UCSF Psychiatrist Studies Sex Lives of Teenagers

August 15, 2000
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Sexuality is a subject parents often don't want to talk about with their teenage children -- sometimes going so far as to deny that teenagers have sexual lives. But honest and open communication between teens and their parents about sex is crucial in helping teens address these issues, says a UCSF child psychiatrist.

Adolescents have sexual lives and they need parental guidance to navigate through the risks involved in sex and to make safe choices, said Dr. Lynn Ponton, a UCSF professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and author of the new book: "The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls" (Dutton publishing, $24.95).

Experimenting with sexuality is a natural part of growing up but this idea is often unaccepted in American culture which has Puritan attitudes about sex, Ponton said. "Many believe we have a permissive sexual culture," she said. "That is not true. We largely have a restrictive sexual culture. We have poor communication, restrictive gender roles for teenagers and strong taboos. In that environment, it's hard to get honest and fair information about teenagers' sexual activity."

Fifty percent of American 16-year-olds have had sex. And both boys and girls are physically developing two years earlier than they did 30 years ago. In addition, adolescents are being bombarded with a flurry of sexual images through movies, videos and music. But they are discouraged from exploring their own sexuality.

The dialogue between parents, educators and teens also can empower adolescents about their sexual choices and help steer them away from danger zones, such as feeling pressured to have sex or being victimized. In a compilation of 20 individual stories of the teenagers and parents she has counseled in her practice, Ponton illustrates some of the issues young people face around sexuality, including abortion, masturbation, sexual orientation, sexual abuse and HIV infection.

"These taboo topics are not talked about in the culture. There is a mounted effort to ignore the sexual lives of teenagers," she said. "By not addressing these issues, it stops teenagers from developing in a healthy way."

Ponton also discusses how teenagers are pushed into tightly defined, stereotypical sexual roles in the chapter called "Studs and Sluts." Boys, the studs, are the pursuers. "The stud concept is very negative. It's the idea that their manhood is tied to their penis and the mechanics of how the operation goes," Ponton said. "Boys have a very hard time developing full sexual roles. They are pushed into the narrow gender role as sexual performer and girls are objects to be acted on. These narrow roles confine sexuality."

While being a "stud" is often encouraged and expected of boys, girls who do not shy away from their sexuality or femininity - or those who just look womanly at a young age - are often labeled "sluts." "Women in this culture don't talk about their sexual activity because if they do they are defined as sluts," Ponton said. "This can cause girls to grow up into women who fail to acknowledge their own sexual desires."

The book introduces the concept of parental readiness and provides tips to parents on how to talk about sex with their teenagers, which include speaking directly with teenagers about sex, using simple language to describe both feelings and activities and starting the discussion early.