Sex and the After Shock June 1, 2010
Sex: it’s such a small word, but has so many meanings, feelings, opinions, beliefs and consequences, both positive and negative, attached to it. Most people, no matter what their age or level of maturity, find it difficult to discuss sex and often shy away from doing so. Parents often reduce a discussion of sex to the “birds and the bees” talk, when in fact it is a wonderful umbrella topic for sexuality, reproductive health, relationships, interpersonal dynamics, intimacy, body image, gender roles, broken hearts, abuse, violence, unwanted sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), pregnancy, addiction and growing up in general. Sex is laden with religious and spiritual beliefs, cultural upbringing, media imaging and peer review.
Because sex is a complex human interaction, the effects of becoming sexually active vary depending upon whether the sex was truly consensual, made under pressure, exploitive, honest, protected against STDs and pregnancy, and aligned with one’s internal compass. Feelings can range from euphoria, love, happiness, and closeness, to guilt, shame, longing, regret and numbness. A single physical act might be without visible physical consequences, but could lead to the stresses of negative peer labels, guilt and shame, and the permanent stressors of acquiring a STD and/or pregnancy. How we cope with the feelings and how we behave in response to the stresses sets up an internal pattern of how we are in the world and theme of our self-perception.
Here is what I know from working with countless teens and their families:
- Engaging in relationships and emotional intimacy is needed to mature into an emotionally healthy adult. It is natural and appropriate for a teen to want to be seen, heard and recognized as being valued.
- Teens are in a pressure cooker of sorts – while they long for acceptance, they must cope with intense hormonal changes in a growing body, and must resolve their own place in the opinions of their peers, culture, parents, and religious/spiritual beliefs.
- When decisions are made under pressure, having a good outcome from those decisions decreases dramatically.
- Most teens are having sex too young and doing so under pressure.
- Impulsivity, coupled with the belief of invincibility, put teens at a greater risk for unwanted negative sexual consequences.
- A normal part of being a teen is trying to define who they are in opposition to the adults and enforcing structure in their lives.
Sex is often unconsciously used to feel more connected and valued. While sex may immediately get those results, the long term goals of intimacy, connection and well-being have little to do with the act of sex. It is important to know that there are ways to feel more connected, to develop relationships and be emotional intimate with others, which do not involve sex. Peer pressure can be intense. Teens need to be honest with themselves about why they choose to have sex in a relationship – are they doing it to belong? be liked? to fit in? or to keep a relationship?
To the Teen Readers:
The worst time to make a decision to have sex is on the spur of the moment. Think about it in advance: Do I want sex with this person? Is the sex mutually agreed upon? Is it respectful? Have I communicated my needs, wishes, desires, thoughts, feelings effectively and respectfully? Has my partner? What protection are we using against a STD? Against a pregnancy? How would I cope with the stress of a possible unwanted pregnancy? An STD? How would I handle grief and loss in my own or another’s heart? Have I discussed all of these possibilities with my partner? If your partner can’t give you an answer to any of these questions, what will that mean for your relationship? Have you been honest with your partner? Is your partner honest with you? What happens to your relationship if one of you has not been honest? How might that fair for the long term of your relationship
In the end, only you own your body. You are in charge of who touches it, how you take care of it and how you use it. From the choices you make with your body, you create your opportunities for self-empowerment and positive self-esteem, or you disempower yourself and lower your self-image. When you make a decision that does not serve you or another, how do you cope with the challenge you have created? How you face these challenges, how you comfort yourself through difficult times, the kindness you show to yourself and others when things don’t go as planned, will define you. Although there may be people or events that influence you or pressure you in regards to sex, it is still your decision, and you alone live with the consequences.
Let’s talk about the after effects of sex. Statistically, unless you plan to be a virgin when you marry, it is highly unlikely that the partner you choose at 15 is the partner your 25-year old self would want. How will you cope with a broken heart, unrequited love, disappointment, whether your own, or that of your partner? It is important to discuss these possibilities in your relationships. It may feel easy enough to let life or someone else choose for you, but are you strong enough to choose your own life? Can you take the risk involved in resisting peer pressure or living through an awkward situation when you tell another that you are not ready? A good relationship is more about how the couple deals with disagreement and repairs disappointment than it is about often or how good the sex is that they have.
Respect your body. Listen carefully to what you want. Take care of yourself. Remember if you do not like the direction you are heading in a relationship, you always have an option: turn around and start walking in the opposite direction. And if you have to deal with an unwanted result, take a deep breath, gather support from the people you trust, and confront it head on.
To the Parent Readers
Relationships heal and help grow parts of ourselves, sometimes parts our families can’t do. Your teen is growing up in a different time than you did: culturally the expectations around sex are different. There is a larger influence from the media and different pressures from peers. For instance, today most teens report they believe it is okay to have sex with someone other than your wife or husband, whereas a generation or two ago, the pressure was to meet the special person, fall in-love and have sex with him or her only. Most teens will consider their sexuality and will have been curious about sex long before their parents recognize their child as a sexual being. Teens are bombarded with so many conflicting messages about sex – casual sex is okay, sex should be meaningful; sex is fun, you can die from a sexual encounter; sex is necessary for guys, girls who engage in sex are sluts; having sex makes a teen accepted by their peers, teens who have sex risk getting hurtful labels.
No matter how you cut it, sex it a complex issue. Sex education is most beneficial when all of the many issues are discussed. Your communication with your child on these issues is a process, not a one-time event. Your job is not only to ensure that your child understands the details of reproductive and sexual health, but to guild your child’s communication and decision making skills. Talk with your child about gender roles, self-esteem, and how to cope effectively with life stressors. Research shows that teens that are well educated about sex tend to delay their first intercourse and participate safely when they decide to do so.
While it is important for your child to know your expectations and values about sexual experimentation, it is also important to respect them as growing human beings and the authenticity of their experiences. Respect their emotional experiences and acknowledge their reality, without being dismissive or minimizing the profundity of their choices because of their age. Remember the goal is to keep relationship with your teen. Teens will not let you parent them without a relationship based on trust and mutual regard and respect.
Teach your children ownership of their bodies, an appreciation of their bodies, and responsibility of their behaviors. Emphasize the power of their choices. Be respectful of their feelings. Listen and regard the intensity they may be feeling. Help them deal with the pressures and stress they may be facing. You may disagree, but show how to disagree respectfully. Remember you are helping them grow into a healthy adult who can deal with life stressors, be in charge of their own life, and act responsible, and respectful both towards themselves and others.
Marialena Malejan-Roussere is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Los Gatos. She specializes in working with teens, families and parenting support. For more information regarding teen support groups, a free consultation or to set up an appointment, contact her at 408-702-7429, 315 Los Gatos-Saratoga Road, Los Gatos, CA 95030 or visit her website at www.relationshipharmony.com.