Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.
We suspect our 17-year-old son and his girlfriend are having sex, though we haven’t talked to him about it directly. We make them keep the door open when she’s over [and] don’t let her spend the night. What else can we do to stop them or, at the very least, not seem permissive?
Bear with me, please, while I detour around answering your question. Because I want to back up first and work through what seems to be your fundamental assumption — which is that 17-year-olds shouldn’t be having sex.
I know that there’s an invisible script we’re inclined to follow as parents — I think it’s the one we’ve lifted from our own childhoods, even if it reflects parts of those childhoods that weren’t so valuable. We reflexively speak some of the ideas and expectations our own parents had: that teenagers are lazy, they’re difficult, they can’t be trusted, they’re too young to have sex. But I don’t think this last is true (or the rest of it, for that matter). Or at least, I don’t think it’s true for all teenagers.
Not to be all TMI, but my own teenage sexual experiences were beautiful and set me up for a lifetime of high expectations and good sex. Partly this is because my high school boyfriend was a passionate and sensitive person. And partly this is because his mother (very radically for the time) gave us plenty of time and space for exploration. We were allowed to keep his bedroom door closed for hours on end, and she never interrupted us or made us feel awkward or strange when we emerged for dinner, though she must have laughed inside about our rug burns and matted hair and the way we shoveled pasta carbonara into our flushed faces like we were starving.
One of my own mantras is this: Teenagers cannot have good sex if they don’t have the space for it. They need room and time to consent and explore, to be naked together and (for straight kids) use birth control properly, to experiment and ask questions. If you don’t allow them that, they won’t not have sex. They’ll have hurried, bad sex in the car with their jeans on. And look, one or two breathless behind-the-bleachers quickies isn’t going to kill anyone, but frantic, furtive sex means that straight girls are more likely to get pregnant and less likely to have orgasms. Who comes when they’ve got five minutes and an unlocked door? Guess.
Now, all that said, 14 introduced an important caveat when we were talking about this issue, which was that maybe your child doesn’t want to be having sex and not being allowed to have it in the house protects him. (To be honest, this idea made 17 laugh out loud, but it’s still a really important point.) Her solution is, as always, full transparency. “You need to ask your son, ‘Do you want the house to be a place you can’t have sex? Or do you want boundaries you can count on?’ You could even ask bigger questions. ‘What rules do you wish I did or didn’t make when your girlfriend is here? What would make you feel safe and happy in the ways you want?’ Then if it makes him feel safer to keep sex out of the house, you can help with that. And if they both want to have sex in the house, then make sure your kid understands about consent and good sex, and let them.” #BoddhiSatva
I agree completely. And the last part means talking to your child about pleasure, respect, consent and female anatomy and physiology among other things. Or getting a really good book — a feminist one that presumes that sex is good and girls should come too.
Fourteen’s other concern: “If you send a message that they’re not having sex, they shouldn’t be having sex, then if they need advice — like about birth control — they’re not going to talk to you because they won’t think they can or should. Instead of stopping them from having sex — and they’ll find a way if they really want to — what you can do is foster a good environment where they can have good, safe sex.
Seventeen agreed with this. “It makes sense to keep more transparency for the benefit of, if nothing else, just for safety. Change your attitude and stretch yourself to try to be more open. And think about not being a hypocrite. What were you like when you were younger? Lots of people have policies that don’t match what they were doing when they were teenagers.” This is a great point, I think. If you wanted to be having sex, then why don’t you want your teenager to? Or if sex was bad for you at that time, are there ways you can help them have a more positive experience than you did?
Fourteen’s concluding advice: “You might want to think a little bit more to get at the root of why you don’t want your kids to have sex. Do you want to try to talk with them more clearly about safe sex? Good sex? Are there problems you could solve? A lot of it seems like peer pressure — ‘I don’t want to be permissive. I don’t want other moms to judge me.’” It’s weird to think about, but I think it might be strangely true — that we’re in a culture that pressures parents to say no to teenage desires. And maybe we could say yes more than we think to.
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