By Patricia Stacey
She was balm wounds, soul of sweet comfort foods, backrubber, and confessor. Yet, one day in fourth grade, as my class marched into the auditorium to see our first sex-ed film, everything in my being shrieked: “No No No! It can’t be!” What was my mother doing there?
I wonder why as a kid I was so excruciatingly embarrassed to expose my own sexuality to my parents. The answer, I think, lies in the mysteries of nature and instinct itself: Sex and parents simply don’t mix well. They aren’t meant to.
When we talk about teens having sex in the family house, we’re talking about two distinct messages. The first is that sex, adult sex, full blown going-all-the-way-with-a-cigarette-and-a-shower kind of sex is a healthy choice for a teen. I disagree. The second message is pushing it even further—that it’s okay to have it around your parents. Double disagree. For one thing, we are not supposed to be hotelier to our kid’s sexual fantasies. To do so is to overstep the boundaries of the parent/child relationship.
Yes, it is our job to educate our kids about sex, to both arm and grace them with truths about sexuality, to discuss the joy of loving, committed communion and the importance of birth control, but beyond that I believe it’s important to provide our children with a boundary around their sexuality that we don’t often cross. The sexual boundary between children and their parents is a sacred one; crossing it, we intrude in a place we have no business being.
One day when I was about six years old, during a visit to my cousin’s house, I overheard my aunt and mother talking in my aunt’s bedroom. “I’m bored by sex,” said my aunt. “It was so much more fun when we did it secretly in our folks’ basement.” And she swept her hand around her room in a dismissive way to indicate that her queen-sized bed was a total downer.
My aunt’s confession reveals an important fact about sex, identity, and individuality. Sex is about privacy. If you offer your kids a place to do it you are co-opting their sexuality, taming it, and implicating yourself into it. That is a huge disservice to your teen. Let’s face it: Sex is our first exploration of who we are as a budding individual separate from our family. Sexuality, if it’s really going to be good, isn’t something your mother offers you as a mid-day snack: It’s strange and beautiful, mysterious and deeply personal. Whatever else it is, it is something that you steal for yourself, you take for yourself, and you do by yourself. We need to give our kids direction, a strong sense of self, a thorough knowledge of the emotional and physical dangers of sex, but then we need to stay away. By staying away from our kid’s sex life (and not unwittingly pushing them into anything), we protect their privacy.
Sex in the home blurs boundaries. Psychologists say that it’s important to let our teens argue with us; they want and need to dispute. Teens are unwittingly longing for something to push against. It’s the parents’ job to stay firm—not rigid, not inflexible, not unwilling to negotiate—but standing strong as, say, an old tree. As teens push to get away from us, they hone their personalities, their egos, their sense of independence. But teens also live in emotional flood zones; they need a solid, standing structure to swim to when things get too turbulent. In offering a boundary we paradoxically offer a safe haven. The home should be a place where teens can retreat from the world, including the world of boyfriends or girlfriends. By normalizing sex, we are not providing the boundary that teens need. Instead, we could be pushing them into high water by effectively telling them that they are ready to handle more than they may be able to.
If adults let teens have sex in their homes, they are ignoring perhaps the most dangerous aspect of sex: its potential to do emotional damage. Sex can be fire. Given the proper amount of oxygen, it can and will consume everything in its path. Most young couples—even if they think they want that—are not ready for it. I would argue that most teens are way too immature to handle a full sexual relationship and all the emotional hazards implied.
When I was in high school, my good friend Anne’s mom was a rebel. She had a messy apartment with a poster hanging near the kitchen that said “Fuck Housework.” She took Anne to the OB/GYN, procured her the pill, and encouraged Anne’s boyfriend Jake to come over any time he wanted, whether she was at work or home. For weeks, every day after school, Jake and Anne walked the block from school to Anne’s apartment, and had intercourse. So why weren’t they ecstatically happy? They had everything that we all wanted. Still, they walked around the quad together at lunchtime and seemed to me to be diminished, haunted, miserable. I had the sense that their sex had reached a bored complacency even only after a few weeks. It was almost as if suddenly sex wasn’t theirs anymore, as if Anne’s mother had somehow taken sexuality away from them rather than offering a safe place for it.
But worse, I also saw how tortured Jake was when Anne went to India for a year with her father on his sabbatical. Endocrinologists explain that orgasm creates vast amounts of oxytocin, a hormone that, like a mythical love potion, can fiercely bond us to the individuals we are with when we experience them. In fact Jake was so devastated by Anne’s leaving—and her distancing herself in other ways—that he still talks about his hurt every time I see him. And he and Anne broke up thirty-five years ago.
Do we want our teens to bond so completely? Should this part of our lives be about lightness, experimentation, getting our feet wet? Or about jumping into the deep end?
I can well imagine parents deciding that letting a teen have sex at home will keep their teen’s sex safe. Doing so might be necessary for a small handful of wild kids, but not for the garden-variety teen. We need to arm them with important information about pregnancy and STDs, meaningful dialogues about the ways that they can be hurt emotionally, and then stand back and give a decently wide berth.
I would go so far as to argue that the American spirit requires a frontier—that for teens that frontier may be sex. But I mean small sex, slowly building—kissing and petting in a car—not hot and heaving sex on a luxury Posturepedic. That’s adult sexuality, with all its delicious gifts and thorny penalties. There’s plenty of time for that in coming years.
Patricia Stacey is the author of The Boy Who Loved Windows.
By C.J. Snow
My daughter Kate is sixteen, a high school junior. She’s active on the school newspaper, a member of the band, an avid skier and mountain biker. She makes good grades, she’s nice to her parents and her little brother, and she wants to become a professional photographer one day.
She also has a boyfriend, Nate, who she’s been going out with for more than two years. Nate is seventeen, a senior at a prep school in a neighboring state, about three and a half hours from our home. Though he grew up in our town, his parents moved away two years ago, so this fall, my husband and I have started to invite him to stay with us when he comes to visit. When he’s here, he sleeps in Kate’s room. With Kate.
And we’re okay with that.
It helps that we thoroughly like Nate, who is smart and funny and sweet, the kind of kid who talks earnestly about politics at the dinner table, and then gets up to wash the dishes as a matter of habit. It helps that my husband and I don’t have any religious or moral objection to premarital sex. It helps that we’ve seen Kate and Nate interact for so long now that we’re confident they respect each other and that they are thoroughly in love. We know it’s way too early to consider it, but we’d be delighted if they got married one day.
I have friends who think it’s wrong to let Nate and Kate sleep together under our roof. (Not that we advertise it, of course, but our closest friends know the score.) They talk a lot about how it seems wrong for parents to “condone” their teen’s sex life. Many of my friends talk this way, even the one who has very carefully provided her daughter with birth control, as if providing the Pill weren’t also a pretty explicit sanction of the sex that’s going on.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that there’s a fairly hefty “ick factor” here. About the only thing more uncomfortable than imagining your own parents’ sex lives has to be imagining your children’s. I get that. And believe me, my husband and I are not trying to co-opt Kate’s blossoming sexuality or insert ourselves in her relationship in some creepy, voyeuristic way. We don’t ask for details about what transpires between them (though it’s true that Kate offers a lot more to me than I ever would have to my own mother). For the most part, the two of them are very discreet. There’s not a whole lot of PDA when they’re around us. Maybe it’s because we’ve made it possible for them to have a time and place for the more intimate parts of their relationship, so they don’t have to let it spill over when they’re not alone.
I sometimes want to ask those of my friends who know their kids are having sex but who don’t want it to happen in their house what kind of message they believe they’re sending their teen. That sex is okay—but only in parked cars? Or in someone else’s den, at whoever’s house has no adult at the moment? That it’s okay, but only if you do it on the sly, in stolen moments padded by lies? Do they really think it’s wise or helpful to add the burden of furtiveness and guilt to something that might be emotionally complex enough as it is?
If you know your kids are having sex but you’re ignoring the reality that they must be having it somewhere, in my mind that’s akin to knowing they’re having sex but not making sure they have the means to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Both involve a level of negligence, a stick-your-head-in-the-sand attitude, that strikes me as pretty irresponsible.
In our town, there are a number of parents who host parties for their high school-aged kids where alcohol is served. “They’re going to drink anyway, so I’d rather they did it safely at our house where we can keep an eye on them,” is their thinking. Is letting kids have sex in your home an analogous situation? I think it isn’t. In our state, for one thing, it’s illegal to serve alcohol to anyone under twenty-one. The age of sexual consent, on the other hand, is sixteen. Letting your own child drink alcohol in your house is one thing, but letting someone else’s kid break a law on your watch and on your premises is another.
Of course, there is one way in which the drinking and sex scenarios are similar: Both involve other people’s kids taking part in activities that are pretty controversial for adolescents. My husband and I know Nate’s parents only a little. We’ve spoken to them once or twice about Nate’s weekend trips to our home, but we’ve never talked directly about the sleeping arrangements. We’ve left Nate to broach that subject with them.
When your children embark on mature activities, I think you have to treat them in a mature way. Part of growing to a healthy adulthood is learning how to negotiate other people’s boundaries and comfort zones. Sometimes those other people are your parents. We want Kate to know that we support and respect the good choices she makes—and to learn how to offer us the same respect. So if, say, she were to bring home a guy she just met at a party to spend the night with her, we wouldn’t hesitate to tell her that that wasn’t okay, and why: because it wouldn’t be respectful to us (not to mention to herself).
What we want, ultimately, is to raise a child who knows that love and respect go hand in hand—and that sneaking and lying aren’t part of any good relation- ship. Where better to learn that than at home?
C.J. Snow is the pseudonym for a writer living in Michigan.
Brain, Child (Winter 2010)