What Parents Should Know About the University of Minnesota Casual Sex Study

Some say the world has flipped on its side, leaving parents in a quandary. Long gone are the sugar-coated days of Ozzie and Harriet and their well-separated twin beds. No such sweetening of reality for today’s young people. No, sir. Now such comedies as Two and a Half Men portray casual sex as an entertaining end-goal, and ads extol the benefits of Viagra and KY Intense.

Meanwhile, “adults” can simply head to Craigslist, click on “Casual Encounters,” make a few promises, like being at least eighteen, and then connect with some stranger. No more complicated than seeking a used crib or laptop. The message nowadays is clear: nothing is taboo anymore.

It’s been an uphill battle for parents and schools for some time now, and the forecast doesn’t look promising. Despite pleas to abstain, make commitments, be responsible, and appreciate the risks-unwanted pregnancies, STDs, and HIV/AIDS–our kids continue to engage in oral and casual sex at ever younger ages. Our all-encompassing media makes no-strings-attached-sex seem so appealing. Face it: nowadays, enjoying “friends with benefits” is no longer out of the ordinary.

Previous studies, such as the one out of England’s Dunham University last year, confirmed what many of us have been thinking, and that’s that there is an emotional downside to the one-night stand. Indeed, while 80% of the surveyed men in this instance reported positive feelings afterward, only 54% of the women said so, reporting that they regretted having been “used.”

Yet now comes word out of the University of Minnesota’s Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) suggesting that young adults engaging in casual sex don’t appear to be at any more increased risk of negative effects than those in more committed relationships. Of the 1,311 sexually active 18- to 24-year-old participants-574 males and 737 females:

o 55% reported that their last sexual partner was with an exclusive partner;

o 25% said their most recent partner was a fiancé, spouse, or life partner;

o 12% said their last sexual partner was a close but not exclusive partner;

o 8% had been with a casual acquaintance.

Said lead researcher, Maria E. Eisenberg, Sc.D., M.P.H, “We were so surprised. The conventional wisdom is that casual sex, ‘friends with benefits,’ and hooking up is hurtful. That’s what we’ve been teaching kids for decades.”

For some, this study’s conclusions all but sanction such behaviors. As one Internet post reads: “But the mentality that young people’s sexuality needs to be controlled, especially young women’s sexuality, is what’s responsible for this so-called ‘conventional wisdom.’ If you haven’t been brainwashed by abstinence-only education, you can see with clear eyes that hooking up is about enjoying pleasure… Casual sex only becomes harmful when it’s stigmatized.”

Still, despite the Minnesota study’s findings and the progressive attitudes held by many, it should be noted what the researchers also found: more than twice as many males as females reported that their last sexual coupling was casual. It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that such findings underscore more than ever the need for parents to remain vigilant, advise their children to protect themselves, and be wary. Schools, too.

As Dr. Eisenberg cautions about the study, “… This should not minimize the legitimate threats to physical well-being associated with casual sexual relationships, and the need for such messages in sexuality education programs and other interventions with young adults.” The risks are very real– physically, as most agree, but emotionally, too, and parents must take note. This is, after all, just one study among countless others that contradict its conclusions.

Abstinence Only Sex Education – Does it Work?

Does abstinence only sex education work? The United States government funded a nine -year, 7 million-dollar study, to discover whether abstinence only sex education classes are effective. Abstinence education encourages students to wait until marriage to have sex. The Bush administration financed the establishment of thousands of these programs across the United States and wanted to gauge their impact. The study found that students who participated in abstinence-only education programs were just as likely to engage in premarital sex as students who did not participate in such programs. This is not good news for the proponents of abstinence only education. It leaves one wondering what is the most effective way to teach teens about sexual behavior and its consequences. I decided to ask the ‘experts’, some high school students.

Most kids think that high school is way too late for sex education. Elementary school is when kids should be learning about abstinence only. According to the high school students I talked to, most sixteen year olds are already sexually active. Don’t expect them to listen to anyone teaching them about abstinence.

Most teens don’t like to be told what to do. They say if abstinence- only programs just ‘straight-out’ tell kids ‘don’t have sex’, they won’t listen. You have to provide teens with the facts and statistics. Tell them about the long-term problems that can result from having sex before marriage and then let them make the decision about whether or not to practice abstinence on their own.

A number of high school students I spoke to claimed the main problem is most teens don’t have a communicative relationship with their parents. So many parents are busy with work and social lives of their own, or they are divorced and don’t live nearby and so they don’t spend much time with their kids. Kids might learn the hazards of pre-martial sex if their parents were around enough to teach them. According to some high school students the government should be spending millions of dollars to teach adults how to parent, not on teaching teenagers how to stay abstinent.

One young woman wisely observed that teens are only doing what they see as socially acceptable. The problem lies with adults and the behavior they role model. They are showing the younger generation that it is okay to ‘sleep around.

I was reminded by many of the students I talked to that kids don’t like to be told what to do, especially by adults. Maybe if someone developed a sex education program that didn’t force a rulebook down teens’ throats they would listen and not just treat it as a joke. One girl told me she had decided to abstain from pre-martial sex but not because of a sex education program. All it took was hearing her mother’s story. Her mother had made mistakes when it came to sex that the girl certainly didn’t want to emulate.

One thoughtful young man said religion needs to play a greater role. He told me lots of kids believe they should be abstinent and save themselves for their honeymoon because of their religious values. He wished more religious groups would be outspoken about their support for abstinence.

Several kids told me lots of unprotected sex happens when teens are under the influence of alcohol and drugs. They are also a huge part of the problem.

The high school students I talked with had wise and insightful things to say about abstinence only education. Why spend 7 million dollars on a study when you’ll probably learn the most by just talking to the teens in your community?

Why Pornography Should Be Introduced and Critiqued In Sex Education Programming At All School Levels

The phrase love that dare not speak it’s name was coined by Lord Alfred Douglas. It first appeared in his poem, “Two Loves,” printed (in the Chameleon) in 1896. It’s a reference to homosexual love, in Lord Alfred’s case, of Oscar Wilde, who was subsequently charged with gross indecency. Homosexuality was a criminal offense in England and just about everywhere else in the 19th century. Today, there is another sexual outlet not so much forbidden as not addressed in polite or other society – a new form of love the name of which sex educators dare not speak: pornography.

This is most unfortunate: a new study suggests that while parents may not be aware of the fact, pornography is the leading sex educator of the young. Alas, the porn industry has no interest in serving a sex education function and certainly does not do so, at least not in a positive, constructive or healthy fashion.

Porn is pervasive, particularly where it is most highly censored. China, for example, is the world’s leading consumer of porn. Jerry Ropelato, author of “Internet Pornography Statistics” at the research website Top Ten Reviews, notes that $3,075.64 is spent on pornography every second of every day. In this one-second period, 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography and 372 internet users are typing adult search terms into search engines. Two of the top twenty search terms are teen sex and teen porn. The pornography industry has larger revenues than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined. Data from 2006 reported worldwide pornography revenues at $97.06 billion.

Australian researchers David Corlett and Maree Crabbe filmed 140 interviews with young people in what was called “The Reality and Risk Research Project.” They discovered that teens are increasingly turning to the net for sex education. (Source: Denise Ryan, “Teachers urged to address porn factor,” The Australian Age, February 13, 2012.) Porn sex education exerts a destructive influence in the lives of the young. One of the investigators said, “Every young person we interviewed told us that pornography is a significant part of youth culture and particularly of young men’s lives.” She added, “Pornography has become harder, rougher, more hardcore.”

Porn, as you might expect, does not commonly offer instruction in matters relevant to conventional sex education (e.g., the nature of contraception, the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, the value of intimacy, principles of effective relationships). On the contrary, what it inadvertently communicates to young men, according to “The Project” research group, is reckless, coercive and abusive treatment of women. There is an absence of realistic perspectives and a dearth of respectful treatment of sexual partners. In addition, sexual practices of an unsafe nature are commonplace. While informed adults may have the maturity to manage such depictions, teens with little or, more often, no sexual experience clearly do not.

Since parents usually cannot keep porn from being accessed one way or another or one time or other by their children, the more likely best strategy is to include porn awareness in sex ed instruction. This is the focus of efforts by “The Project” team. Several grants have provided the resources to prepare and test programs for use in training sex education teachers for varied school grade levels. While teachers need skills to address this issue, teens need exposure to effective critiques of pornography’s representations of gender and sex. Among the objectives of the Project team is to develop teaching materials that present diverse scenarios for classroom discussions that will enable young adults to distinguish between what they see depicted in porn and reality.

The overwhelming majority of parents believe their child has never seen pornography. However, a 2003 Australia Institute investigation citied in the Australian Age article cited above reported that 84 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls had access to sex sites on the internet. A 2006 Australian study of youths aged 13 to 16 found that 92 per cent of boys and 61 per cent of girls had been exposed to pornography online.

Of course, Republicans in this country might favor a simpler solution: Pass new laws banning pornography or otherwise make it nearly impossible for young people to gain access to it. Given the widespread availability of social media of all kinds in the wired culture of our age, a reliance on censorship does not seem promising (not to dwell on the consistency of such a Draconian tactic with that troublesome First Amendment in America). Good luck cutting off porn – shy of creating a police state. Better sex education is cheaper and quicker, more likely and better suited to personal liberties and sound education.

Everyone, including the young, needs a broad set of knowledge and critical thinking skills to reject a sexuality that eroticises degradation and violence, glorifies unrealistic body types (particularly large breasts and out-sized penises) and undermines relationship elements founded on respect, courtesy and the common decencies.

It is hard enough in the current climate of Right Wing evangelical Republican culture war wedge politics to gain acceptance for sex ed of any kind, let alone adding porn assessment to the mix. If a school board or individual educator in this country tried to address pornography, he or she would be cited by Santorum, Romney or Gingrich as an example of what’s wrong with Obamacare. Try dealing with this crisis only if willing to deal with a firestorm of controversy from the Right.

Yet, all evidence and the lessons from Prohibition and the Comstock era suggest that ignoring or trying to repress the pervasiveness of pornography as it affects youthful sexual expectations and behavior is pernicious and irresponsible.

In my view, we need to make clear as part of sex ed that porn has nothing to do with love. We dare not NOT speak its name – and dare NOT ignore the reality of pornography’s dreadful influence on the sexual miseducation of the young. If this upsets Republicans, well, that’s just too bad. If they had enjoyed better sex education, they might be more sensible about such things – and probably less interested in porn, as well.

Be weller than well, give ’em hell and try always to look on the bright side of life.