A new study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education sheds light on two glaring problems involving young people’s romantic and sexual lives:
The first is that we as a society are failing to prepare young people for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life—learn how to love and develop caring, healthy romantic relationships. Second, most adults appear to be doing shockingly little to prevent or effectively address pervasive misogyny and sexual harassment among teens and young adults—problems that can infect both romantic relationships and many other areas of young people’s lives.
Evan Porter spoke to the lead author of the study, who says that parents guiding their children on how to build a healthy intimate relationship is “one of the most important things we’ll ever do”:
“We spend enormous amount of attention helping parents prepare their kids for work and school,” Weissbourd says. “We do almost nothing to prepare them for the tender, tough, subtle, generous, focused work of developing mature healthy relationships. I’m troubled by that.”
One very important finding in the study is how much young people overestimate the percentage of their peers who are hooking up and having casual sex. Maggie Fox delivers a reality check:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that 41 percent of high school kids said they had ever had sex, down from around 47 percent over much of the last decade. Other studies show that casual sex is not common among U.S. youth.
Porter shoots down the myth that “everyone is having sex”:
The Harvard report presents a startling statistic from a related study in 2008. A group of college students in the U.S. were asked what percentage of guys on campus they thought had sex on any given weekend. They guessed about 80%. The reality? As low as 5%.
Weissbourd notes that because hookups are so culturally visible (especially in college) and gossiped about, it creates a perception that they’re a lot more common than they actually are.
The Harvard study itself found, in fact, that most young people are a lot more interested in sex within a committed relationship or, shockingly(!), things that don’t involve sex at all.
As a result, the researchers say that the myth of pervasive sexual activity among peers makes young people feel embarrassed and inadequate about their lack of experience, intimidating them from asking questions or seeking advice about sex and relationships:
This overestimation can make many teens and young adults feel embarrassed or ashamed because they believe that they are not adhering to the norms of their peers. It can also pressure them to engage in sex when they are not interested or ready.
Young people want more information; they’re still waiting to have the “talk” with their parents:
70% of the 18 to 25-year-olds who responded to our survey reported wishing they had received more information from their parents about some emotional aspect of a romantic relationship, including “how to have a more mature relationship” (38%), “how to deal with breakups (36%), “how to avoid getting hurt in a relationship” (34%), or “how to begin a relationship” (27%).
The researchers stress that nothing replaces the parents’ obligation to teach kids the important facts of life, and not just “disaster prevention”:
65% of respondents to our survey of 18 to 25-year-olds wished that they had received guidance on some emotional aspect of romantic relationships in a health or sex education class at school. Yet sex education also tends not to engage young people in any depth about what mature love is or about how one develops a mature, healthy relationship. Most sex education is either focused narrowly on abstinence or is “disaster prevention”— how not to get pregnant or contract sexually transmitted diseases.
Finally, despite a lot of attention on this issue, the study finds that women in this society are still treated poorly by men. Apparently, disrespect, mistreatment, and violence against women are not things parents tend to discuss at any great length:
In our national survey of 18 to 25-year-olds, 87% percent of women reported having experienced at least one of the following during their lifetime: being catcalled (55%), touched without permission by a stranger (41%), insulted with sexualized words (e.g., slut, bitch, ho) by a man (47%), insulted with sexualized words by a woman (42%), having a stranger say something sexual to them (52%), and having a stranger tell them they were “hot” (61%). Yet 76% of respondents to this survey had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others. Majorities of respondents had never had conversations with their parents about various forms of misogyny.
Pediatricians also have a responsibility to initiate “the talk” at well-child visits (a subject we covered a while back here). And as we’ve noted here before, parents need to “talk early and talk often” about healthy relationships and sex:
Be truthful. No matter how uncomfortable this may make parents feel, this isn’t about us. It’s about our children, and we need to get over it.