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From the Editor: Let’s Talk About Sex

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To those of us of a certain age, the discovery of AIDS hit like a lightening bolt. The idea that an act as natural and necessary as sex could lead to certain death seemed somehow surreal, yet we believed the threat was real enough to adjust our behavior. Indeed, many of us saw the cruelty of AIDS firsthand.

But as you’ll read in senior editor Maria Hess’ story about local teens and sex (page 78), many of those who have never known a world without AIDS don’t take the disease—or any other—seriously. Many of the 60 teenagers Maria interviewed don’t use condoms—which would explain, in part, the state’s high rate of sexually transmitted diseases.

“They think AIDS is for older people,” she says.

They also don’t believe oral sex is a sexual act, that they’ll conceive as a result of intercourse, or that their behavior may be risky or inappropriate.

Those kids were born too late to watch Magic Johnson announce his retirement from pro basketball. They didn’t watch as HIV-positive kids fought for the right to attend school like everyone else. They didn’t watch Arthur Ashe, Gia or Freddie Mercury die.

So if you’re wondering why Delaware Today would publish a story like “What Your Kid Knows About Sex,” now you know.

You also know why Maria would choose to tackle the subject: “I’m a parent.”

To put the research into context, Maria interviewed students from 13 to 17 of all races from public middle schools and high schools up and down the state. Most of the meetings were set up by school administrators and teachers, with DT’s promise that the kids could speak under condition of anonymity. (Many schools, understandably, declined to participate.) Adults were not present during the interviews.

Maria also spoke to teens at local shopping malls. She found that kids who aren’t afraid of judgment or punishment will reveal some very surprising things.

“Not only were they open, it was as if they wanted to talk about it. They needed to talk about it,” Maria says. “They were happy to share their thoughts and fears.” The most shocking thing she learned? “How sexually active middle school kids are. Many are actually having intercourse—or they’re on the verge of it.”

Some things never change. Teens of 30 years ago pursued sex as aggressively as kids do today. But there are a couple key differences between then and now. First, says Maria, is the proliferation of media images.

“Every single kid says the media has absolutely no influence over their decisions, yet sex is sold to kids as young as 7, and it never stops,” Maria says. “It continues well into adulthood. So there has to be a link between media influence and sexual behavior. That was alarming to me.”

Second, girls are catching up with boys as the initiators. “Girls are more aggressive than they used to be,” Maria says. “We’re three generations removed from the women’s movement. Women are empowered. Girls are empowered. They often make the first move. And because they think their boyfriends and partners are monogamous, they often talk them into having unprotected sex.”

Third, there is the constant threat of AIDS. It seems odd to me that kids can admire a rock star who fights to relieve suffering AIDS in Africa, but don’t see the relevance to their own lives. Are they simply desensitized to media images, or are they subconsciously selective about what they process?

So there’s a lesson to be learned here. “The kids who took the most chances are the ones who were afraid to talk to their parents about it,” Maria says. “Every kid who abstained from sex spoke highly of their parental relationship or moral foundation. To me, there’s an obvious correlation between communication and dangerous behavior.”

As Dr. Pat Tanner Nelson, a family and human development specialist for the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension Program, told Maria, “This is not about talking to your kids about sex. This is about talking to your kids. You have to provide a comfort zone for your kids to share whatever is worrying them or concerning them. You have to teach your kids how to make good decisions.”

We’re certain some teens are going to read the story, too. So, young readers, hear this:

Think before you act. Listen well to what the adult experts cited in the story have to say. They were once teenagers, just like you. If nothing else, heed their advice to respect yourself and your body, and make sure others respect you just as much.

 

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