February 2008
It's All in the Game, But What Are The Rules?

by Annie Fox, M.Ed

In addition to being uninformed about dating, teens seem woefully and disturbingly ignorant about sex.
San Francisco Heart

One Saturday during my sophomore year, before I headed out to meet my boyfriend at the high school tennis courts, my mom said, “Let him win.”

Even though it was before Billie Jean King served Bobby Riggs a massive slice of humble pie, I was stunned. Let him win?!

Even at 16, there was no way in hell I would play the Dating Game by rules that also included:

“Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.”
“If a boy asks you out after noon on Wednesday for Saturday night, tell him you’re busy even if you’re not.”

CuddleAssuming it had been in my nature to downplay my abilities, nurture would have won out. Mom was extraordinarily intelligent, independent, capable and competitive. Dad made no secret that he admired my “spunkiness.” I also continually tried to keep up with my two older brothers.

So, despite the fact that my parents had a strong and loving marriage, I didn’t get any useful dating advice from them. Like most teens, I muddled through.

Recently, I asked other adults what Boyfriend Girlfriend Zone advice they got from their parents. As you can see, some of the pointers were right-on, others not so much:

What love lessons did you learn from your parents?

About Dating:

  • “Play hard to get.”
  • “Go out with self-actualized (liberated) girls, but open the door for them anyway!”
  • “Always go out with everyone who asks you because you might fall in love with his brother or best friend.”
  • “Don’t trust boys who are too nice to a girl’s parents. It’s always an act!”
  • “Always be a gentleman. This will automatically put you above most other guys in a girl’s eyes.”
  • “A man wants a woman who makes him feel comfortable.”
  • “Be yourself. That way the person you’re dating will like you, and not someone you’re pretending to be.”
  • “If you wouldn’t want to bring them home to meet your family then they’re not good enough for you to date.”

About Sex:

  • “When a girl says no, she means no.”
  • “Don’t just be ‘good,’ that’s only a rule. Be wise.”
  • “Give references, but no samples.”
  • “If you’re going to be stupid (have sex before marriage) be smart (protect yourself!).”

Couple on trainI’m inundated with email from teens who are utterly clueless about dating! First off, many of them are children (11 and 12 year olds “going out”…puh-leeze!). Secondly, their parents probably haven’t provided much counsel. In addition to being uninformed about dating, teens seem woefully and disturbingly ignorant about sex. Some typical questions:

The stats say it all. The U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancy amongst western industrialized nations. And the number of those pregnancies is up for the first time in 14 years. Likewise, STD (sexually transmitted diseases) rates amongst teens is skyrocketing, especially HPV (human papillomavirus). One recent study found that 4 out of 5 sexually active teen girls were infected with HPV!

Why is all this happening? For one thing, many teens don’t know (or believe) that unprotected sex puts them at risk. For another, boys feel pressured to “go for it” and girls have few strategies for saying no.

Before you ground your teens for life, please note that everyone is not doing it. In fact, American teens are now waiting longer to have their first sexual intercourse. By age 15 only 13% of teens have had sex. Sounds encouraging, except that many of those under 15 who aren’t having intercourse are definitely messing around. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Amongst 15-19 year olds nearly half (46%) have had sexual intercourse at least once. While it’s great that some teens are waiting longer, I’m not thrilled at the idea of 15 and 16 year olds having sex. Many girls are very conflicted about it but they believe it’s necessary to get and keep a boyfriend. (Some things never change!)

Another problem is that many 11-14 year olds simply don’t know the definition of sex. They don’t, for example, consider oral sex to be sex. And just last week I got an email from a 14-year-old who was “committed to remaining a virgin” but was considering “doing it from the rear” because her boyfriend wanted to “try something new” and she didn’t think that anal sex was… well, you know, actually sex.

'Cupid's Span' - photo by David FoxThe other problem is communication. When a guy says, “Wanna have sex?” the girl often hears “I really like you and want to be in a committed relationship with you.” If her self-worth is strongly tied up with male-approval, she may, against her better judgment, say “Yes.” Afterwards, it may become clearer that when he said, “Wanna have sex?” he actually just wanted to have sex. Hold the relationship, please.

Girls must understand unequivocally, that saying no is their right. Too many girls don’t feel good about turning a guy down because they don’t want to be “mean.” Moms and dads need to set their daughters straight on this one. Guys need to know that sexual contact with a girl is not their right. Healthy relationships are based on 2-way trust, respect, honesty and open-communication. Moms and dads need to bring home this point to their sons and their daughters.

All this highlights the need for ongoing dialogue at whatever level is appropriate for your daughter/son. Your personal values should be part of the conversation. Here are some questions for you to think about (and resolve) before you begin a new kind of conversation with your teens about dating and sex.

  1. What’s your attitude about teen dating? Teen sex? Is it different for girls than boys?
  2. Are you and your partner on the same page with these attitudes?
  3. What have you learned about relationships from your time as a teen that you can comfortably share with your child?
  4. What kind of social/sexual behavior do you expect from your daughter/son?
  5. Have you made your behavioral expectations crystal clear?
  6. In what ways are you doing a great job letting your kids know that they can always come to you with questions/concerns (about their body, about sexual feelings, about the pressure to have a boyfriend/girlfriend and to “do stuff”).
  7. Soft heartsIn what ways could you do a better job in the communication/information and listening arena?

There’s way more blatant sexuality in the media and in our kids’ lives than there was in ours. That’s why they need better advice than what many of us got.

In friendship,

Got a parent-teen problem you need help with?
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