Dear Dr. Wes and John: I've had the same friends since grade school. Now that we're in junior high, our morals have really changed. A lot of my friends are getting really promiscuous, and I don't know what to do about them. I know I don't have to follow them, but I'm just really tired of watching them throw themselves away like this. And we're only in ninth grade.
Dr. Wes: I understand your concerns. I've seen many kids in both your situation and that of your friends, and the numbers are increasing. In my view, our sexual revolution has devolved from something that was considered liberating in the '60s to a situation in which sex simply isn't taken seriously. For this column, let's ignore the issue of whether it's wise for teens to be sexually active at all. We'll instead focus on a "best practices" model of teen sexuality, which requires three components:
¢ Protecting the body from disease
¢ Protecting the future from unwanted pregnancy
¢ Protecting the "heart" from regret
Teenagers have almost mastered the pregnancy component. Between condoms, hormone-based birth control and emergency contraception, there isn't a good statistical reason for anyone to experience an unwanted pregnancy. Accidents happen, but if one is as cautious as they should be (e.g., using both a barrier and hormone-based contraceptive) the risk is greatly reduced. Disease is another matter. Most sexually active girls will have HPV by the time they are 20. Many will have contracted herpes or another STD. We still need to focus our attention on these diseases and emphasize how easy they are to catch.
However, what your letter proposes and what I see in the teen culture is incredible carelessness with the third component: protecting the heart. I realize there are individual exceptions, but few teens would argue that they live in a culture that values the intimacy and importance of sexuality. You suggest that by becoming "promiscuous" in junior high your friends are throwing something away, and I would agree with you. By randomly hooking up or rushing to sexual engagement in serial relationships, your friends are doing a lot more than risking disease and pregnancy. They are absolutely guaranteeing a young adulthood full of regrets. I know this because I see young people in their mid-20s - mostly women - who look back on 10 years of sexual carelessness with horror and disappointment. Some of the things they chose to do are now so upsetting and embarrassing to them that I believe they are traumatized in much the same way victims of sexual abuse have been. That may sound extreme, and I am not free offer details to support this supposition, but I've found it to be true many times over.
I want to be clear here. I am not telling anyone when, if, or how to organize themselves sexually. Each of us has to make that decision for ourselves. I realize that most teens will become sexually active before young adulthood. My concern is whether they set themselves up for some really good memories or a lot of really bad ones. I think your friends are in the latter category, and I am glad you are questioning how they are handling things.
John: Our society is starved for intimacy. Surveys indicate the average American has only two close friends, and one in four report having no one to talk to on important issues. This is twice the number reported 20 years ago. Junior high can be a particularly lonely time - mine certainly was. For lonely people, sex can provide an illusion of intimacy. During sex, the hormone oxytocin is released to act as psychological superglue between you and your sexual partner. That works great if you're married or in a serious relationship, but it comes down like rock if you're just dating. If a couple feels it's time to move on, they still have a powerful bond between them. That's why you see couples constantly break up and come back together again, long after their relationship has deteriorated. And when multiple partners are involved, your psyche gets confused about who it's supposed to be bonded with. After years of promiscuity, you're tied in a web of conflicting feelings pulling you apart.
Fortunately, you are in a position to help your friends. Simply by being a friend, you can help your peers understand that an intimate relationship need not be a sexual one. At the risk of sounding touchy-feely, I'd even suggest you hug them more. People need to be touched 20 times a day, but most Americans get far less. If our society was more European in its attitude about touching, we'd probably feel less lonely.
Second, show your friends an alternative by example. This is more effective than you might think. Most teenagers overestimate the sexual activity of their peers, falsely believe that "everyone is doing it." Your friends will pay attention if they see you finding happiness in a chaste relationship.
Third, when the time is right talk to your friends about their sexuality. They won't admit it, but I doubt they really enjoy being promiscuous. Because real gentlemen are in short supply, many girls settle for less than they deserve. Tell your friends they are worth more then their partners are giving them. In fact, they are worth so much, they don't need a relationship. Finally, try to rekindle a sense of hope in your friends. Though there are plenty of eels in the sea, there will always be real men who understand respect.
Next week: Addicted to shopping. An eBay addict writes in.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.