I want my 16-year-old daughter to have a happy and satisfying sex life. I don’t expect her to be a virgin on her wedding day, nor do I think she should be. I hope she takes all possible steps to protect herself from sexually transmitted diseases, but I believe it would be better if she had more than one sexual partner. All of this I want for her—just not yet. Figuring out how to convey the messages that sex is one of life’s great pleasures and that its consequences can be devastating requires a continuing conversation with your child. But of course it’s difficult to talk to someone who’s making gagging noises.
That means that sometimes you must use stealth to check in with your teenagers about their sex lives. I like to strike when she’s vulnerable:
Daughter: Maybe I shouldn’t go to school. I feel really sick.
Me: Is it because you’re pregnant?
Sometimes one must disarm them with a non sequitur:
Daughter: Can you drop me at the mall this afternoon?
Me: I will if you’re still a virgin.
This approach probably would not pass muster with sociologist Sinikka Elliott, the author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe About the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers. Based on interviews with about four dozen parents, all living in an unnamed liberal city in a conservative state (Elliott teaches at North Carolina State University, for what it’s worth), Elliott draws sweeping conclusions about the sorry condition of the sexual dialogue between parents and children. One of Elliott’s central points is that parents routinely engage in self-deception to keep at bay their anxieties over their children’s sexuality. A chief delusion: My darling is immature and asexual—the real problem is all those other horny kids. It’s a kind of insectarium view of teenagers, with one’s own a quivering, vulnerable larva surrounded by fully metamorphosed creatures oozing pheromones and menacing with stingers.
Like many experts, Elliott often condescends to parents as if we’re nitwits.
But I don’t recognize myself, or the parents I know, in Elliott’s portrait of naiveté. As the mother of a teenaged girl, and inspired by my Slate colleague Hanna Rosin’s deeply researched work on why modern males are crapping out, I offer my own pet theory on the failure of high-school-aged boys to perform as well academically as girls. Next time you drop your high-schooler off, take a look around at the other kids. In warm weather, standard girls’ attire is Daisy Dukes and some minimalist chest covering. When it gets cold, they switch to leggings so sheer they make me think of that nightmare in which you show up in class having forgotten to put on your skirt. Sure, I’ve tried to make the case to my own child that more clothing would be better, but she responds that all the girls are dressed this way. And she’s right! But I am not under the misconception that these girls aren’t fully aware that their male classmates, suffering reduced blood flow to the brain, are walking into walls.
Elliott notes that she commonly heard sex educators at schools dismiss the parents of the students they were teaching for being “out of touch concerning issues of sexuality.” Just the other day, my local NPR station had a report from a Washington, D.C., high school, and the nurse there said parents barely talk to their kids about safe sex, and if they do, it’s not enlightening: “The discussion is, ‘Keep your pants zipped, your dress down.’ End of conversation.”