Time was when the eighth-grade boys were ushered into one room, the girls in another and for one hour everyone looked at line drawings of penises, vaginas, ovaries and testes. By then, however, every self-respecting eighth-grade boy had managed to get more information from Playboy, the Encyclopedia Britannica and a creepy friend of an older brother.
But according to a new NBC/People magazine poll conducted in conjunction with the Katie Couric special “The 411: Teens & Sex,” times have changed. Of the teenagers polled, 70 percent said they received some information about sexuality from their parents. How about that! Pat yourselves on the back, mom and dad.
About half the respondents, who could pick all answers that applied, cited friends and teachers, TV shows and movies. Slightly more than one-third said they received information from those most reliable of sources, girlfriends and boyfriends, who don’t have much incentive to provide accurate information at 11 p.m. in the backseat of a Ford Bronco.
Almost 20 percent of teens said they received information about sexuality from a newer source, the Internet.
Well, the Web is a very big place and there is, quite literally, something for just about every sexually curious teenager. Depending on your point of view, that can be either alarming or reassuring.
Take, for example, teenwire.com, a product of Planned Parenthood. Concerned Women for America, a politically connected fundamentalist Christian group, would have you believe that the site is “debauching our children.” A writer alerting parents to the danger says “you can just send your kids to it, and then feign astonishment when they start experimenting with every sex act known to fallen humanity. They might even come down with AIDS.”
Well, hardly. Teenwire is easily the best, most comprehensive site I have viewed.
In one short film on the site, two girls make a pact not to have sex without first talking to the other one. That pact helps keep one of the girls celibate. Other short films, some with big-name directors and actors, explore realistic situations teens might face. “Nightmare on AIDS Street” follows a teen who sits in a health clinic awaiting test results after a night of partying that has become a blur.
Here’s an excerpt from the Planned Parenthood site: “Sexual relationships present physical and emotional risks. Abstinence is a very good way to postpone taking those risks until you are able to handle them. Women who abstain until their 20s — and who have fewer partners in their lifetimes — may have certain health advantages over women who do not. They are less likely to get sexually transmitted infections, become infertile and develop cancer of the cervix."
Sound like advocating debauchery to you?
Make no mistake, some information could make parents squirm. A pixilated video demonstrates how to use a condom with a pair of hands, the foil package and a dildo. There are sections on disease, abortion, masturbation, emotional consequences and anatomy, and they are realistic, but the more enlightening for that.
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The site does contain some misplaced political content, but kids are not recruited into a sex cult.
Some racy Web sites redirect people under 18 to Scarleteen.com, and I can see why. The site was created by Heather Corinna, a sex blogger, and while the information is mostly accurate, the site is decidedly “sex-positive.”
Scarleteen won’t send any kids rushing to high-school swingers parties, but may seem just a bit too celebratory. The Scarleteen shop markets Astroglide lube and the site contains links to, for example, Toys in Babeland, which I’ve written about before as being fine and even healthy for grown-ups but might understandably concern parents.
While most of the information is accurate, and while Corinna does a good job of debunking sex myths and discussing sexual responsibility, the site is written according to her point of view, which may not be the point of view parents wish to give their teenagers. Scarleteen reads like it is really meant for those grown-ups who wish we had savvy back when we were geeky.
CoolNurse.com does a better job at addressing kids with unbiased information. Best of all, the site features articles by health professionals on a variety of topics kids wonder about. But, as is the case with Scarleteen, sponsored links to advertisers hawk products, some of which seem iffy at best.
If you want to know just how clueless some kids can be, check out sites like TeenAdviceOnline.org that rely heavily on other kids to answer questions in forums. This just turns the Internet into an electronic street corner with the same old-fashioned rumors. One girl on such a site wanted to know how long after unprotected sex she could use the morning-after pill. She was told by two other kids that five days was about the limit. That’s off by two days. One day is ideal. G-spots were described as “centered around the breasts, earlobes, and thighs” which, if true, would make sex way, way more fun.
At TeenSexuality.StudentCenter.org a girl asked “ok...wenever i masterbate or my bf fingers me it hurts rele bad...what do i do to help that or fix it or is something wrong with me???” (Yes, children are our future…)
The answer? Though this girl could have several medical conditions, some kid answered, “There’s nothing wrong with you. It just means you’re tight. It takes time to stretch.” Yikes.
Christian sites naturally advocate celibacy until marriage, no masturbation and an anti-abortion political stance. As a reinforcement of religious beliefs for followers, they're all well and good. Some advice for avoiding sexual involvement — by developing a variety of interests, avoiding situations where temptations may arise, taking new relationships slowly — could benefit any teen.
Real information about sex, sexual health and contraception is often skimpy or non-existent. Again, that’s fine if the sites choose not to provide it, but what’s not fine is the way some deliberately misuse science and medicine to scare kids.
At CatholicCulture.org readers are told that before the 1950s “the only widely reported sexually transmitted diseases in the United States were gonorrhea and syphilis. Today we have more than two dozen varieties …” This is a lie by half-truth. Some diseases now considered sexually transmitted, like chlamydia, have been with us for thousands of years, but not understood by science until recently. And by the way, rates of syphilis and gonorrhea have gone down dramatically from those innocent days of the 1940s and 1950s. In Oklahoma, for example, the rate of gonorrhea per 100,000 was 450 in 1946. In 2003 it was 132.
My favorite statement comes from the site of Focus on the Family (family.org), preacher James Dobson’s organization: “Pornography is addictive. Just ask Ted Bundy. Wait. You can’t. He was executed because his addiction took over his life.” Telling teens they’ll become serial killers if they look at naked people is like saying a rump roast created Hannibal Lecter.
Fortunately there are a few sites a Christian teen can visit for information without wild hyperbole. The teen advice at www.domini.org/centerweb/home.htm maintains a strong abstinence stance, but also says that if “we have made the decision to be sexually active, then I feel we should know about not only the risks involved (of which there are plenty) but also ways that can help keep us safer and how effective those ways are.” The writer goes on to explain these in some detail. He even includes a link for more information.
It's to the Planned Parenthood site.
Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).
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