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Sex Talk: how can we help our teenagers take control?

Help teens be smart, even in the heat of passion.

It may be that 17-year-old Bristol Palin made a decision not to use birth control when she had sex with her boyfriend. It may be that she thought using birth control was a greater sin than having sex. But as a mother of two daughters and a psychologist interested in how we can talk straightforwardly and effectively to our children about sex and sexuality, my best guess is that Bristol did not really make a decision, and that she would agree with her mother that her pregnancy is the result of a simple "mistake" that anyone can make. But most parents I speak to want to reduce the risk that their teenager will make such a mistake.

Last month published figures showed that the abortion rate in the US has fallen to its lowest level since the Supreme Court's 1973 decision to uphold certain "areas or zones of personal privacy" that protect a woman's reproductive choice. This is good news, because no one likes abortion, and parents might conclude that teens are now getting the right information about the risks of sex. Alas, what seems to be happening, instead, is that fewer young women seem able to exercise a choice, once they make a mistake, because there has been no corresponding fall in births to teenager. In some cases, these young women live in areas without an abortion provider. In some cases, their fear of being ostracized outweighs the embarrassment or disruption of having a baby. Parents are not as effective as they would like to be in the advice and warning and information they provide.

This is not for want of trying. When I did research for my book on teenager daughters and mothers (You don't really know me!) I learned that mothers were eager to have frank and full discussions about sex with their daughters. "I know that already!" a teen is likely to protest when a parent starts "explaining things" to her. Indeed, our teenagers do know a lot about the superficial elements of sex. But the subconscious depths of sexual desire make real understanding hard to come by. Most prominent social messages are packed with contradiction: sex is an accepted part of life, but it exposes one to the unimaginable complications of pregnancy and the dangers of disease. Girls are encouraged to feel powerful, but are also warned that they can be easily overpowered, and are targets of rapists. They are expected to be sexual and look "ravishing", yet are advised to say "no". They watch sexual ecstasies on camera, but are assured it is "no big thing".

In spite of their apparent sophistication, teens shy away from sex talk with parents. "Sex and mothers don't mix," teens say, while mothers are frustrated in their aims to be frank and forthright. "I'm doing everything that my mom didn't and should have," Lisette says, "and my daughter is still complaining as vehemently as I complained about my own mother." But Lisette, like many mothers, persists in finding ways to engage in these complex conversations, and her instinct are well-founded.

Parents, generally, have come a long way in three generations. During the first half of the last century, many people worried that openness about sex would encourage early sexual activity. The fear was that sex talk would instil young people with lustful thoughts. While some policy makers insist on following "abstinence only" teaching, research shows that a broad approach to sex education lowers the risk of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. But it does not lower it enough. And parents have to find some way of getting through to their children, because any young person is at risk of making a mistake. It isn't only stupid teens who do stupid things.

So, parents ask, what's the best way to get the message across, that it could be you?

The trend of speaking openly about sex is important, but this openness has to extend beyond physical and biological facts, and beyond the directive to say "no". It must include wider discussions of sexuality, and desire and emotion. In fact, when Sharon Thompson looked at girls' experience of first intercourse, she found a startling correlation between the type of conversations girls had with their mothers, and whether or not they used conception. She found that girls who talk about the emotional aspect of sex with their mothers, are more likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. These girls are aware of their own desire and see it as a central factor in any decision they make about sexuality. So, they were more likely to plan ahead and acknowledge what they are doing. They are less likely to get pregnant because they are more likely to use birth control. These girls are likely to have talked broadly about sex with their mothers.

Girls who do not see their desire as the primary justification in deciding whether to have sex, may find it hard to distinguish between choice and coercion. For these girls, sex is initiated by a partner's desires. They themselves may not anticipate it, and hence are at greater risk of sex "just happening". Such girls are generally unaccustomed to talking about sex with a mother.

Conversations with a mother in which a girl expresses her feelings and in which a mother accepts and adds to what she says, enable a girl to identify her own desire, and this is the best protection against "just making a mistake", or being passive and unaware about sex. There is strong evidence that this enables her to be smart, even in the heat of passion.