It’s safe to say that at some point in life we recognize the development of our sexual selves and how they change over time. What we don’t have, is acknowledgement of when and how sexuality arises. In our youth and sometimes even beyond we hear ideas, expectations and values that can damage our ability to actively engage with this part of our lives. As a health educator for young people (and as a person myself), I’ve generated the most common myths surrounding adolescent sexuality and their belittling effects.
1) Oh that crush you have? It’ll pass dear. It’s just a phase. You know what? It probably is. This myth is tricky because it’s less to do with how true it is, and more to do with its effects. Along with the psychological and physical changes that accompany puberty, there are vast emotional changes that may drive adults wild – but are important to that young person. There is a marked increase in the intensity of feelings or desires of love, and the frequency of partnering up. John’s Hopkins put out a pretty stellar book called “The Teen Years Explained” that you can download for free. It is intended for adults to learn more about developmental changes and how to navigate the opportunities at these times. This perception encompasses the idea that ‘young people don’t know what love is’, or understand emotional intimacy. I won’t argue that a 13-year-old is as emotionally deep as someone three times their age, but it is important to keep in mind that that person is expressing themselves, and experiencing feelings to the truest degree they know. We can’t perpetuate this myth because budding relationships in adolescence can serve as practice, tools and opportunity for adults to continue to invite the young people in their lives to share values and think critically about the choices they make.
2) Sexuality education that include condom demonstrations and comprehensive education cause young people to start having sex. That’s why teenagers these days are having sex at younger and younger ages! This is one of the most dangerous myths out there. The simple truth we need to face is that we’re all just monkeys. We have evolved (gasp!) to learn through observation, by storytelling and from the benefit of those who have come before us. We need education to include demonstrations, logical reasoning and support for critical thinking. Experimentation is critical as well, but we’re complex enough to learn without it when observation and teaching are available.
We practice role-plays in substance abuse prevention programs, so why not do the same for sexuality education? Practice, education and a safe space to explore concepts lead to responsibility and prevent negative outcomes. It’s not just a hope, it’s evidence. By providing comprehensive, age-appropriate education that accompanies support from the adults around them, young people will grow to become sexually competent adults who feel great about themselves and their choices.
If this information is provided in the school, or in a safe space at home than surely young people will engage in sex at earlier ages and have many more partners. This is a tent-post for abstinence-only proponents and for those who believe sexuality belongs purely between the parent and their child. That first bit? Just misinformation and fear mongering. There is plenty of evidence that links sexual education and knowledge to delaying sexual onset in young people.
3) Youth are not capable of responsibility, and therefore are incapable of practicing safer sex and/or exploring their own sexuality. This is a common sticking point once folks are on board with education. We can talk about it in the classroom, encourage young people to think about it, but it is still the responsibility of adults to protect and prevent any sexual expression in our young people. It’s for their own good. They’re not ready, not mature enough, and won’t keep themselves from getting pregnant if they do.
First off – I hate how adults get all wrapped up in pregnancy prevention. It’s important, sure, but let’s remember that youth make up 25% of all sexually experienced individuals, but account for over half of all the STIs in the US. And that when we only talk about negative sexual outcomes in terms of unintentional pregnancies, that we’re often ostracizing GLBT youth. It goes back to the importance of comprehensive education and encouraging not only how (use a condom!) to practice safer sex, but why (to protect you & your partner from STIs/pregnancy).
4) Sexuality doesn’t hit us until we’re 18+. This concept first hit me a few years back when Mylie Cyrus, a young celebrity close to my age had a ‘countdown clock’ website to when she turned 18. At that point it became acceptable for the interested adults to harbor her in their sexual fantasies. Sure, in that scenario it’s more about timing for when it becomes appropriate for older men to ogle, but it’s rooted in this idea that she would not be a sexual being until that magic moment. This is a touchy concept fraught with debate (Should youth be able to access pornography? sexual aids? When ‘should’ they start having sex?), but regardless of your stance it’s important to keep in mind that sexuality is an inherent component to our humanity, and is present from day 1. Infantile erections, toddler exploration up through the first date – there are plenty of milestones of our sense of sexuality that occur long before adulthood. The other catch is that when we (in the societal sense) simplify sexuality to this degree, we’re missing opportunities to address other components like body image, understanding gender roles/expectations, gender expression, and even out to media literacy. By not being an open, available resource to youth about their sense of sexuality, we’re showing them that sexuality is a bad, naughty, dirty (etcetc..) part of our lives that is best kept quiet. I must say that it takes our society deeper and farther into a sexually confused culture fraught with complexes.
5) You’ll understand when you’re older. Let’s piggyback off the previous myth – youth are going to ask questions. When adults respond with a pat on the head, gentle smile and that key phrase, it tells that young person that this topic is off-bounds, that I (as an adult in your life) are not an open resource for you to come to me to talk, and that you’re not capable of understanding anyways. Kids are smart, they can pick up subtleties and it will train them to do just that. To not be comfortable bringing questions, concerns, etc to the adults in their lives and to develop an understanding of the ‘badness’ that is sexuality. Instead when a question or thought pops up from a young person in your life – consider the opportunity to provide information that is educational, and age appropriate. Dr. Logan Levkoff beautifully documents such an opportunity with her 5 year old, and instead of diverting and encouraging her son to just go to sleep – she keeps it to his level, answers his questions, and encourages him to think critically.
6) Children need the stork. Sex is too serious, too much, and they’re too young to understand. I feel like a broken record here, but again the key is to understand how to provide comprehensive education that is age-appropriate and invites the youth to engage with the adult. Think about it, we teach our young kids all about the body functions for toilet training, but do we always provide information before signs of puberty hit? I had a certain degree of understanding when I started puberty, but I can tell you my first period while I was away at summer camp deeply terrified me and made me believe I had cancer for many months. I knew what a period was, but I thought my body’s experience was different. Fortunately my teenaged counselor was helpful, and after many months I finally asked my mom to explain it to me, but the damage was done. I was an emotional wreck for ages, and for what? It was a simple clarification and understanding to bring me up to speed, and would have saved me many months of pouring through my mom’s medical textbooks to try and determine what form of cancer I was experiencing. Of course the silver lining is that I spent much of my junior high years reading medical textbooks for fun, but that’s a nerd-deviation not everyone would have enjoyed.
7) Condoms can’t be learned and must be hidden until they’re needed. How will you know they’re needed? Is the young person going to feel safe coming to you for them? Will they even know they need one? It’s a bit of a logical loop- if you hide condoms until their needed, it could mean the young person doesn’t know to ask for them, and they may never ask when they’re needed. It doesn’t cut out if they’re needed or not – in fact by providing education about condoms it delays the average age of sexual onset (as documented in evidence-based programs). I like to think of condoms as household products similar to things in a medicine cabinet. We teach young kids to stay out of bottles and not to get into the cabinet until they get old enough to understand, and condoms can function similarly.
8 ) Teenagers (much like pregnant people) are bags of hormones. All they think about and want is to have sex. If we talk about sex, teach youth how to use condoms and that they are available to use when needed, they are BOUND to have sex like rabbits, get pregnant, drop out of school and never call home again. What we need to be doing, is setting clear expectations for taking responsibility of our bodies, and increase understanding of the choices that come with sexuality through providing comprehensive, age-appropriate education. I know it’s not easy to talk about, and that the topic is something that churns parent and youth guts alike. If you want a stronger kick in the pants for why increasing comfort is important, consider watching the short documentary Let’s Talk About Sex. You might see some interesting ways percpetions of adolescent sexuality in America and Europe impact rates of unintentional pregnancies and STIs. Right now it’s on Netflix instant watch, plus it is a film many pregnancy-prevention/sexuality education organizations keep to loan into the community. Another pitfall of this attitude, is that once your precious kid hits junior high: look out. Teenage girls are growing up in your house, and their drama will bring you to your knees. They’re irrational, emotional and intense. What does this attitude say about how we view women? What do we expect from them? How does this attitude generate the exact attitudes adults fear? If you’ve never seen Miss Representation, now is the time. There are some excellent interviews and content that show just how much societal and external pressures impact our young women. As a young woman, this resonates deepest for me. Because of my gender and feminine expression particularly, I am treated differently. There are low expectations of my abilities, and high expectations of my emotional volatility. I can’t point to all the ways this has impacted my life, I can recognize it in subtle ways from my youth, and that it influenced my career path and direction in life. Surely I’m not the only one.
In closing, it would be silly for me to say these stereotypes are baseless, or that the solution is as simple as restructuring these myths. But we need to start somewhere, and what better way than to harness the awesomeness of young people. We need to begin to move towards trusting and encouraging the capacity and abilities that young people have.