Let's Talk About Sex

Does it shock you to hear that 1 in 4 tweens (children aged 11 though 14) believe that sexual intercourse is part of their dating relationships?   

That's right.  Kids as young as 11 believe sex should be part of their relationships.

A July 31 Newsweek article used this statistic to encourage parents to talk frequently to their children, early in their teen years, about sex.  Newsweek provided a list of nine tips to help parents, including such things as “Find the moment,”  “Be a good listener,” “Relate sex and physical intimacy to love,” “Teach strategies to manage sexual pressure” and “Don't be afraid to get down to specifics.” 

Newsweek, however, missed a very important piece of the puzzle here.  Parents should also be aware that they face competition from the entertainment media in teaching their children about sex.  Many entertainment outlets geared to teens and tweens deliver highly sexualized messages. 

A recent CMI report found that more than 25 percent of the most popular songs in spring 2008 contained sexually degrading lyrics.  That is, these songs made men out to be “sex driven studs” and women little more than sexual objects.  This week, the number one song on Billboard's Hot 100 chart is “I Kissed a Girl,” a celebration of lesbian experimentation and infidelity by former Christian recording artist Katy Perry.  

These are the songs teens are listening to the radio, and the videos they're watching on MTV.   Carol Platt Liebau wrote in her 2007 book Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!) that

[w]hen admired pop or rap stars model over-the-top sexual availability and sexual aggression, and when sexuality is portrayed as the everyday (and virtually exclusive) currency of male-female interaction, that behavior normalizes and romanticizes the vulgarity and makes it acceptable.  The repetition of the message ingrains unwholesome concepts and builds on them.  

Or how about television?  Just two days ago at the Teen Choice Awards, the CW drama Gossip Girl took home awards for Breakout Show and Best Drama. Based on a popular series of novels aimed at teen girls, Gossip Girl focuses on wealthy high school kids behaving very badly on New York's Upper East Side. Sexual encounters between the teen characters occur frequently in the series and the advertisements depict teens in sexual situations.  CW claims the show is targeted to the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, but the awards won by the show on Teen Choice indicate that plenty of younger teens are watching.  Teen Choice voters must be between the ages of 13 and 19. 

Don't forget magazines.  CosmoGirl is targeted to 16- to 20-year-old young women but as is the case with Gossip Girl, younger girls are probably reading it too.  September's issue contains a referral to Planned Parenthood for confidential birth control in the regular feature, “Your Private Questions Answered:”

Q. I want to start taking a birth control pill to help control my acne breakouts and shorten my periods, but my parents think I just want to have sex and won't give me permission.  What should I do?

A. Try to talk to your parents again – and support your argument with facts about how the Pill helps clear up skin and shortens periods.  The best news about including your parents now is that if you have any other sexual health concerns later, you'll have already built up trust.  If that fails, you still can get on the Pill without your parents' permission – family planning clinics can help you get a prescription.  But you need to call the clinic first to make sure they can promise confidentiality; if they can't, they should be able to refer you to one that can.  You can start at Planned Parenthood…They'll also help you figure out how to talk to your parents.

The message sent is “ask your parents for permission, but don't worry if they don't give it because you can still obtain the Pill without them knowing.”  

Not all is loss though.  Newsweek noted “there's plenty of evidence indicating that kids whose parents do discuss sex with them are more cautious than their peers – more likely to put off sex or use contraception.”  Therefore, parents should talk to their kids, and make sure they're familiar with teens' entertainment choices.  Favorite shows and songs can serve as jumping-off points for fruitful discussions about sex and morality. 

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center