I’m a regular follower of Lenore Skenazy’s blog, Free Range Kids and highly recommend her book of the same name. In today’s comments, there has been a discussion about whether it’s reasonable to expect teenagers to abstain from sex. After all, they’re swimming in a sea of hormones, relationships, and impulsiveness; expecting self-control under such conditions is old-fashioned at best, and unrealistic and naive at worst. Instead, we should accept reality and just deal with the fact that teenagers have been having sex throughout history and will continue to do so.
I beg to differ.
While LDS Church standards are clear about the expectations for sexual behavior among youth, sometimes in the public square, it can be difficult to know what to say about this topic. So, is abstinence unrealistic? Here’s what I would say:
I believe that as parents we certainly would want to teach our children to be responsible for their sexual health and safety the same way we teach them to be responsible for their physical health and safety. That means giving them correct information, teaching them what to do in both common and emergency situations in order to stay safe and healthy, and helping them explore the possible consequences for the decisions they make.
With guidance, teenagers are able to understand cause and effect, consider future goals and consequences, and start defining their own values based on what they were taught as children and what they learn by interacting with the larger community and world. With encouragement, they can decide ahead of time how they will act and react when faced with pressure to have sex — rather than give into fear, high emotions, or peer pressure.
Yes, while abstinence may difficult for some people, it is certainly not impossible, and research does show significant developmental, emotional, relational, and societal benefits to delaying onset of sexual activity.* Children and youth should be aware of those benefits when they make their decisions just as much as they should be aware of the risks and consequences of sexual behavior and the proper usage of contraception. They also need to know that, no, not “everybody” is doing it, and it’s OK not to do it.
My experience with youth suggests that more teens would choose to delay sex if they believed they would benefit from waiting, if there was less peer pressure (and adult acquiescence) to have sex, and if they felt like saying “no” was an actual socially-acceptable choice.
Instead, we seem to be telling them, “You’re a teenager, you’re just going to have sex anyway, so I won’t say/do anything about it.” That’s kind of like giving the keys to the car and saying, “You’re a teenager, you’re just going to crash anyway. I won’t teach you how to drive and I don’t expect you to obey and driving laws. They’re just outdated ideas and they don’t do any good anyway because people still get into accidents.”
I think our adolescent children deserve at least a little better than that. We need to teach them how to be responsible (even when they have hormones and periods) and to make thoughtful, ethical, and wise decisions about themselves, their sexual behavior, and their relationships.
*This was just the first article that came to mind. There are more out there, which I will find and link in a future post.