Agreeing to agree about teen-agers and sex


ONE preaches abstinence, the other safe sex and the use of condoms. Each professes to have the right solution; each accuses the other of being the real enemy -- indeed, the cause of all the problems that ail us in the first place. Their battle cries were heard most recently in the confirmation process of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

But what nonsense to pose this as an either-or question! The right solution is, of course, abstinence. And condoms. And education. And clear messages about sexual values. And better parent-child communication. And many other strategies -- in fact, whatever it takes -- to raise our children to become sexually healthy people. If ever a problem cried out for creative, expansive thinking, rather than a self-serving either-or mentality, it is most certainly this one.

How tragic and ironic that adults on both "sides" have so much more in common than they may ever come to realize because of all the shouting. All of them love their children. All want them to be safe and healthy and happy. All want them to eventually understand their sexuality and learn to use and enjoy it as TC positive life force. These are powerfully important shared values, the enormous and fertile common ground upon which we all stand, even as our ferocious disagreements about strategy blind us to it.

Were we to put aside our differences long enough to recognize, embrace and articulate our common values, the result, I predict, might be nothing short of miraculous. It would enable us to frame a unified, crucial set of messages for young people about their developing sexuality. I think it would probably sound very much like this:

"What we want you to know, dear children, because we love and care about you so deeply, is that your sexuality is a great gift." (Some will want to add the phrase, "from God.") "We fervently hope that it will become a positive and fulfilling part of your life.

"You must also know that sexual behavior, especially sexual intercourse, is extraordinarily powerful -- emotionally, socially and physically. In fact, sexual intercourse rightly can be viewed as the most fundamentally powerful behavior on the face of the Earth, since it has the capability both to give life and to take it away. Therefore, decisions about sexual intercourse are always profoundly serious, and always fraught with ethical questions. Only people who are capable of mature, responsible conduct should ever consider becoming involved.

"If, and whenever, people do become involved, it is therefore essential that they actively care for and protect themselves and others, emotionally and physically. Here are the ways in which you can do that."

In more than 20 years of work with parents and educators in communities across the country, I have met few who could not comfortably sign on to this statement. It comprises a kind of "Big Tent" values message, one which the vast majority of adults could agree to use as a starting point in our conversations with young people (if only we could agree to agree). It would bring to the discussion clarity, consistency and balance, all sorely missing from the current public discourse, and all sorely needed by young people trying to sort out the endless contradictions about sexuality which adult society now projects.

To many adults, the message as phrased above will seem inherently sound but woefully incomplete or insufficient. This poses no real problem, however, since other messages may be added without detracting from or negating the first message. For example, many adults will emphatically want to add:

"Because of the seriousness of this behavior, and/or because of our deep (spiritual, religious, moral, etc.) beliefs, we urge you not to engage in this act except within the context of a mature marital relationship. We believe this is not only the best way to protect yourself and others, but also the best/only path to a fulfilling, happy and righteous life."

Still others may wish to say:

"Though we consider sexual intercourse wrong and/or too serious for unmarried/immature young people, we do think that some other types of sexual behavior may be right and healthy. Here are some of these, and some guidelines for deciding under what circumstances they might be right and healthy for you."

This layered sequence of messages, from the more generic and universal to the more specific and controversial, allows adults to reach many important goals. First, it enables us to present a uniform front regarding a crucial set of core moral values. Second, it acknowledges the reality of teen-age sexual behavior in today's world, and respects the plurality of opinion in our culture about acceptable and unacceptable non-marital sexual behavior. (It is the argument over this behavior, and what to do about it, that keeps us from focusing on our larger areas of agreement.) Third, it encourages an active, positive and open orientation to human sexuality.

Finally, by keeping us focused on the big picture of healthy sexuality development, rather than the narrow goal of problem prevention, it enables us to avoid the worrisome trap of the "mixed message." As one mother put it recently, "As parents, we've got to be able to do better than, 'Don't do that, or I'll kill you. But if you do, be sure to use a condom!' Instead, the message should be: 'Some day we hope this will be part of your life. But only under the best and right circumstances! Here's what they are.' Then we're really doing our job."

Deborah M. Roffman teaches human sexuality education at Park School.

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