Many millenials would chuckle recalling the awkward dad scenes in the 1999 film, American Pie. These scenes depict a Jewish-American father explaining many sexual things to his mortified teenage son. Perhaps we find these scenes so funny because we can recall similar conversations with our parents, learning about the birds and the bees, and making that always-fun inference: “My parents did what?!” Today, the age of innocence is changing. What was once a mother/daughter or father/son conversation involving much squirming, eye contact-avoiding, and skin-crawling is evolving into nothing more than an Internet search. Many sites are dedicated to informing teens of aspects of sexuality, and many teens take advantage of these media opportunities, so as to avoid the awkward conversation with their parents. One site boasts that it is “Sex ed for the real world! Inclusive, comprehensive, and smart sexuality information and help for teens and 20s.”
While few would argue that teens should learn about the nature and purpose of sex, the content and manner in which it is presented is what is in question. The “top-ranked” online resource for teens and 20-somethings, Scarleteen, which has been praised by Planned Parenthood, UNICEF, and many other organizations, is horribly biased. While it says that it does not judge those who are not engaging in sex, seemingly every aspect of the site assumes that the reader is, and the content of the site of makes the American Pie conversations sound as innocent as a Disney movie. The question and answer section is particularly disturbing. A 15-year-old girl wrote in to inquire about masturbation, saying she had never tried it and perhaps wanted to give it a whirl, but thought it might hurt. The expert responded by saying that it is important to know one’s body and to talk to a counselor about her anxiety behind it, without even considering that anxiety could signal that masturbation itself is not healthy behavior. Likewise, the Planned Parenthood teen website addresses a similar question with a catchy twenty-questions video, which basically says that everyone masturbates and only a few religions discourage masturbation.
Another question posed to readers on Scarleteen was: “Porn: How much (or how little) does it influence your sexuality?” which sparked dozens of responses. One anonymous responder admits that he was introduced to porn at a young age in “incidents I would prefer not to say”, which leaves one to assume that he was abused in the allusive incident. Many of the other responses admit that porn has led them to enjoy “BDSM” (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) sex. How did many of the responders first discover porn? Several admit that it was from none other than an internet search. Those at Scarleteen did not appear to address these issues, nor did they discourage pornography viewing in any way. They did not mention that habitual porn viewing rewires the brain, is highly addictive, and leads to behavior changes. Their “no-judgement” stance meant that there was no intervention for guidance in the message board discussion.
Finally, perhaps the most eyebrow-crinkling of questions on Scarleteen was a question from a reader. The question said that he had a lot of LGBTQ friends and that he felt bad that he was heterosexual. “It seems like lately it’s a bad thing to be straight”, he writes. The “expert” responded by saying that this guilt is common (?), and that, basically, he has a right to be accepted and not judged just as those in the LGBTQ community have that right.
Catholics and Christians have addressed internet sexual education in their own way, however, many would argue that sites such as Scarleteen and Planned Parenthood Teen are much more effective at enticing the curious teenager. Sites such as LifeTeen.com and Chastity.com address some of the more challenging issues, but unfortunately resemble Hallmark cards next to the eye-catching fonts and graphics of Scarleteen.
How do we address this problem? I am not a parent yet, so I am not going claim to know how to raise children in this challenging world. Nor am I tech-savvy, so creating a new, positive, eye-catching resource for teens is out of my pay grade. I truly feel sorry for today’s teenagers who are growing up in a world devoid of curiosity and the need to rely on parents for such information. I remember having to ask my mom about every dirty thing I heard on the school bus, and, looking back, am glad she was informed of the things I was hearing and what I knew. I did not have the Internet to search these terms out during my younger teen years, so my parents were not kept in the dark of what I was learning. While not perfect, my experience growing up in Life Teen and fostering community saved me from many potentially poor decisions in my teen and college years.
Going forward, both current and future parents must keep informed of what children and teenagers are seeing on the Internet, teach them to make judgments, and foster virtue. While the awkward parent/child conversations about the birds and the bees might seem passé, they are instrumental in forming healthy and well-informed adults. If parents are not talking to their children about sex, it is important that parents know that they will be getting their information somewhere, which may end up being sites such as Planned Parenthood Teen and Scarleteen. As an educator, I have had my share of internal mouth-gaping conversations with teens I have worked with. Kids these days know much more than I did at that age, and I would encourage parents and educators to stay abreast on the latest in online sex education. Even though it may be difficult, read sites like Scarleteen and Planned Parenthood Teen to see the many things that are trending in teen conversations. Have the awkward conversations and be the true “sex ed” for the real world.