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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Talking to your teen about...

A teen trend with possibly permanent consequences

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | February 17, 2006

Do you know what a “pearl necklace” is?

A “rainbow party”? A “rainbow bracelet”?

Your teen may know. Even your tween may know.

All have to do with sex. And experts want you to bring them up, because in a climate where sex sells products from cars to soda, disturbing trends are emerging.

One, teens are developing younger. But, even though their bodies — and attitudes — seem older than their years, experts say their emotional postures are still child-like. Two, teens have more unsupervised time than ever before. Three, teens have unprecedented access to media and technology.

“Teens need parents, adults, role models, direction,” says Heather Winters, a therapist at White Deer Run, a substance-abuse treatment facility in Allentown. “Teens need parents to be their parents, not their buddies. Things can get very permissive — and not in a positive way.”

Society’s traditional squeamishness about sex has failed to keep pace with teen reality-which may be causing teens both health and emotional problems-often permanently.

“Teenagers need you in some respects even more than young children do,” says Dr. Herbert Mandell, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of Kidspeace Hospital in Orefield. “You don’t have to keep them from falling down the stairs, but you do have to be available to touch base-to let them know what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”

The Internet, MTV, Paris Hilton, Sex and the City. Wherever you turn, the message is sexual, sometimes subtly, often overtly.

“Sex sells. It’s everywhere. It’s reality,” says Kim Custer, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of North East Pennsylvania in Trexlertown. “Television, movies, magazines, even Bratz dolls. You can only censor so much.”

Ironically, however, parents are more absent than ever, both physically and metaphysically.

“Parents are out of the house; they’re tied up, they’re working, they’re single parents,” says Mandell. “They come home tired, drained and they treat their teen almost like a peer. And yet, when we talk to teens, they say they wish their parents had laid down the law; they say their parents just didn’t seem to care.”

Vicky Kistler, communicable disease services manager with the City of Allentown’s Bureau of Health, says, “Parents love their children, but sometimes they want them to stay little girls and boys. They want them excited about toys at Christmas, not dating. But teens do what other teens do — what Paris Hilton does, what Britney Spears does.”

Dr. Joan Adler, an expert on the “adolescent brain” and director of adolescent medicine at Temple University Children’s Medical Center, believes this imitation is a sham.

“We know most forbidden behavior takes place between 3 and 6 p.m. when teens are home alone,” she says. “Teens see stuff on TV-people have sex all the time on TV — and there are never any negative consequences. We send teens the message that pornography is bad, wrong, something you have to sneak around. Yet any teen with computer savvy can access it online. But it’s not a realistic portrayal of what happens between men and women — what they’re seeing is not real — it’s a distortion rather than the truth.”

This combination of busy parents, easy technology and relentless media sex has led to a dangerous fad, experts believe. As a result, teens are fooling themselves, not to mention everyone else.

In the April 2005 issue of Pediatrics, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco polled 580 California teens with an average age of 14. They found teens believed oral sex was “less risky, more prevalent and more acceptable” than conventional sex; 20 percent had engaged in oral sex while 14 percent had engaged in conventional sex.

“Given the suggestion that adolescents do not view oral sex as sex, and see oral sex as a way of preserving their virginity while still gaining intimacy and sexual pleasure, they are likely to interpret sexual health messages as referring to vaginal sex,” said researcher Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher about the study.

In a January 2005 study conducted by NBC News and People Magazine, researchers found while 84 percent of teens knew oral sex can cause sexually transmitted diseases, only 30 percent always used protection.

“Teens experiment, as they always will, but this is definitely a fad, the latest thing,” says Mandell. “I wouldn’t call it an epidemic, but we’re seeing more of it, and at earlier ages too.”

Why? In some ways, sexual warnings have worked too well. After years of listening, teens get it-the importance of protection, dangers of HIV/AIDS, disillusionment of pregnancy. Even virginity has made a comeback. But all that doesn’t account for hormones, as well as society’s mixed messages of instant gratification, stimulation and indulgence. Teens have found a way-one they believe is safe. Only it’s not.

“If the president says oral sex is not sex, it’s not sex,” Adler says, referring to President Clinton’s now infamous quote in 1998, a sexual milestone experts think accounts for some of the explanation. “And it’s true oral sex doesn’t cause pregnancy. But almost any sexually transmitted disease you can get from conventional sex you can get from oral sex.”

Not only are sexual diseases transmittable by oral sex, but new research shows cancers may be too. The human papilloma virus has been linked to cervical cancer in women and mouth cancer in men. It is most commonly contracted by older men after decades of smoking and drinking. But a Swedish study by Malmo University in November 2005 connected these cancers to oral sex.

“In recent years the illnesses have been on the rise among young individuals and we don’t know why,” said Swedish researcher Kerstin Rosenquist about the study. “One could speculate this virus is one of the factors.”

As if the word “cancer” isn’t scary enough, Mandell thinks the emotional consequences are scarier. That’s because surveyed teens consistently say oral sex isn’t a big deal — less intimate, more casual — as well as rejection-proof and heartbreak-proof. They’re wrong about that too, experts say.

“Some will get hurt, feel used, feel cheap,” Mandell says. “They may have permanent problems with intimacy when they get older. Can kids handle such powerful emotions? Sexual expression is so tied up with who we are. It’s not compartmentalized; it’s who we are 24/7. Everything gets stirred up by it-self-worth, self-esteem, relating to others, how much we give versus how much we get.”

Kistler agrees. “Teens have to recognize sexual behavior of any type has a litany of consequences. It’s not as simple as what you’re doing Friday night. If you can’t talk about birth control, monogamy or pregnancy without laughing or giggling, you’re not mature enough to handle it.”

We asked an unscientific sampling of teens in the Lehigh Valley to anonymously complete our own questionnaire about oral sex, abstinence and sex education. Some responses:

“I think you can still be a virgin if you only engage in oral sex.”

“Sex is strictly between reproductive organs. All the rest is just fun and games.”

“Sex is everywhere. Just like drugs. It’s hard to avoid.”

“Abstinence till marriage? Nooooooo. Unrealistic.”

“You’re absolutely a virgin if you have oral sex. And it doesn’t matter if you give or receive.”

Yet, these teens demonstrated perfect recall of the diseases transmittable by oral sex: herpes, genital warts, Chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis, HIV. Asked if they used protection, however, all answered no.

“Part of the issue of the developing teen brain is that it’s a work in progress,” Adler explains. “Teens think in a concrete way. They have difficulty with more abstract thinking-planning for the future, decision-making, understanding consequences.”

Research supports this “it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude” as normal neurological development. In The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress, a January 2006 report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, researchers found the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for setting priorities, forming strategies and controlling impulses — is one of the last to mature during the second decade of life.

“This is why teenagers often think they are invulnerable,” Adler says. “With this new data, parents must understand that even if a child looks like an adult, he or she still has the emotions of a younger person. They must provide guidance, instruction and set limits.”

Although teens have taken risks since time began, today’s boundaries are more blurry.

“It’s part and parcel of teens doing potentially dangerous things, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, run-ins with the police or sex,” Mandell says. “To some degree, it’s normal, typical, adolescent exploration. But in other respects, they may go way too far, and we’re less effective today at drawing lines.”

In our unscientific questionnaire, an overwhelming majority of teens — and their parents — say they want schools to teach more sex education.

“The whole issue of sex wraps around and through morality,” Kistler says. “It’s a lead weight.”

In what is perhaps indicative of these sensitivities, the Allentown School District did not wish to comment on this story. Yet experts believe the more teens learn about sex, the better off they are.

“Studies since the beginning of time show there isn’t any proof that talking about sex causes sex,” Adler says. “Kids who have information make wiser decisions.”

Harold Cruz, a community health specialist with the City of Allentown’s Bureau of Health, gives comprehensive presentations on sex to colleges, social service agencies, prisons, shelters, even private families.

“Teens are always surprised that I don’t yell at them,” he says. “They tell me, ‘I don’t get this at home. If I talked about sex at home, I’d get grounded.’” After watching his vivid slide show on sexually transmitted diseases, Cruz says teens tell him, “Ugh, you ruined my sex life, man.”

Some of the work of teaching sex education has even fallen to — of all places — religious institutions.

“The traditional expected answer from a church is that sex is bad, wrong and only appropriate in the context of marriage,” says Stephen Emick, associate pastor with youth and young adults at First Presbyterian Church in Allentown. “We do believe sex is most appropriate within the covenant of marriage for a variety of reasons. But, in the end, it’s a teen’s decision, and we prefer they don’t make it in the heat of moment. We prefer to help them think through all the implications.”

The 2,600-member church, one of the largest in the area, offers a “no-topic-is-off-limits” sex education retreat weekend every other fall.

“Sexual expression is a gift from God and it’s our responsibility to use this gift wisely,” Emick says. “If one is concerned about young people, it’s best to present the big picture. If you don’t talk to kids about sex, they will still have sex. We all have sexual organs. Not talking about it is a very bad mistake. There are some churches who don’t agree. But, for us, talk away. Let teens hear different perspectives. I tell them God gave them a brain to make decisions.”

Because teens have trouble with the abstract, sex education can be sticky. “They tend to see things in black and white,” Emick says. “They want the bottom line. Gotta go, hurry up, give me the Cliff Notes. You have to spend a lot of time with it. You have to spend a lot of time with them.”

Bethlehem’s Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lehigh Valley takes it even further, offering a comprehensive nationally-based sex education curriculum in a weekly, year-long class called Our Whole Lives (OWL).

“It’s not just human anatomy or ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that,’“ says religious education coordinator Tara Altenbach. “It’s an abstinence-based curriculum, but not an abstinence-only curriculum. We know some kids are exploring. This prepares them for every aspect of sexual engagement. Parents think they’re protecting them by not telling them, but the most powerful protection is education, not just about what they’re doing, but the consequences of what they’re doing. It’s the foundation for making good decisions. If not, they’ll figure it out on their own.”

“It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but the conversation has to happen,” Custer says. “You must start lines of communication so that teens don’t fear they’ll be yelled at.”

Experts recommend talking to your kids often and early. Get comfortable with sexual terminology too. If you lack information, get it from reputable sources such as physicians or health officials. And consider enrolling your teens and tweens in sex education courses at churches or health agencies.

“Kids are so curious and adventurous,” says Altenbach. “Don’t think that if you talk about it, they’ll do it. They’ll do it anyway. Talk to them before they start engaging in sex, not after.”

And, unlike adults, teens are often quite comfortable discussing sex.

“It’s embarrassing to parents,” Mandell says. “They don’t want to think their kids might be doing that. But you have to accept parental responsibility, not shirk it.”

Not having these conversations, no matter how embarrassing, is ultimately more painful, Adler says.

“We need more open discussion about choices and risks. Tell them if you’re ever in trouble, come to me and I will rescue you, no questions asked. A developing brain can’t handle zero tolerance. Let them make mistakes, let them get into trouble, be askable, be approachable. Adolescence is a time of experimentation and risk-taking. It’s normal and healthy. But we hope, as parents, that teens do this with a safety net under them.”

Click here for definitions of “pearl necklace,” “rainbow party,” and “rainbow bracelet.”