When I conducted an online survey of Australian teenagers about sex, I expected to be surprised and even horrified by some of the responses. What I didn’t expect was to discover that behaviour by parents, and not kids, would be the thing that most deeply disturbed me.
While working as a script consultant on several films that dealt with teenage sexuality, I realised that I didn’t really know what teens got up to these days, so I went looking for a study that would tell me. But there was none. Several worthy surveys had been conducted that asked about pregnancy, STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and drinking habits, but none that delved into things like oral sex, pornography viewing and fantasies, or how teens felt about those things emotionally.
My survey was anonymous and elicited responses from a broad range of teens across the country and right through the teen years. Both girls and boys were generous and candid in their description of their experiences and their opinions, and I collected the results in my book, Sex Lives of Australian Teenagers. I hoped my readers would be teenagers, for it is they who most need guidance and an understanding of what other teens are going through. But based on the responses, I also realised that their parents needed the book as much as they do.
The world is a different place from the one most parents grew up in. The most hardcore sexual image I saw by the time I was 12 was a photo of a topless model in Playboy. These days, according to the survey, over 53 per cent of 12-year-old girls and 70 per cent of 12-year-old boys have seen hardcore pornography. But that’s not the frightening thing. What’s alarming is that most parents still don’t talk to their kids about sex. Instead, curious youngsters are getting their sex education from websites that feature sexual acts that many adults could not even imagine.
When I was growing up, most parents considered the whole “birds and bees” discussion an optional extra - something they might talk to their kids about if they felt comfortable. But as many parents were not comfortable, they just let us bumble through our teen years in the hope that the law, general social etiquette and instinct might contribute to some degree of sexual maturity. Needless to say, that wasn’t always the case. And it’s perhaps even less true today.
Most pornography, whether for the Internet or films (that most kids know how to download and burn onto DVD), is still made for men, and it often features women in subservient positions, performing acts that, according to the survey, teenage girls don’t often like to engage in.
Men are often Viagra-enhanced, able to go for hours, and women have been breast-implanted, Brazilian-waxed and spray-tanned to within an inch of their lives. So children are getting a seriously distorted picture of what sex is, as well as what you’re expected to do and look like while you’re having it.
As if the body image issues provoked by mainstream films and fashion magazines weren’t challenging enough!
A number of teenage boys in the survey complained about their own lack of stamina unlike “the guys in porn”. Girls said that their boyfriends expected them to be better groomed “down there”. A number of girls who were performing oral sex for the first time simply said that they copied what they’d seen in porn.
Perhaps the most wrong-headed lesson these kids are being taught by pornography is that sex is devoid of emotion. Emotional intimacy, trust and communication are things rarely featured in hardcore photos and films, and yet they are what most parents would say are important in a sexual relationship.
Today’s world isn’t different just because of the Internet. All media have become saturated with sexual imagery and references, and our children grow up being bombarded with everything from padded bras for seven-year-olds to pop videos mimicking group sex.
And the use of sex is even more insidious in the hands of advertisers. In their pursuit of ours and our teenagers’ dollars, they will depict women having near-orgasms while demonstrating the effects of a new shampoo, or have a star of Sex and the City make sleazy sexual innuendos while selling a car. In effect, the advertising and pornography industries have a lot in common: to make a profit they cheapen and trivialise sex, sucking all the emotion out of it.
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