The only things teens need to know about sex is it will result in pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases or infections, problems making it to heaven, and a life of devastation and ruin as a sex-starved maniac --- that is, if you try to teach teens about sex the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, this approach won’t get you very far with 21st century teens. There are some things your teen needs to know about real sex they are only likely to hear from you.
Real sex is wonderful. It is fun and exciting and intense and amazing. It isn’t evil. It isn’t inherently wrong. It is deeply satisfying. It can open your mind in new and surprising ways. The depth of feeling it can generate toward another person is down right scary. Sharing this intense intimacy at the right time with the right person is a wonderful source of joy and pleasure and release. Your teenager needs to know that real sex is great.
Real sex is terrible. It is overpowering and distracting and blinds you to what really matters. It can take over your judgment and impulse control. It can make you violate your personal values. It can fool you into thinking it is something it’s not (like love or a meaningful life goal). It can be embarrassing and shameful and bizarre. It can limit, severely damage or eliminate future options. It can ruin deeply important relationships. Your teen needs to learn you can’t take real sex lightly.
Real sex is complicated. There is no such thing as “simply sex.” Your own sexual feelings and desires are surprising and confusing. Your partner’s sexual feelings and desires are surprising and confusing. Sex will leave you conflicted and torn at times. It will fill you with contradictory thoughts and emotions. Make sure your teen understands that real sex is complicated.
Real sex is powerful. Sex is a biological drive. We are hard wired to orient to it, pursue it, want it and enjoy it. It can make you want someone so badly it actually hurts. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have put limits on sex to keep it from messing up society. Your teen needs to pay attention to the wisdom of the ages and treat real sex with respect.
Real sex is more than equipment and technique. If you focus all your time on the mechanics of sex you will miss the real point, which is to have a meaningful, intimate and mutually satisfying physical connection to another person. The most inadequate equipment (e.g., breasts, penises, abs, butts) combined with the most inept skill can still end in satisfying sex (because real sex is that cool). Make sure your teen knows that it’s all in how he relates to his partner because . . .
Real sex is personal. You can’t have sex without relating to the other person. You can’t have sex without making a connection to another person. (Even solitary sex requires a relationship with yourself and your fantasies). Your teen will be cheating herself if she settles for impersonal sex.
Real sex is not like in the movies. Sex isn’t all glowing and hazy and perfectly coordinated. Sex is definitely not like porn. Sex in the movies, in fiction and in porn bears little resemblance to what it is really like (unless you hire a director). Real body parts are softer and harder, larger and smaller than what is shown in the media; all in the less idealized direction. Real sex is awkward, bumbling and, frankly, funny looking. Orgasms are mostly quiet, personal reactions rather than the screaming, thrashing, begging performances depicted in movies (though that does happen now and then). Sex is incredible only occasionally. There are times when it is just barely satisfying. Then there are the times you just quit in the middle. It is important for your teen to know that real sex is all of these.
Real sex is worth talking about. You should talk to your partner about what you want. You should talk to your partner about what they want (and don’t want). You should say when you are uncomfortable. You should be able to say when you are frustrated. You must discuss protection and responsibility. If your teen can’t talk about sex, they aren’t ready for it.
Real sex is not enough. Sex anchors you to the moment (which is why you can lose yourself in it for a time). Any positive feelings or benefits are fleeting. Sex will not make you feel better about yourself. Sex will not make someone like you more (though they may be perfectly happy to hang out with you for a while). And, ironically, the more you focus on sex for the sake of sex the less good you feel about it (and the more it can take over your life). Help your teen avoid being fooled into thinking that sex is the answer.
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Real sex is a test. How well do you balance pleasure and responsibility? How well do you set limits on your desires? How well do you focus on the needs and wants of someone else? How well do you allow yourself to just enjoy the moment? How well do you know what makes you feel good? How well do you pay attention to what your partner enjoys? How well to you let yourself be truly vulnerable and intimate with someone else? Your teen will need help learning how to deepen and enrich their life with real sex.
Real sex is not something you take (or buy or earn). No one owes you real sex. Real sex is something you receive. Real sex is something you give. Someone looking sexy does not tell you anything about what they want or don’t want. Everyone has the right to say stop; at any time. Your teen needs to know that real sex requires permission.
Real sex is a responsibility. Real sex is never free. Pregnancy, infections, emotional reactions, self-perceptions, priorities; these are a few of the risks of real sex (even if, especially if, it is a one-time thing). Your teen needs to understand that real sex comes with obligations to herself and to her partner, and a responsibility for the outcomes of their sexual behavior.
Real sex is not as important as it seems. Sometimes, sex isn’t even that good. As a biological drive (see real sex is powerful above), your brain makes sex seem really important. There are other things worth doing. Real sex is not a true source of happiness. Make sure your teen knows he needs to get a life.
Real sex is boring without love. Real sex can be boring, even unpleasant. Sexual fantasies become stale. Previously exciting positions don’t quite do it anymore. Sexual partners lose their appeal. Except. When you have strong emotional feelings for your partner, there is no same old position (though trying new things is still fun). Your teen needs to know that when real sex is an expression of love, it continues to be a source of satisfaction for a long, long time.
Given the prevalence of sex as a marketing strategy in our society, it is crucial to help your teenager have a realistic view of sex and sexuality. You might even be able to save them from the hard lessons you had to learn. But be sure to have the even more important conversations about relationships and love and the qualities to look for in a long term romantic partner. And then cross your fingers.
Did we leave anything out? What else do teens need to know about sex?
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Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tennessee focusing on adolescents and families. He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting where strategies for addressing dating, relationships and sex are included among the 79 chapters on typical teenage issues. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn or sign up for his monthly newsletter on parenting teens by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.