We’re a culture obsessed with parenthood, or “parenting,” as we like to call it. Countless websites, books, and magazines provide advice for parents aspiring to perfection. And paramount on any good parent’s priority list is making sure our kids are safe and healthy. So we pay extra for organic milk and banish trans fats from our kitchens. We deliberate over the safest car seats and sign petitions to ban sodas from school cafeterias. We talk to our kids early and often about the dangers of smoking, drinking and drugs.
But when it comes to the hazards of sex, our approach falls somewhere between passivity and paralysis. For whatever reasons – concern about imposing fear and shame, embarrassment about being hypocritical, or not believing that kids are capable of self-control – we can’t bring ourselves to just say “don’t!” We make sure our kids know about condoms and the Pill, and tell them we’re always there if they want to talk. Which is the equivalent of shutting our eyes, crossing our fingers, and hoping. Hoping that our kids won’t get pregnant, or get someone else pregnant. Hoping that they won’t catch that STD that causes infertility or cancer. Hoping the chemical bonds that they form and then break won’t break their hearts.
Because here’s the rub. It is an indisputable fact that having sex means taking risks. We can reduce the risks of unwanted consequences, but we can’t eliminate them. We wouldn’t tell our kids that it’s okay to smoke — as long as they smoke low tar cigarettes. Or that drugs are fine — but only in small doses. But we tell them – by not telling them otherwise – that risking pregnancy, life-threatening diseases, and emotional devastation is okay.
Here are some cold, hard facts to consider. Every year there are ten million – ten million! – new cases of sexually transmitted diseases among our sons and daughters who are 15 to 24 years old. As of 2008, one in four teenagers already had an STD, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The most commonly transmitted STD is HPV, or human papillomavirus. We now know that certain types of HPV cause cancers of the head and neck. Think Michael Douglas. Others cause cervical cancer. Another “common STD,” according to the CDC, is chlamydia. In 2013, there were nearly a million cases among 15- to 24-year olds. If our daughters are among that million, it could mean they’ll never be able to have kids of their own.
When it comes to the hazards of sex, our approach falls somewhere between passivity and paralysis. For whatever reasons – concern about imposing fear and shame, embarrassment about being hypocritical, or not believing that kids are capable of self-control – we can’t bring ourselves to just say “don’t!”
As for getting pregnant, the CDC reports that nearly half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended. For women 19 and younger that rises to four out of five. What’s not to understand here? Sex makes babies! According to the Guttmacher Institute, at 2008 rates, one in ten women will have an abortion by the time she is 20 years old. Even if you’re morally neutral on the subject of abortion, the image of your daughter crying in her college dorm room as she contemplates the possibility of aborting your grandchild can’t be a pretty one. And even if you believe abortion is the equivalent of getting a tooth pulled, how could you not worry about the possibility of some psychological fallout.
Then there are the emotional consequences of sexual intimacy. Studies have linked sexual activity with depression in teenage girls. We now know about oxytocin, a hormone released in the female brain during sexual activity. Among other things, it promotes feelings of bonding and trust. Like it or not, sex comes with emotional strings attached. Dr. Miriam Grossman is a psychiatrist who worked in the campus counseling center at UCLA. She recounted the devastating effects of casual sex among her patients in her book, Unprotected. “Almost daily, I prescribe medication to help students, mostly women, cope with loss and heartbreak.” Are we willing to live with the prospect of our kids suffering from depression? Depression that was preventable?
As parents we spend our lives trying to protect our kids. So here’s a radical thought. How about urging them to wait till they’re married before having sex? If we really want what’s best and safest and healthiest for our kids, let’s start a sexual revolution. Hey, it’s been done before.
Marcia Segelstein has covered family issues for over 20 years
as a producer for CBS News and as a columnist. She has written for “First Things,” “World Magazine,” and “Touchstone.” She is currently a Senior Editor and columnist for “SALVO” magazine. Her columns can be found at www.salvomag.com.