honorary Hose Monster:
Late last year Newsweek ran a cover story on the "wave" of new teen virginity. I thought the article was absolutely atrocious, and if you've been hanging around HM for a while, you had the great pleasure of watching me rip into it without taking, in my humble opinion, an overly pedantic or self-righteous approach to the matter. (Incidentally, I received a lot of great feedback and compliments on that post, so thanks to everyone who took the time to weigh in on the matter.)
Within days after criticizing the article, I received an email from the sibling of one of the teens featured in the article, a very eloquently-written response to my criticisms of the article in which the respondent agreed with me in large part but defended some points of the article at the same time. The sibling and his/her opinions (in the interest of anonymity, I'll try not to disclose any personal information about this person and his/her family) almost perfectly paralleled some of my thoughts on the matter, and I remember thinking that Newsweek should have talked to this person, rather than his/her sibling, to get the best scoop on teen sexuality and what kids with a healthy approach to the matter have to say.
I saved the email, and I'll copy (with minor edits to preserve anonymity) a few excerpts from it below with my commentary.
I enjoyed your follow up on the "Choosing Virginity" Newsweek article. You made some good points, and I agree with your notion of rule-oriented parenting as failed parenting. You may find it interesting that I am one of the two older [siblings] of [...] whose mother set "similarly strict rules" for [him/her] in regards to premarital sex. When I was in high school, I was much like my [sibling]. My plan was simple; I will abstain from sex until I am married because that's the rule (according to my parents). This rule gave me no trouble in high school because I was completely immersed in my athletics, as well as my studies (just as my [sibling] is with soccer and [his/her] beloved history). After a year in college, my naive little mind started to expand a bit and I realized there was life outside of athletics. All it took was a few books and a little contemplation, and soon I was completely comfortable with losing my virginity.
I look back at my parent's strict rules, and I laugh at them. My love for my parents remains, but my dependence on them for advice no longer exists. It's funny that my [other sibling not featured in the article] and I both have had sexual relationships outside of marriage now, and yet my mother still believes that we are chaste (as per the quote "it's amazing, but they did listen"). The irony here is that my mother's ignorance about our sex lives comes from the fact that she won't listen to us. The reason she doesn't know about our "unchastity" is because talking openly about sex was always a taboo (sex = bad) in our household, and it still is today. She simply assumes, and has never even thought of asking if we are still virgins.
My personal opinion that the idea that all high-school kids are doing it resembles this emailer's story. I believe that most kids in high school are still working through the quest to figure themselves out and have enough trouble getting dates and trying to sound cool when talking about sex with their friends to bother themselves with actually having sex. Obviously, many kids are doing just that, but I would wager that nationally, more kids are like our friend here (and me, when I was in high school) than the other way around.
What separates the person above is that he/she recognizes, to an extent, that forced abstinence until marriage is, for many, a foolish and irresponsible approach. Our writer understands the import of a decision about sex and shows that he/she clearly put a lot of thought into having sex for the first time, but he/she also shows that he/she is an intelligent and independent person who has the ability to make these decisions himself/herself, a point I strongly stressed in my follow up to my critique of the Newsweek article.
Furthermore, my emailer here illustrates the one piece of advice I feel qualified to give to parents: don't baby your kids when it comes to sex. Don't assume that they won't feel the temptations to explore, don't assume that you can control their behavior on all matters, and don't assume that you can help your children avoid unwanted negative consequences of sex simply because you've supposedly prevented them from ever finding themselves with the possibility of that situation in the first place. If you read this and have kids, or if you ever want to have kids, try to forget that they are your children for three minutes and that you feel the duty to protect them at all times. Instead, realize for just a moment that they have the ability to think on their own and want others to respect that ability. Talk to them about making good decisions, give them the tools to make those decisions and provide them a COMFORTABLE avenue to ask questions without worrying about consequences or judgment, and hope for the best. You have to let your kids decide what's best for them, as my emailer and his/her sibling have done.
Whatever the case may be, the ignorance involved with rule-oriented parenting is not only present, but needed. Although there is something to be said for rules given to less developed minds. If it were not for my parents strict rules, I may have ended up an irresponsible teen [parent] with bills to pay and no means for further education. As it stands now, I will be graduating this December with an Ivy League degree, and I have my parents to thank for it.
While I agree that your parents have given you a great gift and they deserve your gratitude, as suggested above, I respectfully disagree with you on this point. You state that you might have become a parent while not prepared to become one but for your parents' strict rules. But if they gave you the chance while living under their roof to make decisions on your own, you have no assurance that you would not have contracted an STD or had an unwanted pregnancy any more than you would have had some unfortunate result. For that matter, even now as you consider yourself an independent person who makes good decisions and enjoys making your own decisions, for all the precautions you might take, you have no assurance now that the next time you have sex something unfortunate will not result.
Some kids respond to rule-oriented parenting, and even once those rules no longer manifest for them every day, they manage to establish their independence and continue to make strong decisions. Some kids respond well to this type of parenting, but perhaps they lack the capability to make decisions on their own once out of their parents' house because they never had a chance to make these important decisions while under it. Not every kid is going to come out perfectly, regardless of the type of parenting they receive.
But many kids grow up in strict households where their burgeoning independence and abilities to think and make decisions receive no recognition, and they rebel because of it. My logic (nothing scientific) makes me think that this demographic of kids is the one most at danger because of rule-oriented parenting. I have no data to support this thought, but it seems to me parents might have a chance at reducing some of the evils of teenage sex if they recognize and accept that it happens in every geography and among every type of kid, bando, jock or dork, and endeavor to give their kids the best chance to take care of themselves by trying to protect their kids not by active behavior and edicts but by trying to help their children protect themselves.
On this basis then, I cannot agree with you that rule-oriented parenting is needed. Not all kids are evangelical Christians, submissive to their parents or contrary to their parents' wishes; most kids, however, by the time they are confronted with sex, are developing adults with bodies, minds, socializations and the beginnings of the ability to make decisions, an ability they will need for the duration of their life. If their parents foster these developments, rather than ignoring the possibility of them by imposing blind rules, perhaps they will choose on their own to abstain from sex or will be better prepared to have responsible sex if they decide that sexual intercourse is the best avenue for them.
To my emailer: thanks so very much for writing and for allowing me to respond to your email in this form. Congratulations on your academic success and your demonstrated ability to take good care of yourself. I wish you the best.