How Should We Teach Our Kids about SEX?

Bombarded by mixed messages about values, students are more sexually active than ever, and more confused

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Many kids, who can be lethal critics of the sexual mores of their parents' generation, say they are offended that adults have so little faith in them. "Not all teenagers have sex. They're not all going to do it just because everyone else is," says Kristen Thomas, 17, of Plymouth, Minnesota. "They kind of have a lack of faith in us -- parents and general society."

Traditionally, it's been the role of parents to convey the messages about love and intimacy that kids seem to be missing in their education about sex. Although today's parents are the veterans of the decade that came after free love and before safe sex, that doesn't automatically make them any more able to talk about sex with their children; if anything, the reverse may be true. Hypocrisy is a burden they carry. "Do as I say," they instruct their teenagers, "not as I did."

As for those who sat out the sexual revolution, they may be too embarrassed or intimidated to talk to teens -- or afraid of giving the wrong information. Phyllis Shea, director of teen programs for the Worcester, Massachusetts, affiliate of Girls Inc. (formerly Girls Clubs of America), recently ran a sex- education workshop for 12 girls and their mothers. In many cases, she says, mothers lag far behind their daughters in knowledge. Five of the mothers had never seen a condom. A mother who had been completely unwilling to discuss sex with her daughter told the group that she had been molested as a child. On the way home, she and her daughter drove around for two hours, deep in conversation.

Of all the mixed messages that teenagers absorb, the most confused have to , do with gender roles. The stereotypes of male and female behavior have crumbled so quickly over the past generation that parents are at a loss. According to the TIME/CNN poll, 60% of parents tell their daughters to remain chaste until marriage, but less than half tell their sons the same thing. Kids reflect the double standard: more than two-thirds agree that a boy who has sex sees his reputation enhanced, while a girl who has sex watches hers suffer.

That is not stopping girls from acting as sexual aggressors, however. Teenagers in TIME's survey say girls are just as interested in sex as boys are -- an opinion confirmed by recent research. "My friends and I are a lot less inhibited about saying what we want to do," says Rebecca Tuynman of Santa Monica High. "A lot of the change is admitting that we like it." Tuynman says that while she was taught that boys don't like girls who come on too strong, her brother set her straight. "He said he'd like it if girls came after him. I'll always be grateful to him for saying that." Her classmate Tammy Weisberger notes that like so many boy jocks, girls on her soccer team brag about whom they've slept with -- but with a difference. "The guys say how many girls they did it with. With the girls, it's who they did it with."

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