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Archive for Monday, October 28, 2002

Put values ahead of sex

October 28, 2002

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— And now a word to any parent who has ever had trouble talking about sex to a child: take comfort.

Take Alex Comfort.

Yes, the very same Alex Comfort who authored and illustrated "The Joy of Sex," a 1970s culinary trip through his quirky sexual banquet. The book was a phenomenon of biblical sales proportions.

Alex stirred the international pot of sexual liberation. But he didn't exactly do any home schooling. Sex ed for his son, Nick, consisted of one awkward "talk" after the son's headmaster said the boy needed to know about personal hygiene. That was about it.

This news comes from Nick Comfort himself, who has just reissued a 30th anniversary edition of "Joy," two years after his father's death. The new "Joy" has replaced sketches of the hirsute author and his mistress/second wife with a young buff couple who look like they jumped naked from a Calvin Klein ad. But it retains the same funky style, not to mention cooking implements, as the original.

The big news is Nick's book-tour confession that he was the unenlightened son of the sex expert. Indeed this comes just in time for our own updated look at the sex-talk gap between the current generation of parents and children.

This fall, we've had one study after another about sex, teens and parents. The first one, from the research organization Child Trends, said that most teens aren't having sex in the afternoon or in the car but at home and at night while mom and dad are asleep on the parenting job.

The second study from the University of Minnesota said that half the moms of kids who were sexually active didn't realize it. And to boot, 45 percent of the boys and 30 percent of the girls whose moms strongly disapproved of teen sex didn't know that either. Simultaneous ignorance.

Finally there was a survey of low-income parents for the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States which showed again how many more parents believe they should talk about sex than actually do.

And add these to the growing list of research that compares parents who say they've told "all" with kids who say they've been told "nothing."

It seems that we still haven't found a comfort zone in the erogenous zone.

Dr. Comfort's "Joy"-ful career as writer and illustrator and swinger began after the infamous "Sexual Official Secrets Act" had been lifted in his native Britain. It was, he once wrote, like "ripping down the Iron Curtain."

Thirty years later, a lot of us wish there were any kind of curtain, even a diaphanous veil, between teenagers and the X-rated culture. But parents are still relatively speechless.

Robert Blum, who heads the University of Minnesota study that came up with the "clueless moms" data, says that less than 4 percent of mothers are actually comfortable talking about sexual relations with kids. He guesses that fathers are worse.

"Parents aren't comfortable and kids know it," says Blum. But what's important is whether we're willing to overcome the discomfort and talk about what we saw in the paper or heard in the neighborhood.

"Parents keep asking me how to craft the one perfect sentence," says Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. But the issue isn't information. "Kids don't want to know the seven signs of gonorrhea but how do I say no to my boyfriend and how do I know I'm in love and let me tell you what happened at the party. Parents need to provide the values, not the biology."

Everyone who deals with teens seems to agree that the most important and toughest job is staying in connection and conversation ... not delivering a lecture but saying what we think. Of course what we think may be a confused mix of what we did, what we're afraid of, and what we hope for our children: The Joy and the Fear of Sex. But maybe it's time we shared all that.

"A lot of parents tell me, 'I hardly ever see them. When I do I don't know whether to talk to them about the sniper, safe driving or sex,"' says Brown. "I think we need to reacquaint parents with the job of parenting. They need to talk with young people about what they think and why." She adds, "We need to put some spine into parents."

As for comfort Nick Comfort anyway this decidedly nonswinging son of the sexual rebel is nevertheless a chip off the old block of a father. When asked by his 8-year-old son what sex was, he answered, "It's how men and women get on with each other."

Come to think of it, spine is about the only part of the anatomy that still isn't listed in the pages of "The Joy of Sex."

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