Sex in the Summertime

School's out, finals are finished -- if not passed -- and now it's three months of sun, fun and freedom.

No more dragging yourself out of bed 15 minutes before class starts. No more frantic scribbling to finish homework during lunch. And no more attendance police monitoring your every move, hoping to land you in an after-school prison. Schedules are more relaxed, families are planning vacations, and you are looking for ways to have a good time. We all know what that means.

Sex.

But you have to remember that with the pleasure of sex comes the responsibility of contraception. Popular clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, work to provide safe counsel and reliable contraception for teens looking to protect themselves during this laid-back time of year.

But are the kids paying attention?

Not really, according to Nancy Sasaki, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood. "Typically, the numbers of teenagers we see declines in the summer months."

It could have something to do with family trips and the lack of a regular schedule to keep teens focused, but more than likely it is because they are concentrating on having a good time and forgetting about sexual responsibility, the kind that may save their lives.

"Summertime is probably the time when teenagers most need to think about it, because they have much more freedom," states Sasaki. "In fact, a lot of times Planned Parenthood will try and target more advertising towards teenagers in April and May, when they're about to get out of school. Just trying to get them to think about being responsible, to get in before school lets out, to be more prepared for the summer."

Sound advice considering the dangers of unprotected sex, but should it be just the teens' responsibility to seek out that information? Where do the parents come in? Sure, parents' schedules remain the same, but are they aware of how much time their teens have now and do they wonder what they are doing with it?

Instead of wondering, parents should become more proactive in their children's lives, says Sasaki -- even in the areas they do not want to know about. "From our perspective, we believe that parents ought to be involved with their kids at very early ages, to keep the doors of communication open so that they can feel that they can come to them and talk to them," she says.

But many parents simply want to believe their teens are not having sex, and some even demand a pledge of abstinence -- a method that may backfire. Nancy Maloney, Ph.D., president of the Long Beach-South Bay Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, argues that such a focus on abstinence may only divert teens' attention elsewhere.

"What I've been seeing is an increasing amount of adolescents thinking that oral sex is a safe substitute for intercourse, and that oral sex is not sex. But oral sex with many different partners increases your risk of catching an STD, and kids apparently don't understand this," she says.

Sasaki agrees. "They don't consider things like oral sex or anal sex to be as risky because they're reducing their risk of pregnancy."

For many teens, a number of their questions about sex simply go unanswered, whether it is because of embarrassment, fear or simply because there is no one to ask. Maloney sympathizes with their predicament.

"As far as I'm concerned," she says, "America's political culture wants to punish them by withholding information, medical services, and attempting to brainwash kids with 'Just Say No,' instead of actually teaching them about sexual decision making. And by also lying about what sex is like, saying that it's dangerous, exploitative, or dirty. Unless you're in love, and then if you're in love, of course, it becomes wholesome."

At a crucial time when sexual exploration can be confusing and intimidating, many teens are cheated of information, Maloney adds. "So most kids really aren't sure what to believe. They're left on their own in what we have today, what I call an erotically-charged world. But it's also a punitive world, as far as teens are concerned," she concludes.

She elaborates by relating a story from her own childhood, explaining that punishment in her own home was not always fair. "If I forgot my homework and told my parents the truth, they punished me by depriving me of dinner. So the next time I forgot my homework, I learned not to tell the truth. So we have to be really careful as parents as to what kind of environment we're providing."

Maloney is working on a program that will hopefully provide a comfortable environment for adults and teens to discuss sexual matters, and it will focus on education for both parties. "Education in terms of anatomy, in terms of having a healthy sexual relationship, and about masturbation," she says. "The 'M' word. To cover all the things parents are afraid to talk to their kids about and that kids are afraid to ask."

Her best advice for parents is "to work through their own issues regarding sex, to get some assistance through a sex therapist or a family therapist in order to overcome their own embarrassment, their own fear, so that we can be fair to our children. They deserve to be educated; they deserve to be able to talk about sex."

She also suggests that parents be aware of what their children can be exposed to, warning that -- especially through the Internet -- there are countless places for children to be exposed to sexually exploitative and pornographic material. Maloney believes that it would be beneficial to both parents and children to discuss sex sooner rather than later, so that instead of information "coming from a punitive place, it can come from an educational point of view."

Looks like school isn't over, after all.