Friday, August 31, 2007

Checking for breast cancer - nude female breasts in video

It is important for young women to learn about their breasts. This video shows a group of British soccer players learning how to give themselves a breast exam. E-mail it to all the young women in your life!

Several weeks ago I posted a video of a group of young men learning how to do a self-exam for testicular cancer. I mentioned that my teenage brother was having surgery to remove a testicle. I am please to say he does not have cancer, the lump was only an inflammation.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Peer pressure, part 3

This is part 3 in a 3-part series on the influence peers have on adolescent decision making. The first part presented the issue, the second part argued for an appropriate course of action to mediate peer influences, and today is about whether peer-influenced early sexual behaviors matter in the long run.

Today's discussion is based on a comment left on Tuesday by Dorian:
You don't talk of the outcome of these patterns of behavior for these girls. I am left wondering, not how to respond to them, but are they now adults? Do they have healthy sex lives now? Is the difference in their sexual beginnings SUCH a big deal after all? I'm beginning to think that perhaps parents and adults in general make way too much out of it all - it is a decision, one decision, and yes, it does impact our lives, but perhaps only as one factor in a broad spectrum. What do you think?
Here is my short answer: It depends.

Here is my long answer: Early sexual decisions do have an impact. However, the long-term impact is probably smaller than most parents fear and perhaps larger than most teenagers expect. The teenagers I described in my first post are indeed now young adults.

Cassie had a series of sexual partners in her adolescent years, somewhere around 5 or 6. She eventually stayed with one young man for about 6 years. During all that time she never had an orgasm, and none of the men she was with paid her much attention sexually. She was not even fully aware that she had not orgasmed. In her mid-20's Cassie got together with a very sensual young man with whom she really discovered herself sexually. She feels she has finally come to balance sexually.

Susan had a good sexual relationship with her first lover, and has had good relationships with her two other lovers since then. She does not feel she was ever sexually off-balance.

So from very different adolescent sexual choices, these young women have essentially found themselves in similar places in their 20's.

There were a series of sexual choices here, though, not just the one. Cassie made the decision to have sexual intercourse with a series of men who did not have her interests in mind, sexually or otherwise. It took a lot of courage and strength for her to change that pattern. Susan made basically good decisions starting from her first sexual intercourse.

So while the ways in which teenagers loose their virginity may not in and of themselves be such a big deal, they can be indicative of the type of sexual choices that individual is inclined to make over the years, and those choices over the years certainly are a big deal in terms of sexual development and health.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Peer pressure, part 2

Yesterday I wrote about how peer pressure greatly influences adolescents' sexual decision making. Today will be about how parents can have a place in the interaction and mutual-influence between adolescents and their peers.

So your teenage son or daughter's friends are having sex. Or drinking, or smoking pot, or failing their classes. Whatever they're doing, let's assume it's something you would prefer your son or daughter not to do. But it is now normalized in your son or daughter's life, and therefore they are more likely to do it themselves.

The first road many parents take is trying to remove their child from the situation. "You can't be friends with that person any more." Now, I'll be honest, I think this is a completely fruitless road to even try and walk down. It almost never works, and it severely reduces your ability to influence your teenager in other ways. However, I was recently very surprised by someone whose mother had found out that one of her daughter's friends was having sex and getting drunk and stopped the friendship cold. So it can sometimes work, if two conditions are met: 1. that your son or daughter has the temperment to react well to such a dictum, which is very unusual, and 2. that the forbidden friend is really only one friend, and your son or daughter has a strong network of other friends to tap into.

The more effective path, the path less traveled by, and the one that will be the most likely to work, is to come to terms with the fact that your teenager knows how and why their peers engage in these potentially negative behaviors. The best way to influence your teenager to choose behaviors you would choose for them is to talk with them - by which I mean ask them questions. "Why do you think _____ is having sex/drinking alcohol/doing drugs? How do you think doing those things makes him/her feel? How do you think they would make you feel? Well, okay, sure, but how do you think you would feel about it a day/week/month/year later? You have to acknowledge the short-term good that these choices bring about. And you have to guide your teenager to seeing for him/herself what the long-term effects may be.

More tomorrow in part 3 on an answer to a question posted yesterday in the comments by Dorian:
You don't talk of the outcome of these patterns of bahavior for these girls. I am left wondering, not how to respond to them, but are they now adults? Do they have healthy sex lives now? Is the difference in their sexual beginnings SUCH a big deal after all? I'm beginning to think that perhaps parents and adults in general make way too much out of it all - it is a decision, one decision, and yes, it does impact our lives, but perhaps only as one factor in a broad spectrum. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Peer pressure, part 1

A teenager's peer group has a deep and profound effect on many aspects of his or her behavior. This is just one of those truisms of humanity, although it may be more potent for teenagers. We are more likely to engage in behavior we consider normative rather than unusual, and we are more likely to consider behavior normal if the people we primarily interact with are doing it.

Sex and sexuality do not stand out from this trend. If the majority of your friends, the majority of the people you spend your time with, are having sex, you will consider it normal to be a person having sex. It is much less of a leap for teenagers to begin having sex if they consider it a normal activity for teenagers. On the other hand, if none of a teenager's close friends are having sex, it is a much bigger leap to begin. Doing something out of the norm, breaking the mold, generally requires more thought and energy than doing something perceived as normal.

Here is an example of two teenagers who had grown up together, had been best friends as children, and had been inclined towards similar behaviors as children. After 6th grade they went to different Junior High schools, where they met different groups of friends who substantially influenced their different sexualities:

All of Cassie's female friends were all having sex. All of the boys in her group enjoyed having sex with the girls, and had come to expect vaginal intercourse in any situation where there was kissing and general making-out involved. Cassie's female friends called her a prude and said no boy would ever be interested in going out with her because of she was frigid. The boys laughed at her and said they didn't want to date her because she wouldn't have sex with them. So Cassie relented and had sex with one of the boys one night, no one special, just to get it over with. Cassie was 14.

None of Susan's female friends had had sex. About half of them had dated someone, but none of them had progressed to heavy petting or taken off any clothing. One of the girls had been raped when she was 12, and that extremely scary and painful experience was the only real sexual touchstone in the group. The boys in the group were by-and-large similarly experienced. Eventually Susan met and started to date someone from outside the group. They were quite in love, and after serious consideration decided to have vaginal intercourse. Susan's friends, while not outright rude, told her she was making a horrible decision that she would regret. They began to avoid her and stopped including her boyfriend in any activity. Susan was 18.

These stories suggest the impact of friends on teenagers' sexual decisions. But they don't really begin to discuss what to do about the issue, from the perspective of a parent or a teenager. I'll speak to that in a post tomorrow.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman

Zits is my favorite comic strip. Scott and Borgman seem to be able to tap into something about teenagers that appeals to both parents and teens - something very difficult to do. This one is from last Thursday, August 23rd.

On an off-topic note, tonight is the full moon. Step outside and enjoy it with the ones you love.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Good reading material for parents

A friend recently asked, since she lives far away and cannot attend my next class in Austin, what reading material could I suggest for her and her friends. She has a fifth grader. Here is what I said to her:

Good reading material about boys includes the chapter on sexuality in the book The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian and the book How To Be The Best Lover: A Guide for Teenage Boys by Howard Schiffer. This second book is good for parents to read first, to get an idea of where your conversations should be heading, but it is also one that young boys should be given to read - maybe around 9th grade, depending on the individual boy. I also think it is important for parents, particularly of boys, to grapple with the issue of pornography, and to those ends I recommend Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen. I have interviews with both Schiffer and Jensen on this blog.

There are, of course, reams of information written about girls as they are growing into adolescence, and many of them are good. However, few seem to be directed at parents who are looking to actively support their girls in healthy sexuality development. So with that in mind, I recommend reading two books to get a general understanding of the state of preteen girls today: The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg and Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. Michael Gurian, who wrote The Wonder of Boys, has also written The Wonder of Girls, which may be good, although I have not had a chance to read it yet. Particularly for parents of girls, although not specifically about sexuality, I also really like Hold Me Close, Let Me Go by Adair Lara and Whatever, Mom by Ariel Gore and Maia Swift.

In terms of the gender-nonspecific, I suggest the section on sexuality in the book The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein. Also, of course, since the majority of teenagers date across gender lines, I do think it is helpful to read through the books for or about the other gender from your own children, in order to have a sense of what future dates might be thinking/going through. I am looking for books about parenting homosexual teenagers, but have yet to find a good one to recommend. If any of the readers has any suggestions, I would love to hear them.

If you are looking for more comprehensive direction in how to approach teaching your children, I highly recommend the age-appropriate section of the Unitarian Universalist sexuality curriculum, Our Whole Lives.

And, of course, you, your friends, or your school are welcome to bring me there to present a weekend workshop for parents on adolescent sexuality. You can find out more about my parent workshop here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Upcoming parent class on adolescent sexuality

I am pleased to announce an up-coming class on adolescent sexuality for parents.

This class will cover a variety of issues that are critical for parents of current or future adolescents to understand in order to support the healthy sexuality of their children. Because of the dramatic changes in the adolescent sexual landscape over the last decade, I will begin the classes by presenting an overview of adolescent sexuality as it is being enacted in middle schools and high schools all over the United States. Discussion over the following three weeks will include topics such as assumptions about adolescent sexuality and their applicability to our children, what kind of romantic and sexual experiences we hope our children have (or don't have), and of course, most importantly, how to talk with our children about sex. However, this curriculum is secondary to the interests of the particular group of parents in the class. Substantial time can be directed towards your specific, on-topic interests and questions.

For more information about what we will cover in class, please look at the description of the parent class on my website.

If you would like to speak with parents who have taken this class with me in the past, please do not hesitate to contact me. You may e-mail me with questions or to register. Sign up soon, because class size is limited!

Here's the info:
Sunday afternoons from 3:00 - 4:30
September 16, 23, and 30, and October 7
South Austin

Thoughts on sexuality, religion, and age

Most religions have very strong opinions about sex and sexuality. Churches and other places of worship are a major contributor to sexuality education for American children and teenagers. I happen to very much like the Unitarian Universalist's sex education program, Our Whole Lives (or OWL). The Reverend Debra Haffner writes a regular blog called Sexuality and Religion: What's the Connection? And I wonder the same thing.

That so many religions speak so powerfully on sexuality suggests that sexuality is absolutely central to our being fully human.

But what does that mean for teenagers? What does it mean when we tell teenagers that something most religions and most adults consider to be central to being human (i.e., sexuality), is something that they should wait to begin taking part in until after high school, until after they turn 18 or 21, or until after they marry.

Robert Epstein, Ph.D., author of The Case Against Adolescence, would say (and, in fact, has said) that teenagers can make good, responsible decisions about their own sexual activities. Dr. Epstein goes to great lengths to point out that different teenagers have different decision-making abilities and different maturity levels. Almost in the same breath, he points out that adults are subject to the same levels of individual variation, and yet they still have complete responsibility for their own sexual activities.

So what do all of these (slightly jumbled) thoughts mean? Why do religions consider sexuality so critical, and why do they try to limit sexual behavior so stringently? How can adults legitimately restrict adolescents from taking part in sexuality, when it is so key to humanity? And is there legitimate support for these positions given Dr. Epstein's assertion that
teenagers are able to make appropriate decisions about sexual behavior?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Can adolescents truly be in love?"

Someone (I have no idea who) recently did a google search asking the question, "Can adolescents truly be in love?" This blog is the fifth search result out of 1,710,000 websites which may or may not provide something of an answer to that question. The searcher looked at my blog for less than 2 seconds. In addition to being an awkward, ineffective search question, this is a dehumanizing, insulting, and above all very ageist (as in sexist and racist) search question.

And in the event that that searcher returns to this blog, I want to be ready with an answer.

Teenagers often love more passionately, more deeply, and with more of their being than adults. Sometimes we can be scared by that. Teenagers can also release their loves with breath-taking speed, particularly if someone else has come along to take the original love's place. Sometimes we dismiss their love because of that.

But that's not fair. Love is love, and the ability to be in love is not diminished just because someone is under 20.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Shortest Fairy Tale

A friend recently forwarded me this:
The Shortest Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, a guy asked a girl, "Will you marry me?"
The girl said "no" and she lived happily ever after. And
went shopping, drank martinis with friends, always had a
clean house, never ever had to cook, had a closet full of
shoes and handbags, stayed skinny.

The End.
And I wonder: is this a fairy tale ending? I think it's good for girls to be able to reject the idea that they need or want a man in their lives. But is this really a good alternative? What do you think a good fairy tale ending for our girls might look like?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Interview with Robert Jensen

Last Thursday morning I had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Jensen about pornography and raising kids in a sexually saturated society. I have mentioned Jensen’s newest book on pornography in a previous post. Several articles he’s written are on his website.

What is a brief description of how you see porn?

When you look at pornography, you see the perfect storm of a predatory corporate capitalism, white supremacy, and male supremacy. Pornography is not only racist and sexist, but it’s also the commodification of one of the most central part of ourselves. You can literally buy your sexuality. If you actually look honestly at that, it’s incredibly depressing.

How is it that kids or teenagers typically get introduced to porn?

Well, there just isn’t much in the way of reliable research on kids’ use of pornography, or much research on adults’ use for that matter. I always use my own experience as a baseline for understanding men of my generation, the post-Playboy generation, I’m 49. But there have been dramatic cultural changes driven by the technology since my generation. The first of those changes was the VCR, which made it much easier for people to see the hardcore stuff in their house. And then of course the internet, which ramped pornography use up by about a factor of a thousand. The fundamental thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that boys are much higher users of porn than girls.

So how should parents talk with their kids about porn?

It seems that for teenagers, boys use porn far more than girls. Not surprisingly, because the vast majority of porn is directed for a man’s imagination. And the conception of masculinity in pornography is in line with the rest of the training that adolescent boys get in becoming a man.

The one footnote to that is this “girl power” trend. And there has been some writing on this, where girls are taking on more stereotypically male sexuality, it’s called the “hook-up culture.” And so girls are taking on the perception of sexual pleasure and dominance. This is the “Girls Gone Wild” culture.

However, I still think that porn is still overwhelmingly a male genre. It is made by men, for men, and addressing the male sexual imagination. It reinforces the worst aspects of gender training, particularly around male sexuality.

What can parents, particularly of boys, do?

Well, at the obvious level, parents have to deal with their own fear of pornography first. We have to get over the feeling that if we critique porn we’re prudes.

The second thing is that I think a lot of parents in the post-Playboy world saw porn as kind of a harmless indulgence when they were growing up. So parents sometimes avoid the topic by seeing it as harmless.

Mothers in particular have to deal with their own fears in order to have good conversations with their boys about it. Most adult women have this very visceral reaction to porn, for very reasonable reasons, because it generally turns them into an object. Porn and pop culture is a very scary thing, with threats of violence, and particularly sexual violence. And add on to that, there is often a very nervous relationship with husbands regarding their own use.

Fathers, on the other hand, have to come to terms with their own pornography use. It is my experience that if you get together 10 nice, liberal men who deny using porn, at least 5 of them are lying. My experience says that men don’t step up to their responsibility in talking to their boys about porn, and particularly if they’re users themselves, they can’t.

The thing to remember is that no intervention is too early. The earlier that kids have a framework to understand the negative cultural training the better. There are two main perspectives from which sexualizing teenagers and the sexual culture is critiqued: the right-wing religious framework or the feminist framework. Those are the only people who are being vocal out there saying that our sexualized culture is wrong. The right-wing approach is rooted in a fear of sexuality and male dominance. I think we need a feminist analysis, and it is never too early to introduce that to children.

So first parents have to come to terms with these things. And if you really come to terms with pornography, it is overwhelming. It has to be. Because it’s one thing to know that Hollywood movies objectify and sexualize women. It’s another thing to know that there is this huge corporate complex out there that directly supports men having sexual power and sexual dominance over women.

We also need to remember that boys often are struggling with this too. There’s a kind of surface bravado, like when they trade images and web links on e-mail. They have this kind of jocular, surface, male bravado kind of conversation that allows them to circulate the material risk-free because it’s just joking. But what that shows is that young men are very conflicted about porn. They know there is something wrong with this, that their sexuality is reduced to 7 minutes or less of masturbating while online. It produces an incredible amount of insecurity in men.

So whatever kind of bravado parents get from boys may just be masking the terror on the inside. Boys don’t understand sexuality, they’re scared of it, they’re aware that they usually are a step behind the girls in development. That’s scary to them. And then you put that fear into a situation where they’re watching a hyper-sexualized image of masculinity, that they know they will never be able to meet. That says to me that boys are a mess, and so the more conversation with parents the better.

Of course, all of this assumes a healthy communication between the parents, which is why I always say that the first step is for parents to get together and deal with their own fears.

That addresses boys, but what about girls? What can parents do to help their girls survive in this pornography-saturated, hyper-sexualized society?

If you’re a young woman, and you see the outline of the sexual culture that you live in (male dominant, hyper-sexualized, etc.), and you think it’s not going to change, many girls have the not unreasonable response that if you can’t beat it, join it. They take as an assumption that men are going to set the terms of sexual dominance as a form of pleasure acquisition (i.e., not intimacy). If you’re a woman, or a girl, you may not believe that is what sexual encounters should be. But nevertheless it seems to be the way things are, and if you don’t have any counter-cultural way to see the world, you may assume that if you can’t change it, you can take control of it. That’s where this hook-up, Girls Gone Wild culture comes from. So girls trying to use their sexuality as power may just be making the best of a bad situation. But the problem is that it still doesn’t meet teenagers’ deeply felt need for intimacy and love.

So what do you do as a parent in this culture? It’s mostly trying to provide an alternative when there aren’t many alternatives out there. Some teenagers take this into their own hands, and decide as a group that they are taking sex off the table and interact as a group, as close friends who don’t date, making a safe space for themselves. The problem is that as a kid, you can’t do that alone.

The reason we have to pay attention to pornography, and the reason we have to talk with our kids about it, is because we have to talk to them about their sexuality and we have to talk with them about what kind of people they are becoming. This is really just part of that broader question of what kind of people they want to be.

So I don’t have any great insights about helping kids worth through the issues inherent in pornography, just that it’s something as parents we have to talk to our kids about. And part of that is coming to terms, and talking with them, about our own struggles with the issue.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Checking for testicular cancer - male nudity in video

My 17-year-old brother had surgery yesterday to determine whether or not he has testicular cancer. We'll know for sure in about 10 days. When was the last time you or your son/husband/father got checked for testicular cancer? This video shows men how to do a routine exam for themselves. The men in the video are, of course, nude when they are doing the exams.

Thank you to the American Sexuality blog for posting this video as well.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Saying yes

With teenagers, as with toddlers, parents should try to say yes as often as possible. There are so many, many things to say no to (drugs, alcohol, sex, the bad friends, the wrong date, buying a new car, wearing too much make-up, dropping out of school, going to that concert/party/drag racing event, and the list goes on). But teenagers have a really, really hard time hearing "No." and respecting it. They are on a relentless drive to make their own mistakes.

So what to do? Try your hardest to find something - one little, tiny part of what they want - to say yes to. An easy example is preteens' desire for wearing make-up. One solution may be to allow them to wear only eyeshadow (or whatever), but nothing else. And only after school.

The most common problem situation that parents have trouble saying yes to is that person your teenager wants to date. Something in you responds to something in that person, and you know that they are up to no good. Now, some teenagers will be able to hear you when you say that. Some teenagers might even appreciate some dating advice from their parents. But let's be honest: there aren't very many who feel that way. Most teenagers will do whatever they can to get together with someone who their parents have forbidden them to meet. The point is not to forbid your teenager from meeting someone. But do frame the parameters within which your teenager can meet someone.

Here are some examples of parameters you might find useful:
  1. They can meet only at your house, when you are home.
  2. They will stay in the living room.
  3. They can talk on the phone all they like, but they cannot meet in person.
  4. They can go public places together, but only if you are present at the same place, and they must stay within your line of site (if not listening range). The object of your teenager's affection doesn't even have to know you are there watching over them.
The point is that you are creating a situation which you feel like you can live with. You may not be happy about it, it might not be a situation you would ever consider to be best. But the point is that you can abide the situation until the relationship subsides. And your teenager is much less likely to throw him/herself into the arms of his/her beloved simply because you have forbidden it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How To Use A Condom

If you're too embarrassed to show your teenager how to put on a condom, you can show them this video instead. The sound is only a nice jazzy background tune.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

How many people have you had sex with?

The NY Times published a short piece on Sunday called The Myth, The Math, The Sex. It discusses the impossibility of large differences in numbers of sex partners between men and women. Here is their statement of the problem:
One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.
This is a statistical impossibility. In a given population, with a set number of sexual encounters between men and women, the average number of sexual experiences between men and women must be equal.

So where are all of those other sex partners coming from? Two ridiculous suggestions by Dr. Sevgi O. Aral, associate director for science in the division of sexually transmitted disease prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are that those extra partners are made up of foreigners and prostitutes.

Is she serious?? Before I can go on, I have to stop and have a really good laugh at this one. This suggests that the US average man has had sex with three (3!!) female foreigners or prostitutes. Oh, but not British women, clearly, because they're not having sex as much as their men either, so they're not skewing the American data. It must be women from a nation full of sex-craved, American-huntresses like Canada or Tunisia that are throwing our data.

Okay, but Dr. Aral does go on to make one decent suggestion addressing this statistical anomaly. She suggests - gasp! - that both men and women might exaggerate (i.e., lie) about the number of sexual partners they have had. This seems pretty likely. Men probably increase the number and women probably decrease the number.

However, this same analysis cannot be used for adolescent sexual partners. Adolescents have sex with non-adolescents with some regularity, so a difference in average number of sex partners may be more legitimate.

However, the only real statistically significant difference in number of sex partners between adolescent girls and boys is that boys apparently start having sex younger than girls. Again, let's think about this more closely. For that under-13 group, boys report having had sex more often than girls. Who on earth are those boys having sex with? It's just so unlikely that high numbers of girls who are older than 13 are deciding to have sex with boys who are under 13.

So the summary is that people, regardless of their age, lie about how many people they have had have sex with. We should accept that, and start labeling these statistical charts and graphs "Reported Number of Sexual Partners." It's more honest, and it explains the statistical impossibility.

Thank you for reading this short public announcement on analyzing statistical data. Let's end on this note: Think about what you read! Just because our government or any other organization published a study doesn't mean the numbers or the theories based on those numbers make sense!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pornography and Adolescents

Dear Readers, I know that some of you have very strong, emotional reactions to pornography. I describe one pornographic image in the third paragraph. In my last paragraph, I ask for your comments on and personal experience with porn.

This post is in preparation for my interview on Thursday with Robert Jensen, author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. This is a really fascinating book. It prompted me to examine my personal relationship with pornography for the first time.

I was maybe 11 when I saw my first porn picture. I was walking on a street near my house alone, and there was a piece of paper on the ground. It was maybe 4 by 6 inches and seemed to be torn out of a small book. So of course, always the avid reader, I picked it up. What stands out in my memory is a naked woman, bending over, with only the top of her thighs to her lower back showing. It was extremely lurid and disturbing. There were at least two other people in the picture, both naked, but all that I remember of them is what seemed to be vast acres of naked flesh. I did not really understand what I saw, but I was horrified, dropped the paper, and ran off. I was afraid someone would see me and think the picture was mine. I would have been able to describe the image in some detail, but I don't think I could have identified the body parts I was seeing. It was only years later, looking back, that I was able to identify the subject of this image that still stood so clearly in my mind.

The next porn pictures I saw were maybe six months to a year later. A friend and I were in a neighborhood pharmacy. The staff knew me well. My friend and I peeked inside the blocked-out plastic cover on a Playboy and saw the picture on the front cover. We also peeked inside at a few pages. I remember the event more than the images. That we were clearly doing something illicit was delightful. We giggled and jostled for a better view. We may have also picked up a Playgirl and peeked inside. The pictures were not nearly as searing or painful as the one I picked up off the street. They seemed to be from completely different genres, and I did not connect them in my mind.

None of the men I dated in high school or college were particularly interested in porn. At least they didn't admit to me that they were, and I remained blissfully ignorant. I probably would have thrown a complete fit and used it as grounds for a break-up had I discovered otherwise. I probably would not have been able to articulate why I was so distressed by my boyfriend using porn. Pornographic pictures became, while still uncommon, at least not-shocking over my college years. They continued to make me feel slightly ill, in an undefined, unexamined kind of way.

I am interested in hearing about your early experiences with pornography, both as a child and as an adolescent. Were they positive or negative? How did they shape (or not shape) your current perspective on porn? What kinds of experiences are common for boys versus girls? I would also love to know what place you think porn has (or does not have) in the adolescent mind?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Adolescent sex offenders Part 3: Legal issues

In case you missed the first or second part in this series, we are discussing the recent NY Times article on adolescent sex offenders. This is the last post in a three-part series.

The primary focus of the law as it relates to adolescent sex offenders is how to keep potential future victims safe. This is, of course, appropriate. However, assessing whether an adolescent is likely to commit a second sexual offense is difficult because of adolescents’ rapid social, emotional, and cognitive development. However, research suggests that only about 20-25% of adolescent sex offenders commit a second sex offense. This is a much lower rate than adult sex offenders. Even fewer of these adolescents will grow-up to become rapist or pedophiles - perhaps only 10%.

Nevertheless, the laws that address adolescent sex offenders, both on a state and federal level, are becoming increasingly punitive and stringent. Researchers and experts, however, suggest that a less punitive approach produces the best possible outcomes for adolescent sex offenders. New federal legislation called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act will, among other things, mandate that over the next two years all states include adolescent sex offenders 14 years and older in community notification laws. As I alluded to on Wednesday, this means that for the first time in over 100 years, a minor’s records will be accessible to the public. The Times article says this:
The theory is that children are less responsible for their actions, and thus less blameworthy, than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation. But by publishing their photographs and addresses on the Internet, community notification suggests that juveniles with sex offenses are in a separate, distinct category from other adolescents in the juvenile justice system – more fixed in their traits and more dangerous to the public. It suggests, in other words, that they are more like adult sex offenders than they are like kids.
The that adolescent sex offenders are more like adult sex offenders than like children is directly contradicted by what we know about adolescent sex offenders. Their cognitive, emotional, and social development are on trajectories much more similar to other adolescents. Their recidivism rates are much lower. Even the way they commit the offense is quite different. Sex offenses perpetrated by adolescents tend to be committed on an impulse or a whim, while adult sex offenders are much more likely to groom specific children for some time before they commit an offense.

Sex offenders are a highly inflammatory issue. No doubt some politicians believe throwing out the term “Tough on Sex Offenders” in election year commercials will get them votes in the up coming elections. No doubt some politicians believe they are actually doing the best thing by cracking down as hard as they can on all sex offenders, regardless of age. Because, after all, the victim’s experience is the same. But the offender’s experience is not the same across age groups. And pushing everyone into one category is a severe disservice to the adolescents.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

"Can I go, Dad?? Please??": Teenagers and the Austin City Limits Music Festival

A dad I spoke with recently, we'll call him Tony, is having trouble with his 14-year-old daughter, who we'll call Sara. Sara wants to go to the Austin City Limits Music Festival this year with a gaggle of her 14-year-old friends. If you are unfamiliar with the ACL festival, it is a three day, outside concert with several stages and lots and lots and lots of people (see above picture, taken at the 2004 festival). Also, cell phones often don't work because of the crush of people trying to use them. It's fabulous fun if great, live music is your thing.

Tony feels Sara is too young to go without adult supervision. His primary concern is that there will be drugs at the festival (he is, of course, correct), and he doesn't want Sara exposed to drug use. Sara pointed out that she has seen people using drugs before (primarily smoking marijuana), and has no interest in doing them herself. Tony and Sara's tentative agreement is that she can go with her friends for one day. When Tony made that agreement he was not aware that Sara's cell phone might not work at the festival.

But it is totally appropriate for Tony to put his foot down on this one. Sara is getting close to an age when she can go to the ACL festival with a gaggle of girls and no supervision. But she's not there yet. Fourteen-year-old girls need a chaperon at an event this big and unruly. They don't need a constant chaperon - but one of the parents (or a particularly cool aunt or uncle) who would enjoy going to the festival anyway needs to be on-site. The girls need to check-in with that adult at specified times and places. This gives the girls the most freedom at the least trouble. There are too many contingencies where then girls would benefit from an adult being available - including just getting tired and wanting to go home before they thought they would. In two more years, one of the girls could drive the whole group, and by then they'll be old enough to go without any supervision.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Adolescent sex offenders Part 2: Social and psychological implications

In case you missed the first part in this series, we are discussing the recent NY Times article on adolescent sex offenders. This is the second post in a three-part series.

Adolescent social, emotional, psychological, and cognitive development is quite rapid. Almost every aspect of an adolescent is, for those few years, almost always changing. This complicates matters for adolescent sex offenders particularly because the individual who commit a sex offense may be a very different person even just two years later, and may pose no threat of a repeat offense. Indeed, the recidivism rate for adolescent sex offenders is much lower than for adult sex offenders, and research suggests that only about 10% of adolescent sex offenders will become adult rapists or pedophiles. But the stigma of having committed a sexual offense does not wane as an adolescent changes.

Sexual offense, in some states and soon to be nationally, is the only offense in which a minor’s legal records are not sealed. I will discuss this legal issue in more depth on Friday, but for now it is enough to know that an adolescent sex offender’s peers and their peers’ parents can find out that an adolescent has committed a sex offense by looking through on-line registries of sexual offenders. Additionally, all potential employers for the rest of the individual’s life can find out that they committed a sexual offense as a minor.

In other words: (1) adolescents are ever changing, and are at a relatively low risk of repeat offenses and (2) sex offense records are not sealed. The implication of these two pieces of information are that there are serious hurdles for this population to re-integrate into society to the fullest extent they are capable. School mates and their parents, future employers, and just about anyone else can discover that these adolescents have committed a sex offense in on-line registries. This can severely impede adolescents’ ability to make and keep friends, jobs, or any of the relationships that form communities that support pro-social behavior.

What does all this really mean? Is it appropriate that a sexual offense that a young person commits at age 11 follows them through the rest of their lives? What about a 13-year-old? A 17-year-old? The crux of the problem is that there is not one good answer for those questions. Adolescents can develop too quickly and go in too many directions for blanket statements about how to respond to them, based either on age or offense. This statement applies more strongly to younger adolescents, because they have even more time for dramatic personal changes.

People in our society, children and adults, have the right to be protected from sex offenders. But the other side of that coin is that it is inappropriate to ostracize adolescents because of a sex offense, and regardless of their response to treatment. Indeed, this may increase the likelihood that they will not have the opportunity to become fully functioning adults.

So what we need are not arbitrary, fear-based responses to adolescent sex offenders. Rather, we need professionals who are able to sit with these young people, lead them toward appropriate self-monitoring and boundaries, and support them in building healthy relationships. These professionals need to be able to see the signs of a likely repeat-offender. But they also need to be able to see the signs of unlikely repeat-offenders. I am much more comfortable thinking about these very troubled young people being perceived and treated as unique individuals in unique situations by highly skilled professionals.

What do you think? Should adolescent sex offenders be treated differently than adult sex offenders? As I mentioned in the first post, the victim’s experience is the same. Why should the way we treat the perpetrator be different? I believe it is the nature of the adolescent that demands the difference. But I am interested in hearing other people’s perspectives.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Adolescent trends in anal sex

I am on a continuing search for information about adolescents and anal sex. I recently ran across an article that suggests 25% of adolescent relationships include anal sex, with 10% including anal sex on a regular basis (Baldwin & Baldwin, 2000). Another article reports that 10% of the study participants (who were 18 - 21) had engaged in receptive anal intercourse, while 27% had engaged in insertive anal intercourse (Ompad, 2006).

What to think about this information? Well, more than anything else it suggests that the tried-and-true method of keeping adolescents from having anal sex (i.e., not mentioning it because then they won't know about it) isn't working. Adolescents are having anal sex, folks. Not as much as they're having oral or vaginal sex, but nevertheless we cannot ignore these numbers. Anal sex can be dangerous and have serious long-term health implications. In addition to the high risk of STD transmission, there is a real risk of injury if care and lots of lube are not used.

So, while I know that in the current sex education climate getting educators to mention condoms in relation to vaginal intercourse is an uphill battle, I am stating my position here and now that we also need to talk to teenagers about safe anal intercourse. Not in over explicit ways, and not to 10-year-olds. But anal-sex information has its place in age-appropriate, information-based sex education. Because teenagers are already doing it.


Baldwin, J.I. & Baldwin, J.D. (2000). Heterosexual Anal Intercourse: An understudied, high-risk sexual behavior. Archives of sexual behavior, 29, (4): 357-373.

Ompad, D.C. (2006). Predictors of early initiation of vaginal and oral sex among urban young adults in Baltimore, Maryland. Archives Of Sexual Behavior. Archives of sexual behavior, 35 (1): 53-65.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Adolescent sex offenders Part 1: Defining the issue

There was an article in the New York Times Magazine on July 22nd about adolescent sex offenders. The article primarily focused on the relevant psychological/developmental issues and how they relate to recidivism rates and the changing legal landscape. I will discuss this article over three posts this week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Today I will outline the problem, on Wednesday I will discuss the social/psychological implications, and on Friday I will discuss the legal landscape for the adolescent perpetrators. Depending on the number of comments and depth of conversation, I may add one or two more posts on the topic next week.

To give you a sense of the range of individuals included in the term "adolescent sex offender," here are two of the more extreme examples described in the Times: (1) an 11-year-old girl who touched a 7-year-old's penis two to three times and asked him to touch her vagina once, and (2) a 17-year-old-boy who has repeatedly made young children have intercourse with him. Now, most situations are not as clear-cut as these two. The first is probably not rape, the second absolutely is. The young girl needs instruction on appropriate boundaries, while the young man needs to be incarcerated. Most cases of adolescent sex offenders are not as clear. Most adolescent sex offenders are boys around 13- and 14-years-old, however there is substantial variation within the group.

One of the important pieces of information that needs to be known about adolescent sex offenders is that the vast majority (90% or more) will not become rapists of pedophiles, according to Mark Chaffin, an expert on the subject. The article states that research suggests that recidivism rates for adolescent sex offenders is about 10%.

It was clear that the Times reporter, Maggie Jones, had a bias towards believing adolescent sex offenders are treated too harshly, and that, at least the younger adolescents, cannot truly be held accountable for their actions. While I am not in complete disagreement with Ms. Jones, I am concerned that her bias colored what information she included. It is my goal to provide a more nuanced discussion of this issue than I believe Ms. Jones did.

I had three very strong reactions to this piece. These will be my guiding principles for discussion over the series. First, victims of a sexual offence feel the same violation of their body regardless of the offender’s age. Put a different way, discussion about adolescent sex offenders as different from adult sex offenders does not mean that the victims are any different. This point must not be overlooked or left unstated. Second, adolescents are different from adults in many ways. Adolescent sex offenders are different from adult sex offenders in many ways. A discussion of an offense as serious as sexual molestation by an adolescent or a pre-adolescent cannot take place outside of the context of the cognitive, emotional, and psychological development that is occurring across those ages. And third, while academics and clinicians seem to be gaining understanding about how to help these adolescents in the best way possible, there seems to be little guidance for parents. I am always in favor of prevention methods rather than post-offense punishment. I wonder what the warning signs of a potential adolescent sex offender may be, and how parents and society as a whole could recognize them and respond appropriately before an offense takes place?

As I mentioned in a post last week, this is a very difficult topic. Nevertheless, a conversation about adolescent sexuality it incomplete without addressing the more painful, inappropriate sexual actions taken by adolescents. I appreciate you staying with me through this conversation, and adding to it as you are comfortable and able.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Adolescent sexuality in the movies

I saw Hairspray last night. It was good, campy fun. I was really struck by the innocence of the dating relationships. When compared to American Pie and the dreadful genre of movies it has inspired, Hairspray was a delightful return to the fumbling, romantic interest many teenagers experience.

I am not saying that some teenagers' prime motive for dating isn't sex. I am not even saying that most teenagers' prime motive for dating isn't sex. But for many teenagers the reason they're dating is that inexplicably heady feeling that they get when a certain someone walks into the room. Not a certain feeling in their groin.

Our current spate of hyper-sexualized media teaches teenagers that sex is the reason they should be dating. And that's just stupid. I wish we could have more movies like Hairspray - something that portrays the adolescent experience as something other than a 24/7 search for that first (and subsequent) roll in the hay. Maybe I'll start my own movie company. What do you say? Who'll go in with me on this one?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Rape, pornography, and adolescent sexuality

I am currently working on several posts about the seedier side of sexuality. The first is about the recent article in the New York Times Magazine about adolescent sex offenders. (To be clear, these are teenagers or pre-teenagers who have engaged in sexual behavior with children who are at least two years younger than they are.) The second is about the new book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen. After posting one or two discussions of Dr. Jensen's book, I will post a conversation between me and Dr. Jensen here.

In the meantime, I am spending much of my time reading and thinking about these very painful issues. I am reminded that sex, for many, is something to be endured. For others, there is an obsession about sexuality, and sex becomes the focus of every waking thought. Sex is far to often tied-up with power, pain, and rape. These should be issues that adolescents are free from. Adolescents deserve the space to discover their sexuality without these unbearable forces breathing down their necks. Far too often, though, it is the teenagers who are just awakening to their sexuality who take the brunt of societal angst and anger around sex.

So I am asking for your input. How can we prepare our teenagers to stand in this social context and maintain a healthy sexuality? How can we help our teenagers respect their bodies and everyone else's body? How can we bring about a sexual revolution?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Cartoon, additional comments

There have been a few additional comments to the cartoon I posted earlier this morning. I re-watched the cartoon, and I agree with the comments - that it contained really inappropriate sexual behavior by one of the characters (the mother). So I've deleted it. I've found another, shorter clip, that includes only the part where the students are watching and reacting to the abstinence-only presentation.

I apologize for the offensive nature of the original.

New, shorter abstinence cartoon

Abstinence-only funding the democrats

While I was on vacation the House "democrats" voted to INCREASE funding for abstinence-only-before-marriage sex education. I'm outraged that anything this outrageous could have happened while I was gone!

To drive my point home, let's review. Here is the legal definition of a program that meets the requirements of "abstinence-only":
  1. Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.
  2. Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children.
  3. Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems.
  4. Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.
  5. Teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.
  6. Teach that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society.
  7. Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances.
  8. Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.
You can read the entire bill, as it was passed in the house. However, here is the part that deals with abstinence-only "sex education":
Provided further, That $136,664,000 shall be for making competitive grants to provide abstinence education (as defined by section 510(b)(2) of the Social Security Act) to adolescents, and for Federal costs of administering the grant: Provided further, That grants under the immediately preceding proviso shall be made only to public and private entities which agree that, with respect to an adolescent to whom the entities provide abstinence education under such grant, the entities will not provide to that adolescent any other education regarding sexual conduct, except that, in the case of an entity expressly required by law to provide health information or services the adolescent shall not be precluded from seeking health information or services from the entity in a different setting than the setting in which abstinence education was provided: Provided further, That within amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, up to $10,000,000 may be available for a national abstinence education campaign: Provided further, That in addition to amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, $4,500,000 shall be available from amounts available under section 241 of the Public Health Service Act to carry out evaluations (including longitudinal evaluations) of adolescent pregnancy prevention approaches: Provided further, That up to $2,000,000 shall be for improving the Public Assistance Reporting Information System, including grants to States to support data collection for a study of the system’s effectiveness.
I'll be frank. This makes me want to vomit. Why on earth are we spending our money on this useless crud? But my arguments against abstinence-only "sex education", as well as other's arguments, are already relatively well documented in other posts. Mostly I wanted to keep everyone informed about this nonsense. And, as I have suggested before, please call your representatives and senators and tell them you want abstinence-only "sex education" out of the schools. And let me know if you do make those calls or send those e-mails - I'd love to hear about your experience!