Approaching Sexual Discovery

February 1, 2009
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Doreen Seidler-Feller

The issue of how to approach pubescent teen boys enthralled by sex remains a challenging one for educators. There are certain fixed realities to contend with: hormones, the developmental transition away from parents toward peers, sensation-seeking consistent with the appeal of novel experience and the belief that pushing the envelope is an adolescent birthright. In addition there may be drugs, alcohol, and/or mood disorders fueling sexual fantasy and behavior. Importantly, there is also the sociocultural context at work; it drives sexual ambitions in both conscious and unconscious ways toward, not away from, risktaking. And it bathes both sexes in an increasingly sexually explicit and ubiquitous universe.

Boys also grow up with a certain entitlement to sexual discovery, learned from social scripts that define them as the aggressors and facilitate the idea that they are largely controlled by their biological sex drives. They are possessors of a wondrous organ with, arguably, a life of its own, a personality of its own, often a name of its own. While implied in this brief description that scripts differ by gender and are complex, I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that girls’ scripts today are largely defined by limiting functions in heterosexual practice. Although framing sexual experience and boundary setting remain strong script elements for girls, sexual thinking and the imprint of feminism in the last 30 years has sponsored sexual expectation, expression, and entitlement for girls too, in an unprecedentedly democratic and public way.

Given the overwhelming reinforcing effect of all these factors, the impulse of most educators has been to stick to biology and tell a cautionary tale about pregnancy and disease or to take a moral approach to sex education. Fewer than 10 percent of American students receive a comprehensive sex education (SIECUS). Most are still left to their own educational inclinations from X-rated movies on one extreme to abstinence-oriented programs on the other and whatever other spam or detritus they can sift through.

A cornerstone of good sex education is to avoid a fear-based curriculum or tone. If we approached driver education or sports the way we approach sex, no one would drive or pursue athletics. It’s easy for teens to see the social control agenda in such approaches. The value of adults being able to speak openly, directly, and positively about sex, plays an enormous role in modeling and training adolescents’ approaches toward sexual discovery. 

We need a partnership between educational settings (both formal and informal) and parents to mesmerize teens with talk and reflection about sex rather than reflexive, experimentally driven sexual behavior. Parents should think about what and how they want to convey to their adolescents a sex ethic, Jewish or otherwise. Research indicates that parents who discuss sex with their teens, who are relaxed and comfortable in conversation, believe their kids lack knowledge and want to train them to think maturely and focus on school.

Two additional points need to be made about teaching sexuality. The “hidden curriculum” here is the idea that it is the brain, not the penis, which is the central sexual organ. It mediates, reflects, sifts, and considers its options through the prism of ethics, goals, values, opportunities, and so on. It responds and acts through education and cognitive rehearsal, which is incompatible with automatic and impulsive approaches to sex. When we talk about sex, intimacy, and relationships, we reveal and define ourselves, and in so doing, I think, we can help adolescent boys and girls develop a responsive and responsible sexual and relational self. This area demands extensive curricular elaboration and also requires psychological sophistication and, simply, courage. The yardstick of the parent, genuinely conveyed, is never lost.

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Doreen Seidler-Feller, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles specializing in individual and couples treatment for a wide range of psychological disorders and difficulties including the spectrum of anxiety and depressive disorders, sexual and marital dysfunctions, and adjustment to chronic disease. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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