I didn’t think they’d take it this far. I didn’t think the Clintons would apply the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to their own family.
But in a bemused moment, the first lady and mother recently offered up the sort of sex advice that strikes a chord with parents of teenagers everywhere. “My theory,” she said, “is don’t do it before you’re 21 and then don’t tell me about it.”
It appears that Bill and Hillary are going through their second adolescence: Chelsea’s. And it isn’t easier the second time around.
Laugh all you want at Hillary’s advice - I did. But weren’t we the generation that was going to handle this sex thing differently than our own parents? Weren’t we going to be open? Weren’t our kids going to be able to talk to us?
A few years ago, a Rolling Stone survey of baby boomers said that boomers did everything, regret nothing and want their kids to do none of it. Here we are now - trying to juggle the views we held as young people with the anxieties we have as parents.
We tell ourselves that there’s a difference between parents who grew up in the 1970s and kids growing up in the 1990s - with the danger of AIDS and cultural pressures. But the difference is also middle age and parental pressures.
Anyone who’s been there knows that parenthood is by its nature conservative, protective, even risk-aversive. The central struggle of parenthood is to let our hopes for our children outweigh our fears. When it comes to teenagers and sex, we rarely even get to the question of hope.
On Wednesday, the report released by the National Commission on Adolescent Sexual Health noted that there’s a public consensus on what’s sexually unhealthy for teenagers - from diseases to abuse to pregnancy. But “there is little public, professional or political consensus about what is sexually healthy for teenagers.”
Sexually healthy? In the current climate, the words are rarely seen together. Politicians and policy makers who talk about sex have become monosyllabic. The syllable is “no.”
The commission members brought together by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) want to change the nature of this dialogue. They point out that we offer three main messages to kids: “just say no,” “just say not now” and, the Hillary line, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In their report, “Facing Facts,” they commit the simple and brave act of struggling for a consensus on what we do want for our young people.
“Do we want our children to grow up to be sexually healthy adults, to be able to appreciate their own bodies, to live in lifelong relationships that are meaningful, to express sexuality without exploiting others?” asks Debra Haffner of SIECUS. Love, intimacy, affection, all have to begin developing in adolescence, in school, in the culture, at home.
“No adolescents at any time in history ever asked their parents’ permission to have sex,” says Haffner. “But one of our messages is stay involved in your kids’ lives.”
Adolescence, they remind us, is not a single static stage but a process. What is dangerous and harmful for a 13-year-old may be absolutely right for a mature 18-year-old.
With this in mind, the commissioners offer, among other things, a guide to teach young people how to assess their readiness for a relationship. They also offer a checklist of what a good intimate relationship should be like. It boils down to five words: “consensual; non-exploitive; honest; pleasurable; and protected …”
For the first time, 48 national organizations from the American Medical Association to the Child Welfare League have signed on to a consensus about adolescent sexual health. It’s a thoughtful countermessage to the one that is dominating the public policy discussion.
Just this year, Joycelyn Elders was fired for talking about masturbation. Henry Foster’s nomination got hung up on abortion. To the right wing, the only moral issue about sex is whether it’s marital sex. In the Contract with the American Family, parental involvement means prevention - preventing kids from getting birth control, abortion, sex education.
A generation of parents, tongue-tied by fears and mixed feelings, unsure what to say, has been mightily attracted to the clarity of the word no. But this report is a reminder that monosyllables are not enough. Just saying no communicates too much about fear, nothing about hope.
In or out of the White House, we all walk our children down the long corridor of adolescence to adulthood. Along the way, while there’s still time, do ask, do tell.
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