We should be open with our daughters and sons about responsible sexuality

…And before it’s operationally relevant. After all, it’s a part of human life. With any luck, they’ll be less screwed up than their parents were.


Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

11 thoughts on “We should be open with our daughters and sons about responsible sexuality”

  1. It´s a sad commentary on human nature, or possibly just our culture, that screwed [up] and its big brother f**d [up] are metonyms for generic exploitation and failure. Other Anglo-Saxon terms for sexual organs and acts (c**t, prick, cocks**r …) are also commonly terms of abuse.

    1. James,
      What puzzles me: “sucks” has become an unnoticed part of reasonably polite, if informal, speech. In this, it is unlike most of the other terms, which are still considered vulgar.
      Alas, English is such a poor language for cursing!

    2. According to Google dictionary, screw isn’t Anglo-Saxon, but came into English through the French:

      late Middle English (as a noun): from Old French escroue ‘female screw, nut,’ from Latin scrofa , literally ‘sow,’ later ‘screw.’ The early sense of the verb was ‘contort (the features), twist around’ (late 16th cent).

      Sow, of course, here means a female hog, not the act of planting seeds. And I always thought that the idiom screwed up was not from the sexual sense, but from the “twisted around” sense.

      1. So the sex in ¨screwed¨ is porcine sex in the Dark Ages, it´s just gone full circle. Good to know.

      2. Rachel, I think you’re correct about “screwed up” meaning “twisted around.”

        On the other hand, “we are really screwed” is from a different referent.

  2. I’m with you. I’ve been trying to cover the stuff I think my boys may not have heard otherwise. The local schools have been doing their bit on the Birds and Bees: sperms! eggs! a condom over a wooden penis! vigorous discussion of STDs! Abstinence! Be scared, be very scared. This is all very well, but as near as I can tell, there has been no moral discussion, nor any sense of romance or excitement.

    So I’ve made the following points, in no particular order – usually when driving, since the last thing they want is to hear their old Dad talking about girls, and sex, and desire, and romance. When we are going 25, and there are no available screens, they can’t escape.

    1. We have gotten you guys Gardasil. Okay, but this protects against only two of the four strains of HPV. HPV can lead to throat or anal cancer for you in thirty years, and it can make you the mechanism by which a girl for whom you care has gotten vaginal warts and a risk of later cancer. Don’t be silly, wrap your willy.

    2. Average age at death in the Roman Empire was 30. By which time people had had and raised their children. Mostly they paired up well before 20. You could learn to be a tanner or a farmer or a soldier right quick. It’s not surprising that people were and are romantically excited at a young age, we’re built for it and it has worked for our ancestors for millenia. Well, now we live to 75 or 90 and we need to get training for years to be accountants and engineers and podiatrists: hard to do while you are in a romance, harder if you are raising littles. Our emotional life and urge to pair up early is out of joint with what the culture demands. Have to live with it: you are going to have romantic connections with people before you find the Love of Your Life. Try and do it right and not do harm.

    3. You think you are having a romance with some particular girl. You are actually having a romance with her and a committee of her six closest friends. Your every action will be critiqued and discussed. If you misbehave, it will be everywhere. So be polite and kind. And by the way, it is really not okay to lie to a girl to get her to let you into her pants. Not only is it wrong, but if you do it it will get around and your name will be mud.

    4. More STDs: there is drug resistant gonorrhea on the horizon. Syphilis. Chancroid. AIDS. And you can catch a whole lot of ‘regular’ diseases, from rubbing your mucus membranes up against hers. Don’t be a fool, cover your tool.

    5. You know the old line, ‘smile, and you will feel happy’? Well, sex is a lot like that. You go to a party in somebody’s parents’ basement and you have sex on a couch in a quiet corner, and before you know it, you are infatuated, you think you are in love. Or she is. Or both of you. Well, now what? In a couple of months the glow wears off, and you figure out you can barely talk to each other, your interests are so different. Or you are unsuitable because you’re not a Catholic, or something.

    6. Romance is wonderful and exciting and I want you to find a way to a nourishing and growing connection with someone. You can get ahead of yourselves. Then later there’s unhappiness. So start out by going to a museum in daytime, or biking by the river, or something. See if you like spending time with each other. Unlike in The Old Days, there is no consensus on what the mommy does and what the daddy does. Mitt and Ann, they had an idea of proper roles that they could slot into. Barack and Michele, not so much – they had to figure out for themselves what they wanted, in a marriage. And you have to figure out even whether you want a marriage at all, though it has been very good for your mother and me, and we hope for it for you. The social context you are going into, you are more like Barack than Mitt.

    7. You get some girl pregnant. And by the way seven per cent of high school girls get pregnant every year. Well, now you have totally lost control. She decides: does she decide she wants to keep it? Congratulations, you are a dad, you are on the hook for twenty years of child care. Several hundred dollars a month on top of everything else. Does she want you in this kid’s life? If not, you don’t have a chance to be a dad to the kid. So there’s a kid you have obligations to and no way you can fulfil them. Do you want this kid and she decides not to keep it? You have no rights, it is wholly her choice, she hooks up the Hoover and it’s gone. Or maybe she adopts the kid out and you know there is a kid of yours who you will never see. And by the way, the actual girl of your dreams, who you meet later, flees you because you have this prior child. Cover your stump before you hump.

    8. Statutory rape. You are 18 and you have a fling with a girl who is 17. The law says you are raping her. Her parents get pissed off at you, and they complain to the prosecutor, and the prosecutor for some reason thinks this is worth prosecutor resources (more likely if you are 18 and she is 16, even more likely if she is 15, nearly a sure thing if she is 14) and you get convicted. Then you are a felon, you can’t vote, lots of people won’t hire you, and you pop up on the Internet searches people can make for sex criminals in their neighborhoods, forever. Her parents are most likely to get pissed at you if you get her pregnant. When in doubt, shroud your spout. Other ways to anger parents are to break her heart, lie to her, dump her cruelly – all those things you ought not to do anyhow. What is this about? We have revulsion at sex relationships where the guy has a lot more power – violent rape, the rich old fat guy who marries a young poor beauty, the 20 year old who brings his excitement to a fifteen year old and sweeps her off her feet. Bill Clinton and the intern. Donald Trump dumping Ivana and taking up with Melania. There’s a whole continuum of things here, and social response ranges from impotent disapproval to sending the guy to jail. Message for you: watch out for relationships with power imbalances. Watch out particularly if the power has to do with your age, and you are in something with a girl who is less than 18

    1. This is all excellent advice. I’m very comfortable with the schools teaching the cold facts about sex. Learning facts is what school is for. Learning about how to treat people and how to have good relationships is better done by parents, and it sounds like you’re doing a great job. I had to learn all this stuff as a sexually active adult, and it was painful, though fortunately I never got anyone pregnant (don’t laugh, but I think low fertility ran in my family).

  3. Let’s acknowledge what everyone knows but refuses to say: no one should remain unmarried past their teenage years.

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