Parents need to get a clue about teens, 'hooking up'

A RECENT REPORT on teen sexuality had lots of good news.

According to the National Survey of Family Growth from the Department of Health and Human Services, our kids are waiting longer to have sex and are using contraceptives when they do.


But buried in those numbers was some disturbing news, too.

Eighteen percent of the boys and 14 percent of the girls ages 15 to 19 report having had two or more partners in the last year.


And the numbers show that the earlier our teens start having sex, the more partners they have.

Of those teens who had their first sex under the age of 15, more than 25 percent reported having had seven or more partners.

And evidence suggests that having multiple partners is not the result of serial monogamy, of kids breaking up and falling in love again over time.

It is more like a square dance, with teens trading partners within a circle of acquaintances.

"Teens are having sex with people who are sort of friends," says Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

"You can't tell if they are even a couple. They can't tell you if they are a couple."

Sex is no longer the end point in a pattern of progressive intimacy that we adults would recognize, and it is no longer imbued with the kind of meaning that a relationship implies.

Teens call it "hooking up" and, in a complex world, 10 minutes of someone's undivided attention is a valuable commodity, especially if it comes drama-free and without another set of complexities.


Not only are our children more at risk for STDs and pregnancy as a result, they are not learning how to form the kinds of bonds and relationships on which marriage is based.

"If you don't work on these things in your teens and 20s, what kind of marriage material are you?" asks Deborah Roffman, author of Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense about Sex and a Baltimore sex and human development educator.

"It used to be that you got your period at 16 and you got married," Roffman says.

But, with the average age of marriage creeping upward, there is another 12 years or more of life during which our children will be moving in and out of relationships, she says.

And if we, as parents, stumble on our words when we try to talk to our children about sex, we are mute on the subject of boundaries and intimacy.

"It is not just about body parts," says Roffman. "Young people bring their whole selves everywhere they go.


"We need to have conversations about these kinds of things," said Roffman. "About how intimacy is the result of talking and revealing more and more about yourself.

"About boundaries and how important they are in life. Boundaries are how we establish our identity.

"But if it is all about body parts and performance, then you never have to deal with anything like that, do you?"

Brown agrees. The old order has been tossed out and nothing has been put in its place.

"We have concentrated on the health consequences of sex for so long. But what if there were no health consequences? What would we say then? How would we get our children from 14 to 30?"

Like Brown, Roffman thinks the emphasis in our sex conversations - if we gin up the nerve to have them - is all about don't.


"How about if we say to kids, 'I am teaching you these things so that you will have great sex, not no sex. But I insist that your bring certain values into your decisions.' "

For those of you who are thinking, "Not my kid," get your head out of the sand.

"Adults don't know how much they don't know," says Brown.

Something like 60 percent of teens are sexually active by the age of 18. Are you willing to play that percentage?

And a study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research reported that sexually active teens are not in committed relationships - sex is just something they do. It is not necessarily the result of a romance.

And, this is not some wrong-side-of-the-tracks phenomenon, either. The Manhattan Institute study reported that suburban teens are more likely than urban teens to have sex with someone with whom they do not have a romantic relationship.


In other words, you might not get the usual boyfriend-girlfriend clues that your teen is sexually active or about to be.

"I don't think anybody, including the kids in it, really feels like this new model is a print-and-save," says Brown.

"But if you don't play by these new rules, you run the risk of being socially isolated. It is a tough, tough time for our kids. No one knows what the rules are anymore."

All of this means that our conversations with our children have to move beyond "You are too young for sex, but if you are going to have it, protect yourself."

We have to start talking to them about the nature of relationships and the power of sex to damage those relationships.

We have to say to them, "Look, there are casual conversations and casual dress, but there is no such thing as casual sex.


"Because sex breaks hearts, and I don't want it to be yours."