two hands holding sexual grapefruits

If you are a parent of a teenager, you’ve probably already had THE Talk. By now, your child understands where babies come from and the potential consequences of having sex.

In addition, most public schools provide some level of sex education as part of the health curriculum. In our area high school, each student was assigned an STD to research, so each of my kids came home one day announcing what they “had.” For the most part, you know that they’re informed, but is that enough? If they are going away to college, for instance, are they really ready for the reality of independent living and making responsible decisions?

Moving out of your childhood home, whether it’s temporary (a semester at school) or permanent (getting one’s own place) is one of those things in life for which you really can’t fully prepare. There are some aspects (having a roommate, for example) that may be familiar, but there will certainly be something unexpected too.

Some teens have grown up sharing a room with a sibling, or have spent a week or summer at camp, but moving into a small space and sharing it with a complete stranger for most of a year is something very different. There are going to be things about this new person, and this new situation, that’ll be surprising and unfamiliar.

I was unprepared for much of college life and I worried about my children going to college unprepared as well. I knew that I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try to prepare them. Before they left for school, I suggested problems they might encounter if, for no other reason than simply so that they could think about how they might approach various situations.  I wanted them to be better prepared than I’d been for communal life as a young adult. 

Sex is everywhere. It’s implied or explicitly addressed in entertainment and advertising. Even children’s movies have a level of innuendo. Companies and schools have been forced to set up guidelines and rules addressing sexual behavior. Reports of sexual assault on college campuses are getting increased media attention and schools are responding with prevention and awareness programs.

While it’s true that today many have their first sexual encounter in high school, that number jumps quickly in college. According to the CDC, 47% of high school students reported they’ve had sexual intercourse, and the Guttmacher Institute reports that by age 20, 75% of individuals are reporting they have had sex. 

Studies indicate that the perception of sexual activity is actually higher than the reality, and some worry that this may encourage teens to engage in sexual activity earlier than they might otherwise. In study after study, individuals underestimate the number of people in the study group who are not having sex.

Despite the appearance that everyone is doing it, not everyone’s happy about it. There’s been much discussion and study on “hookup culture” common today. This idea tends to reinforce stereotypes: All men want sex all the time. Men are praised for their exploits, women are reviled. Casual sex is devoid of emotion, it’s simply an act. The implication is that relationships are superficial, and that old-fashioned “dating” is dead and gone. This is true, to a degree, but people still want relationships.

The New York Magazine’s 2015 Sex on Campus Survey reveals a more conservative attitude about sex than one might expect. While reports of the hookup culture imply an epidemic of one-night stands, an overwhelming majority responded with the longest period of time offered on the survey (longer than a month) when asked, “How long do you think you need to know someone before you have sex with them?”

The majority of college students are also finding romantic partners through friends, rather than at bars or parties. The question, “How many sex partners do you think you should have before marriage?” also reveals a more conservative tendency, with the overwhelming majority of people answering 1-5.


While most young people – 91% in the New York Magazine survey – want a relationship, and someday marriage, many are afraid that doing so at this point in their lives will complicate things, that they will not have time necessary to devote to studies or that they will no longer have time for friends and social activities.

To understand hook up culture, it’s important to look at how relationships are defined. As was true with prior generations, the meaning of words is constantly, if subtly, changing. In order to have meaningful dialogue, we need to make sure we understand the terminology.

Hookups are defined as anything from kissing to intercourse, without the expectation of commitment. It’s interesting to note that a hookup does not necessarily lead to a relationship, but that most relationships evolve from a hookup. Although this may sound alarming, according to a 2010 report published by the American Sociological Association –  Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?  – when looking at college students’ most recent hookup, only about one third involved sexual intercourse, while another third involved other sexual acts, and the final third engaged in “kissing and non-genital touching.”

The report goes on,

“Hookups may be the most explicit example of a calculating approach to sexual exploration. They make it possible to be sexually active while avoiding behaviors with the highest physical and emotional risks (e.g., intercourse, intense relationships). Media panic over hooking up may be at least in part a result of adult confusion about youth sexual culture—that is, not understanding that oral sex and sexual experimentation with friends are actually some young people’s ways of balancing fun and risk.”

The Media Education Foundation Study Guide indicates that despite this, many traditional roles remain. Men initiate more dates and sexual activity than do women, and report greater pleasure from sexual activity than the women reported. Women still worry that they’ll no longer be respected after a hookup. More than 75% of men contact the woman afterwards. Sex is more common within a relationship than with a hookup. In a curious flip of stereotypical gender roles, today’s women are slightly more likely than men to no longer be interested in a relationship after a hookup and it’s men, not women, who more often initiate the, “define the relationship” talk.

Leah Fessler, a recent graduate of Middlebury College questioned the value of the hookup culture on campus, making it the topic of her senior thesis. In it, she makes the assertion that, in some ways, the hookup can be seen as a feminist statement. It’s a way to avoid commitment, to dedicate one’s self to studies and/or a career.

After completing her study, however, she concluded that, “Despite diverse initial perceptions of, and experiences with, hookup culture, 100% of female interviewees stated a clear preference for committed relationships, and 74% of female survey respondents say that ideally, they’d be in a “committed relationship with one person.” Perhaps more surprising is the male view on relationships – only 6% responding that they desire casual hookups devoid of commitment.

So, why do college students engage in hookups? Fessler says, “In hooking up we see a glimmer of hope, we see potential, we see the only, if not the most accessible (remember: we’ve got almost no free time), means of taking a step toward what we really want: something more, commitment.”

In an article she wrote for Quartz, Fessler further asserts that, “sex is inextricably linked to emotions, trust, curiosity, and above all, self-awareness. To attempt to separate emotions from sex is not only illogical, given that emotion intensely augments pleasure, but also impossible for almost all women.”

She goes on to say that, “…men’s experiences with hookup culture are equally complex. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of males I interviewed and surveyed also ideally preferred committed relationships. But they felt strong social pressure to have casual sex. Culturally, men have been socially primed to believe they ought to “drive” hookup culture, and that a crucial part of the college experience is sleeping with many women and then discussing these “escapades” with their male friends. So despite what men might truly want, pervasive hookup culture prompts them to predicate their public identity as heterosexual men on the number and physical attractiveness of the women they’ve slept with. Needless to say, the detrimental effects of this performance pressure are countless and severe.” 

This all points to a disillusionment with the status quo. There is evidence that young people yearn for emotional connection, yet their actions indicate otherwise. 

What is perhaps news to some is the casual acceptance of the various sexual acts between kissing and intercourse. We need to define sex. For many, sex is exclusively intercourse. Oral sex or other sexual acts are seen as something “other.” Many with considerable sexual experience are technically considered virgins, perhaps because the perception is that oral sex is “safe.” 

And STIs remain a huge concern. In the U.S. alone there are approximately 20 million new STI cases each year, half of which occur among youth ages 15-24 years. Though some STIs have obvious symptoms, many have no, or only mild, symptoms. A test from a healthcare provider is the only sure way to confirm infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 4 new STI cases occur in teenagers. It’s a little known fact that, “for some STDs, such as chlamydia, adolescent females may have increased susceptibility to infection.” In 2014, people aged 15-24 accounted for 66% of all cases of chlamydia, 63% of all cases of gonorrhea, and 28% of syphilis cases reported in the U.S.

Some STIs can be spread through any contact between the penis, vagina, mouth or anus – even if there is no penetration. For example, genital herpes is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact. Though many think that oral sex is safer, it’s not. STIs transmitted through oral sex include chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, HPV and HIV.


How to talk to your kids

Even though, or perhaps because, sex is everywhere today, we need to have conversations with our children. According to Dr. Michael A. Carrera, of The Children’s Aid Society,

“Young people inevitably learn about sex and sexuality from their environment anyway, and it’s evident that the environment is not always very safe or reliable, so it is up to caring adults to influence their sons’ and daughters’ moral development, healthy decision making abilities, self-esteem, and knowledge of, and comfort with, their own sexuality. A parent really has no choice in this matter. The only choice is whether the job will be done well or poorly.”

Sex education classes tend to be clinical, and portrayals in the media tend to be unrealistic. Neither of these convey our values, and opinions which carry more weight than many parents think. Barbara Huberman of Outreach for Advocates for Youth, points out that, “parents who act on the belief that young people have the right to accurate sexuality information are parents whose teens will delay the initiation of intimacy and use contraceptives when they choose to become sexually active.”

Preparation for this conversation is crucial. If you expect to talk to your child about sex, then you can’t be surprised by questions. You don’t always have to have the answers, but being open and willing to talk will set the tone for a positive (and hopefully ongoing) dialogue.

Be an “askable” parent.

Be willing and available to talk. Encourage questions and conversations. Be honest. Be prepared to answer questions that may make you uncomfortable.

Initiate the conversation.

Research shows that teens are reluctant to bring up the topic. They may be embarrassed or worry about their parents’ reaction. They’re afraid their parents may assume they are already having sex, or simply are unsure about how to bring up the topic.

Show that you’ve done your research. Share statistics and anecdotes like those above that illustrate how people view sex differently.

Be specific.

Deborah Roffman, the author of Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense about Sex points out, “Parents have to stop talking in code. Children need accurate definitions, facts, and guidance. If we don’t teach our children, someone else may teach them what we don’t want them to learn.” 

Admit to your mistakes.

It’s easier to talk to people who aren’t perfect. You don’t have to know everything or have all the answers. If you made poor choices, own up to them – simply, and without detail. Too many teens feel pressure to live up to expectations of perfection.

Listen, don’t react.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Often, questions are simply that. Just because a child is asking questions about sex, doesn’t mean that he or she is already sexually active.

Don’t laugh or ridicule.

There is a place for humor, but never at your child’s expense.

Acknowledge your feelings.

It’s okay to be embarrassed or uncomfortable. Sex is a complicated subject. Everyone talks about it and no one talks about it.

Teach safe sex.

Don’t assume that talking about contraception gives your child your blessing to be sexually active. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, talking about both abstinence and birth control results in a fewer teen pregnanciesWe should talk about both abstinence and contraception; they are not mutually exclusive.

Talk about more than avoiding pregnancy and STIs. Educate your kids about sexual assault. It’s an unfortunate truth that women, especially, need to be wary of assault. The Department of Justice reports that nearly 1 in 5 undergraduate women experience an attempted or actual sexual assault and it’s understood that many more cases go unreported due to the prevalence of victim-shaming.

Remind them to watch out for others.

The Department of Justice report also indicates that bystander intervention helps prevent assault.

Teach that sex can have consequences other than STIs and pregnancy.

Though it’s downplayed, there are emotional aspects to sexual relationships. It’s important to talk about sex with a partner before having sex. Things to address include birth control, the possibility of STIs, each person’s expectations.

Consider who else can provide accurate information.

No matter how good your relationship with your child is, there are things they may not want to discuss with you. Where else can your child turn for accurate, helpful information? The doctor?A counselor? 

Address ways to manage stress. 

Simple things like exercise and meditation can relieve some of the intense pressure many young adults feel. It can be deeply tempting to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Substance use impacts the ability to make good decisions about intimacy, consent, and self care.

Talk about your values.

According to the American Social Health Association (ASHA), “Research shows that teens are less likely to have sex at an early age if they feel close to their parents and if their parents clearly communicate their values.”