A few Fridays ago Oprah Winfrey’s show featured two teenagers, all of 14 years old, who had decided they were going to advance their fledging relationship to full-on sex. The mother of the boy, hearing of her son’s plans, went to a drug store, bought him a pack of condoms, and put them in his drawer hoping he’d take the hint. Asked by Oprah why she bought the condoms, the mom said that if she had told her son not to have sex he would not have listened. The mother was applauded for her open-mindedness and realism.
Truth regardless of consequences Dr. Laura Berman, the expert on the show, took the approach that it is best to discuss with teenagers why they want to have sex and alert them to its full repercussions rather than simply tell them outright that sex for teenagers is wrong. The only person who seemed to disagree was Oprah’s close friend Gayle King, who was adamant that the advice was completely misguided and the “couple” were way too young to have sex. “They don’t even have driver’s licenses,” King said.
I found this all pretty illuminating for what it says about our ignorance of sex as well as the weakened state of modern parenting.
So let’s set the record straight.
1. Sex is for adults in a mature and committed relationship. It is not for kids, and not only because they can get pregnant and contract a sexually transmitted disease. Sex brings in its wake a tidal wave of overwhelming emotions that young teens are not equipped to assimilate, neither psychologically nor emotionally. Many studies have linked teen sex to teen suicide, especially for young girls. Sex creates an artificial sense of closeness and when the relationship terminates (and terminate it will), it leaves both teens with a sense of abandonment and severe loneliness. Moreover, when sex is experienced too early and without the proper emotional preparation, it becomes an empty experience, leaving the participants disillusioned and dissatisfied. This explains why so many teens suffer sexual burnout by the time they hit their twenties, with grave ramifications for future relationships and especially marriage. In “The Kosher Sutra” I discuss the shocking statistic that one out of three marriages in America is entirely sexless. I believe that one of the major contributing factors is the vacant sexual experiences that so many young Americans have that gradually turns them off sex. Sex is also diluted when it is overused, especially in an inappropriate context. Later, when we try to draw upon its power to transform our relationship into one of exceptional intimacy and pleasure we discover that it is powerless to do so.
2. The principal responsibility of parents is to protect their children. Before we love them, before we inspire them, before we educate them, our job is to guard our children from harm. If our kids wished to drive a car without a license, we would not give them driving lessons and the keys in the belief that it is better to have them drive safely than dangerously. Similarly, no matter how powerless we felt to stop them from taking drugs, we would not be going to the local pusher to get them needles. This does not mean that I judge the mother who was on the show. She loves her son and was doing what she thought was best. But our responsibility as parents is to have the kind of everyday, loving interactions with our children that allow us to play an active role in their lives and guide them toward positive choices. We dare never abdicate our responsibility through the fear of our own impotence. Indeed, I believe if we give up on our ability to empower our children to make moral choices, they will later hold us accountable. Our children must respect our advice and authority. That means that we can’t allow them to drift so far from our influence that we suddenly find ourselves powerless to prevent destructive behavior. Sure, we parents don’t want to alienate our children by being party-poopers. That’s why we have to balance discipline with inspiration, attention, and love. There can be no substitute for regular family dinners, outings, and parent-child conversations. If these central staples of family life are neglected, we will find ourselves in the position this mother did: feeling we have to go along with our child’s destructive choices rather than prohibiting them for fear of losing the relationship. Which brings me to my next point.
3. We are not our children’s friends. We are their parents. They have many friends. They have only one mom and dad. While it’s wonderful to be popular with our kids, even that popularity must be experienced within the overall framework of parental authority. We know what is best for our kids. We are older, wiser, more experienced, and more mature. They must listen to us, and we must take the unpopular stand of preventing them from engaging in activities that are against their interests. We must tell our kids to turn off the TV and do their homework. We must tell our kids that if they are involved with drugs they will disappoint us greatly and we’ll be forced to punish them. And we must tell our kids that sex is off limits, and that if we see that a relationship is becoming too serious we will move to terminate it. By all means give good, logical reasons. But be firm as well. Our children should, of course, love us. But they must also respect us and respect our guidance.
4. Fathers are the principal immunity for young girls to say no to sexual pressure. Where were the dads on the show? It is primarily a father who protects his teenage daughter from succumbing to the wiles of hormonally active youths who want to use her. Girls who are close to their dads are not desperate for male attention and are thus granted an invulnerability to the charms of silver-tongued 15-year-olds who tell them that if they really love them, they should prove it by going to bed with them.
5. By allowing our sons and daughters to have sex too early, we gradually lose them to strangers. They suddenly get deeply and intensely involved with a non-family member and become, for all intents and purposes, lost to their families. A 14-year-old girl should be much closer to her parents and siblings than her boyfriend. The former give her unconditional love that builds strength of character. The latter loves her for very conditional things like beauty, charm, and a willingness to get physical. This fosters insecurity and an erosion of self-esteem.
6. We must teach our young sons to respect women. That comes from telling them it is unacceptable to see a girl as a means to sexual ends or to pressure her into having sex.
7. Relationship experts should not be averse to discussing morality. Part of teaching men and women how to make love work is to emphasize the moral dimension. Dr. Laura Berman did an admirable job of asking the right questions that led the young girl to pull back from wanting to have sex. But we relationship experts should not be dissuaded from discussing morals as well. After discussing the issue of teen sex in all its aspects, there is nothing wrong with concluding definitively, as Gayle King did, that it’s a bad idea for all involved and that sex is a mature and intimate activity that is reserved exclusively for adults.