The Corner

How Should Parents Think about Teen Sex?

Alex P. Keaton, 17, lost his virginity to a college student he wooed over a discussion about his favorite economist, Milton Friedman.

I realized this after we began showing our kids 1980s-era TV shows, after running out of bandwidth for Hannah Montana. Over the past years, the kids have laughed at Murdock’s antics on the A-Team, imitated Arnold’s ”WhatchutalkingaboutWillis” on Diff’rent Strokes, and enjoyed Dr. Huxtable’s rants on The Cosby Show

We were a little embarrassed when Alex was talking about how “high interest rates are primarily a psychological phenomenon” one second and had lost his virginity the next. Later, he told his dad, Steven, a former hippie, who reacted with encouragement, telling his son that there would be other girls with whom he’d have sex and it was a good thing to “open yourself up in that way.” Afterwards, I talked to the kids — aged 12 and 10 — about how God intends for you to only be with your spouse, and that you really can’t trust former hippies to give sound sexual advice.

So how should Mr. Keaton have dealt with the topic of teenagers having sex? According to a recent New York Times article by an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, parents should just relax about it.

After interviewing 130 parents and teenagers, ages 15 to 17, Dr. Amy Schalet laments that teenage sexuality is made into a “personal, familial, and public health ‘drama’ in the United States,” compared with the apparently more laid-back Netherlands, where Dutch families, schools, health-care clinics, and media make it easier for hormonal teens to use birth control effectively. But Schalet begins with several false assumptions:

She assumes the sexual revolution is irreversible, presenting parents with only two options. Either they become “open-minded,” allowing sleepovers in their homes, or finger-wagging prudes who shut their eyes to their teenagers’ burgeoning sexual selves. The third option — the more difficult yet more healthful option — is for parents to acknowledge their teenagers’ new bodies and desires and to point them towards a healthy sex life, post-marriage. Teenagers are not sexual robots. Millions control themselves, and in the not-too-distant past, premarital sex was far less common.

She assumes teenagers are sexually voracious but at the same time mature enough to assess when it is reasonable to begin having sex. When is it “reasonable?” After they’ve finished their homework? When they think they’ve met the one they’ll eventually marry? Hardly. No parent believes their teen could choose their husband or wife based on the way they dribble the ball down the court, the neat way they keep their locker, or even after a Milton Friedman conversation. Rather, the parents highlighted in the article do not believe that sexual purity is an achievable goal, so they move the goal line to accommodate serial sexual partners.

She only interviews families who were not “particularly religious.” Religious families who obey the Biblical standards of sexuality have an external, unambiguous standard of no-sex-outside marriage. They also have life stories that are substantially different from many of their peers’.

Schalet victoriously points to the fact that the Dutch have some of the lowest teen abortion and fertility rates in the developed world as proof that a more permissive mindset about teen sex is preferable.  But can successful attitudes toward sex be boiled down to stats about abortion and fertility?

Sex outside of marriage is sinful. Oops! I used “that word.” Now, I’ve disqualified myself from Schalet’s study. However, the Maker of All Things understands the uniquely cancerous aspect of sexual indiscretion.

In that embarrassing episode of Family Ties, Alex is heartbroken when the college student dates another guy immediately after they’d consummated their relationship. His heartache, of course, is neatly soothed by the end of the episode, but I explained to the kids that betrayal and regret are harder to get rid of in real life.

If you gossip and then think better or it, for example, you can apologize. In a way, you can avoid significant consequences, other than embarrassment or damaged friendships, by repenting. Sexual sin is different, however, because it’s against your own body and “sticks to you.” Though you can immediately be forgiven by a loving God, there are emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental consequences that cannot be easily resolved.

That’s why Schalet’s argument needs to be refuted. She claims allowing teen sex will “strengthen family bonds” in spite of the damage the teen will have done to their future spouse and family. If parents follow her advice, they will be choosing the short, false “peace” of permissiveness at great cost to their children’s future spouses and their future grandchildren.

I guess you really can’t trust college professors to give sound sexual advice, either.

Nancy French — Nancy French is a three-time New York Times best-selling author and a longtime contributor to National Review Online.

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