Sunday, May 17, 2009

Teens' true motivations for sex may surprise you

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 5/17/2009

It’s prom night. This is my fourth prom as a parent. No one will believe that it’s just a coincidence that the subject of this essay was not inspired by parental anxiety related to proms (and parents’ own recollection of that “special” night).

Recently, a nationally syndicated columnist cited a statistic about teens’ belief that “telling teens to abstain from sex, but if you do, use birth control or protection” encourages teens to have sex, seemed off to me. I found the cited study and sure enough the columnist had cited the findings incorrectly. That study and then reading a little more in the area led to this essay. Really.

The study, “With One Voice: A 2009 Survey of Adults and Teens on Parental Influence, Abstinence, Contraception, and the Increase in the Teen Birth Rate.” was conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Parents, quit blaming the media and internet. Teens, especially younger teens, rank parents as the most influential on their decisions about sex. Don’t breathe that sigh of relief too fast. Only about a third of teens indicated parents, more than any other source, but that leaves two-thirds of teens citing something else, like themselves, friends, the media, religious leaders, teachers, and sex ed (in order of most influential).

Adults underestimate their impact on their teens. 43 percent of adults cite teens’ friends as the biggest influence while only 18 percent of teens rated friends that way. Less than a quarter of adults believe parents most influence their teens.

71 percent of adults but only 37 percent of teens say they wish teens were getting more information about both abstinence and contraception. One-third of teens say they are getting enough information about abstinence and contraception.

60 percent of adults believe telling teens “to abstain but if you choose to have sex use contraception or protection” does not encourage teens to have sex and three-quarters of teens say the same thing. I wonder how adults would respond to this question: “Do teens understand what encourages and discourages them from having sex?”

Both teens (42 percent) and adults (51 percent) think more conversation between parents and teens would help young people avoid teen pregnancy. I suspect that there is quite an overlap there; that parents who think more open conversation would be helpful have kids who do, too. So, if you believe open conversation would be helpful, my guess is so does your kid (same goes for kids, if you think more open conversation would be good for you, there is a good chance your parents think so, too). Of course, cleaning your shotgun in plain sight of the young man who comes to pick up your daughter might convey a certain message, too.

As I read this study, I couldn’t help think that an organization that is dedicated to preventing teen and unplanned pregnancy might ask why teens have sex. Adults are good at framing teen sex in ways that make it very hard to actually have a conversation about it. There is the moral and religious framework that makes pre-marital sex dirty, sinful, awful, and dangerous but a walk down the aisle and a ring on the finger makes it romantic, moral, life-fulfilling, safe, and pleasurable. There is the “boys will be boys” or “tempting” girls framework, even “hormones gone wild.” One thing we don’t do is ask teens why they are motivated to have sex.

The authors of “Greater Expectations: Adolescents’ Positive Motivations for Sex” published in “Perspectives in Sexual and Reproductive Health” (2006) did just that to a sample of 637 ninth graders. Both boys and girls ranked three goals for relationships in the same order: intimacy, social status, and pleasure. Not surprisingly, girls rated intimacy more highly than boys and boys rated pleasure more highly than girls.

How does sex fit in with these goals? Boys expected sex to fulfill the goals of intimacy, social status, and pleasure more so than did girls. For girls, there were other means to achieve intimacy, social status, and pleasure than sex. Discussing those alternatives might be good fodder for conversation. For boys, ranking an emotional goal first is perhaps the most valuable finding of this study. It counters the more conventional view of male sexuality resulting from biological drives, risk taking, and physical pleasure instead of emotional needs.

Parents talking with their boys about their needs for emotional intimacy might do more to prevent teen pregnancy and early sexual intercourse than any government program.

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