This post stems from the comments on the previous one. It discusses real life situations involving teenagers and sex.
So, first things first: whether or not a teenager is allowed to read books with sexual scenes in them is up to the parent. Full stop. No judgement one way or another.
I’m going to talk about some personal experience here and my personal philosophy when it comes to sex education. I’m not holding myself out as an example, but simply sharing what it was like to bring two girls to adulthood. My children are now in their twenties.
I always erred on the side of education.
I’ve explained sex when they were probably around 11 or 12, because puberty was coming. I thought I did a fair job. Then they started coming up and asking me all sorts of nonsense. Like can you get pregnant from anal sex? Does peeing after sex prevent you from being pregnant? When I dug deeper, I realized that they were talking to other kids, who were also coming up with nonsense, and trying to find information about random crazy crap they read on the internet.
I didn’t have internet growing up. It can be a great source of information, but it’s also an enormous heap of misinformation. It’s very difficult to be a parent in the digital age. I needed some outside authority other than me so they would have at least two points of reference I knew were solid.
I went with my parents’ approach. I bought a book written about sex and aimed specifically for teens. It went over anatomy, positions, safety, different types of intercourse, and so on. I left it in plain view. Sometimes it disappeared and surfaced in other areas of the house. As a parent, I had to come to the realization that some things they just have to research on their own, because it’s uncomfortable or they are embarrassed.
Dangers of not enough education
When my youngest daughter was about 14, I think, I opened the door to her dragging in a sobbing teenager. The girl cried and cried, and I couldn’t get anything out of her for about ten minutes other than it was a “sex thing.” I thought she was assaulted.
Finally she calmed down enough to say that she thought she had an STD. She was terrified to tell her parents, because she would have to admit she had sex, and the consequences would be catastrophic.
Let’s pause a little bit here and talk about teenage brain works. We are speaking about the hypothetical average teenager here. Your mileage may vary. When a teenager says, “If I don’t do this, I’ll die,” they often mean it, because to them it feels like they will literally die. To adults it seems absurd that you would think about killing yourself over a bad test grade, but to teenagers everything is super important. Take your emotions, dial them up as high as they can go, and remove the real life frame of reference.
So I have this kid hysterically weeping and saying she would kill herself, and my daughter going, “Mom, can we take her to the clinic or something?” And I am sitting there going, “How do I fix this? I can’t give consent for treatment for her. She is a minor, and I’m neither the parent nor a legal guardian.” So I checked, and it turned out that according to Texas law, a medical professional can treat her for certain STDs without notifying the parents.
When tea was distributed and sobbing stopped, I asked about the symptoms and realized immediately it probably wasn’t an STD. It sounded like a classic UTI. UTI treatment requires parental consent. I told her that she needed to tell her parents that she had a UTI, let them take her to the clinic, and discuss her situation with a doctor. If she was too scared, I would take her myself. I also encouraged her to talk to her mom.
She ended up settling on calling her aunt, who took her to health department. It was a UTI. The sex was never discussed with the parents.
I’m in the driveway with Gordon, watching our daughters and a couple of their friends who had stayed over for the sleep over, play basketball. Child one gets picked up. Child two, who was seventeen at the time, looks at me, takes a deep breath, and says very loud, “Why does it hurt when you have sex?”
Everything stops. Our kids make big eyes. Gordon turns around and walks into the house.
So I have 30 minutes before her parents arrive to pick her up. I ended up packing a lot of information into those 30 minutes. This girl was ignorant about basics. Really, just simple things every woman needs to know to have intercourse.
Half an hour later, her mother picked her up. We smiled, waved good-bye, and I stood there, a little shell-shocked, and looked at the car leave. The family was very religious, and when I asked the girl why she didn’t talk to her mother, she told me, “My parents don’t like my boyfriend.” For the record, I was with her parents. I didn’t like her boyfriend either.
She was having sex, she was having it unsafely, and she would continue to have sex for then next year and a half. Having a restrictive upbringing where books about sex or with sex or films with sexual content were not permitted didn’t prevent sexual intercourse. They just assured that she was unprepared and felt unable to discuss it with her parents.
“… so I changed seats.”
“Because X likes sitting on boys laps and lets them finger her in class and I didn’t want to spend the whole study period looking at that.”
“She also keeps having sex with them in a school bathroom. It’s annoying. She has insecurity problems. Multiple people took a picture of it happening, because they did it at a group table, and someone posted one in the hallway. And she didn’t stop doing it, Mom. She keeps going.”
Not a thing you would normally expect a high school freshman to do. That right there was a tragedy in progress. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I would expect either history of abuse or some sort of issues.
Me: “Do you remember X?”
“Oh yes. That was so messed up. She has a child now. She seems really unhappy. She posts continuously on Facebook looking for validation. I wish things were better for her.”
Books and films with sex
I self-censored as a child. If a book had too many adult themes, I would get bored and move on. Later I would pick it up again and be amazed at how good it was. I’ve observed the same process with my children. That doesn’t mean I completely let go of the reins. I tried my best to steer them toward the books I thought would be appropriate for their age, but if they picked up something else on their own, I let them read it.
At a young age my father handed me the World’s Classics. One of the volumes concentrated on Greek plays. Metamorphoses of Apuleius, specifically. Random sex with strangers, homosexuality, and bestiality. Thanks, Dad. I had to look up homosexuality in a dictionary. Because we didn’t have homosexuals in USSR, they were a “Western perversion.” Don’t get me started. Anyway, as an eleven year old, I wasn’t particularly disturbed by it. Sex was very academic at that point. If two men wanted to have sex, why not? I was fuzzy on particulars, but in principle eleven year old me was fine with it.
Bestiality was an entirely different thing and I could have happily waited several more years before knowing that sort of thing existed.
At a young age, my daughters read LOVELY BONES, which deals with rape, and LORD OF THE FLIES, and they found both a great deal more disturbing than sex scenes. When they were older, about 15 and 13, they bought 50 SHADES OF GREY with their own money. I had a serious talk with them when I saw the book and said Important Things like “this is not a healthy relationship” and “this is not the proper way to engage in BDSM” and “consenting adults.”
The next morning I woke up to loud giggling. They took turns doing their makeup before school and reading random pages from the book, because they found it utterly ridiculous. They went to see the first movie and almost got kicked out of the theater because they were laughing so hard. I worried for nothing. They absolutely refused to take it seriously.
I asked our 22 year old about it just now, and she laughed. I also asked her about reading sex scenes in books as a teen and she said that she read them like any other scene. She didn’t feel they were anything super special. She had friends who read what they termed “pure smut,” which was probably erotica, and got really into the scenes. It didn’t alter their behavior either way. It was a safe way to enjoy fiction and experience things through a book.
So in conclusion, whatever your parenting strategy is in regard to sexual content in fiction, I would encourage you to educate the kids. Hiding sex isn’t going to work.
We live in the age where kids look at porn on their phones. It will be happening, it might be already happening, and the best we can do as parents is to make sure that when it does happen it’s safe and it’s not a painful or traumatic experience for them.
I wanted to stress that wanting to have intercourse or not wanting to have intercourse shouldn’t carry a stigma. Some kids are asexual. Some kids are fascinated with it. Neither is better than the other. They are all just different ways to be. Teenagers often feel like freaks and outcasts already and a lot of them are uncomfortable with their sexuality. Stressing that there is only one “right” way to feel about sexual things could lead to tragic consequences.
If you do choose to allow them to read books with sexual content, I would suggest choosing books that reinforce consent and safe sex and stress that sex, ultimately, isn’t a prize you get for putting in the time or some forbidden thing, but an act of trust between two people. Adults have sex for many reasons, but teenagers often have sex because they are in love. That romance genre usually does right.
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