re preparing them to make healthy, ethical sexual choices through college and into adulthood.
Never before have individuals been free to negotiate their sexuality for such a long period of their lives before choosing to reproduce. Since the advent of the birth control pill, each generation has been dramatically rewriting how we understand ourselves as sexual people.
But where are the guidelines? Is it OK to have sex simply for pleasure? Do you have to care about the other person? Love them? Is it OK to use sex to attain power, bragging rights, or a baby?
As parents we need to proactively address all the different aspects of sexuality in age-appropriate ways and convey our personal understanding of sexual ethics:
• Responsibility – Sexuality is a great and powerful source of energy; it’s so important that we depend on it for the survival of the human species! But “with great power comes great responsibility.” Becoming a responsible adult means learning how to control and direct your sexual energy.
• Control – When your body first starts to become sexually mature, the energy of your sexual feelings can be overwhelming. In the same way that you need to learn how to control the power of a car, you have to learn how to control the power of these feelings.
• Self-Discipline – Controlling the power of sexual feelings takes the same kind of muscle as controlling angry feelings or hungry feelings, the muscle of self-discipline. Self-discipline gives you the freedom to make choices that won’t hurt you or others.
Teaching About Choice
People who know how to control their sexual energy have the freedom to choose how and when to use it. Cultures, religions and families have different guidelines about how responsible men and women should use this energy.
What are those guidelines? Here are mine:
1. Your body, and the decision about how to use it, belongs only to you. Anyone who tries to force or manipulate you into having sex of any kind does not respect himself or herself, and does not respect you.
2. How you choose to use your body and how you choose not to use your body becomes part of who you are. The choices you make today tell you and the rest of the world what you’re about and, more importantly, how you see yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.
3. Any kind of sexual behavior that involves another person is an expression of intimacy. The more sexual you choose to be with someone, the more you are choosing to share who you really are.
4. Being sexual with someone can be fun and playful, but it is always personal and private. Sex is not a spectator sport.
5. Choosing to express your sexuality is a conscious act. Allowing it to “just happen” or engaging in sex when you are less than fully conscious is dangerous and diminishes your ability to give it the consideration it deserves.
6. Letting someone know your body and exploring someone else’s body is an amazing experience, but it should only be done with someone you respect and trust. Sex should never be used to gain power or popularity, or as a cure for loneliness.
7. Before you let anyone know your body, make sure that person has shown you that he or she cares enough to want to really know you.
8. Before you invite someone to really know you in an intimate way, spend time getting to know yourself. As you better understand who you are, what you believe in and what you care about, you begin to be ready to share yourself with someone else.
9. Never pretend to care about someone as a way to get him or her to be sexual with you.
10. Being sexual with someone should feel good. It should never be painful, disgusting or humiliating. Sex is always a two-way street. If the person you’re with only cares about his or her own pleasure, he or she doesn’t really care about you.
However you decide to approach the topic of sexuality with your kids, don’t wait. No matter how confused you are, no matter how badly you botch it, you will still be much better than MTV.
Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and award-winning writer on sex education and sexual health. Her book is The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear from You About Sex
More from Sharon Maxwell: Setting the Stage for Talking about Sex
Read more about communicating with your children: How to Talk With Your Kids ... About Anything