“Good idea, it can be pretty confusing,” I said.
As we sat down inside, I could see what Rory meant when he said that his parents were in different places. Mike coughed and complained loudly for several minutes while Susan cleaned off her ivy cutting in the bathroom. She seemed oblivious to her husband’s frustration with the delay.
“That’s an unknown ivy, Dr. Ponton, very unusual. Thanks for letting me take some.”
Although Mike appeared eager to begin, I sensed that it would take some work with this set of parents to move into the topic of their son’s sexual behavior. And I was right. Nearly half the session went by before we were even close to the subject.
Then Mike let me know exactly what he was thinking. “It’s against my values to ever have this kid sleeping with some girl at our house. He says he’s not going to have sex, but you can’t trust him, Susan.”
“Mike, it’s his choice, his body. You can’t control everyone,” said Susan in a frosty voice that hid more than anger.
“I know I can’t control everyone, but it’s my house.”
“It’s our house, Mike.” I heard the tenor of her voice rise to meet his.
“Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. Mike, it is against your values for Rory to have a girlfriend sleep at your house. Susan, you have a different opinion. You think it might be okay under some circumstances. Mike, help me get the full picture here. What values does this violate?”
Taken aback by my question, Mike paused and stroked his beard. Susan smiled sweetly, seeing her husband on the spot. “Yes, dear, what values?”
“He’s a kid. He’s irresponsible, well, some of the time. And, simply put, I own the house. I can decide what goes on there.”
“That’s a value, all right,” snorted Susan.
“Susan, we probably wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t encouraged him to sleep over at Jen’s house. Then he gets caught, and the Ludtmanns are not speaking to us.”
“Mike, you’ve got that wrong. I knew about it, but I did not encourage it.”
“Well, you didn’t tell me it was going on. I thought he was at some football camp until Jen’s dad calls me at the office, threatening to sue. I was left looking pretty stupid—sports camp, huh?”
Here Susan blushed and started fumbling in her oversize carryall.
“Susan, Mike, what was your communication like before this happened?”
Drying her eyes with a bunched-up Kleenex, Susan said, “Usually a lot better than this. After this situation with the Ludtmanns, everything has fallen apart.”
“Exactly what was the situation with the Ludtmanns?”
“Well, in all fairness, we’re still not sure. Jen had Rory and two other kids sleep over at her house when her parents were out of town. Then Mr. Ludtmann got sick, and he and his wife returned early to find four teens asleep on their living room floor. Apparently he went over the top and started shouting that he was going to have Rory arrested for statutory rape.” Here Mike’s tenseness relaxed, and he smiled. “The way Rory tells it, he had said, ‘Mr. Ludtmann, there’s nothing going on here, but I would like to remind you that if we had been having sex, your daughter is older than me. She’s eighteen, sir.’ The kid’s got your sense of humor for sure, Susan. He’s a winner.”
Both of Rory’s parents chuckled at the imagined picture of their son and Mr. Ludtmann. Hearing her husband’s laugh, Susan relaxed too. “Mike, I feel like you’re blaming me for this whole thing, and that’s unfair.”
“Not blaming you, Susan. I just feel like I was caught not knowing what was going on.”
“I should have told you, I know. I just feel like it’s impossible to talk to you about this kind of thing.”
“Why, Susan?” I asked.
“Well, it’s never a discussion. Mike acts like he knows what should happen. Rory tried to talk with his dad about it.”
“How did that go, Mike?”
“Not very far, I guess, ’cause I didn’t know much about what was going on. I figured he might be having sex with Jen when he brought those books home from your office. Uh, I read them, too. I was looking for answers, I guess, trying to find a way to talk to him. I knew it shouldn’t all fall on Susan.”
I thought about Rory’s thirst for information, how helpful this dad might have been. “Did you ask him how things were going with Jen?”
“Maybe I think I’ve got to have all the answers. A simple question, ‘How are things going?’—I tried. I did say I’d be willing to talk about any questions he had, but I didn’t ask.”
“Where’s it stand now, after he was caught at Jen’s house?”
“Well, I yelled at him after I got that phone call. I don’t want him having Jen sleep over, but I don’t want to sound like Mr. Ludtmann, either.”
“Is there a way you could spend some time with him?” I asked.
“I could. Maybe I’ll volunteer to be the parent chaperon for that away football game he’s got coming up. I suppose we could talk about the whole thing.”
“You both read those books. You could talk about them.”
“Yeah, even getting started with the sex stuff is hard with Rory.”
“You don’t have to be an expert. Just try to start a conversation with him.”
“For me, that’s the hard part.”
“Mike, that’s the most difficult thing for a lot of parents.”
Mike is like most dads, and even some moms, parents that have trouble even beginning a conversation with their teens about sex. For Mike, it was easier to tell Rory what to do—’Don’t have Jen sleep over’—rather than find out how things were going.
I did hear back from Rory after he and his dad drove to the weekend football game. They had managed a conversation about sex. Mike stayed off the topic of Mr. Ludtmann, and Rory didn’t ask if he could have Jen sleep over…. Apparently, Mike shared information and, even more important, some of his own stories. The conversations had begun.
Intercourse: Starting off
One of the most important things that I have learned from working with teens is that their sexual patterns are extremely diverse. Yet teens feel acute pressure to be sexually “normal,” whatever that is, and struggle to make their own behavior fit into what they imagine fits that pattern. They keep much of their sexual lives hidden. There is often a story to share, though, and they are looking for someone to listen. Their reluctance to talk about sexual matters is combined with social taboos, and the end result is that they learn very little about what teenage sexual experiences are really like. Into this gap, television, movies, and music videos slide with dramatic stories that make it appear as if all teens are not only participating, but adept at sexual intercourse. This often infuriates parents, who view the media as aggressively seducing their children long before they are ready. The media’s aggressive use of teenage sexuality to sell everything may infuriate parents, but it is more demanding to teens themselves who are struggling to find out exactly what is “normal” and if they are included. Rory is one of many young boys I have worked with who are critical of their own sexual behavior because it doesn’t fit the media images. As Rory said, “No guy lasted under a minute in any of the movies I saw.”
Rory did tell me that he had recently seen a television program that had shown the “trials” of another “minute man,” but this character’s entire life was portrayed in terms of trials related to expectations of sexual performance.
Although Rory had watched the program with interest, he was afraid to discuss it with his friends, not wanting them to guess that this was his own situation also. After several conversations Rory was able to share with his father, Mike, his concerns about “timing.” Mike shared some of his early experiences and told Rory that not only were his worries normal, they were to be expected. This conversation provided some of the reassurance that Rory was searching for, and the bond between father and son was greatly enhanced.
In this chapter I chose to include the sexual stories of four teens—Miriam, Joel, Mai, and Rory—instead of the usual one or two. My intention has been to emphasize the range of sexual choices for teens
Miriam started early with physical development and activity, and her first experience with intercourse occurred at the age of fifteen rather than the average age of sixteen. Both she and her mother put a lot of effort into preparation, and her story serves as a good example of a teen who understood the questions that needed to be asked of herself before taking this important step.
I believe that asking and answering the questions is a very important part of sexual readiness for teens and adults both. Leaving out or rushing through any of the questions increases one’s vulnerability. Parents and many sexual education programs focus on the issue in Question #7 from my suggested list of sexual readiness questions—about whether any planning for protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease has taken place—at the expense of some of the others. For example, if you can’t tell your partner no, even at the last minute, then your choices are limited by those of your partner. This is an important issue, most typically for girls who don’t know their own desires fully, and accommodate to the wishes of their partners, but a surprising number of boys also describe feeling forced in sexual situations.
Also important is the question that asks whether one has thought about the impact of the first time on one’s life, and whether the decision being made is consistent with one’s values. This was a vital question for Mai, who knew her boyfriend’s desire and her father’s wishes, but had to define and then defend her own path. Asking herself the question about her values helped her identify her choice as her own, and helped her gain understanding about why she was having such intense negative feelings about her boyfriend and her dad. Once she recognized her own choice, she was no longer as angry with these other people.
Rory and I indirectly addressed the question from the list concerning sexual technique. Many teens today go right to intercourse, neglecting the time-honored steps of fondling, rubbing, and simulated intercourse without penetration that have delayed and enlivened the sexual lives of former generations. Rory was delighted to learn how to calibrate and adjust his excitability. Understanding that different individuals are excited by different degrees of touch gave Rory some control. Although he was a little fast, he found that he “fit” in the normal range, which was a tremendous relief.
Like Rory, Joel was grappling with issues related to sexual readiness, although he was exploring very different questions. Joel had masturbated, but he had never really thought in much detail about what it would be like to have sex with a boy or a girl. His inner desires were so hidden that he could not allow himself to have a sexual fantasy that included intercourse. He was stunned when he had intercourse with Richard, amazed at the strength of his erotic feelings. It forced him to pay attention to those feelings, clarifying an important part of his identity.
Making his choices, he confronted many of the questions that are part of determining sexual readiness. Had he thought about the potential impact on his life? Did he trust his partner? But his surprise about what happened and the potential meaning of these events for his character indicate that even if one prepared carefully, there are always revelations in intercourse. The discovery of unknown aspects represents one of the largest risks. Perhaps the final question asked should be whether you are ready to experience something that may change you.
Sexual activity has many meanings for adults. It is important to recognize that this is also true for teenagers. No one template fits all teens, and most adolescents derive multiple meanings from a single sexual experience. Miriam’s experience of intense physical pleasure revealed a greater intimacy with her boyfriend, Julian, but it also reflected personal growth and her developing spirituality. Like Miriam, Joel had experienced physical pleasure and intimacy, but he believed that the most important part of the experience was his surrender to desire. Mai learned from her exploration of the question that the freedom to make her own choice was vital. For her, it was important that it not be an expected part of her current relationship. Rory’s story began with a focus on sexual intercourse to test biological equipment. In the end, it brought him closer to his girlfriend, Jen, who had already accepted what he was questioning, and led him to want a greater understanding of relationships. When both he and his father were able to share and communicate, Rory’s sexual activity allowed for a greater intimacy not only with Jen, but with his father and with himself.
The sexual experiences described here help to identify how intimacy and intercourse are not always unnatural partners, but can be a positive formula that helps adolescents grow and understand themselves better. Sonia discovered that she believed in a healthy sex life for her young daughter in theory, but in practice found this a lot harder to deal with. Mike discovered that he had to learn to listen to his son. Once he tried this, Rory told him a lot more, and they grew closer. Teens’ stories can teach adults a great deal.
About the Author
Lynn Ponton, MD, is a practicing clinical psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also the author of The Romance of Risk: Why teenagers do the things they do. Ponton has written for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Clinicial Psychiatry News, Science and Women’s Day. She has appeared on “Oprah,” “Ricki Lake,” “60 Minutes” and on NPR and PBS.
Excerpted from The Sex Lives of Teenagers by Lynn Ponton, MD. Copyright © Lynn Ponton, 2000. Reprinted with permission.