University of California, San Francisco psychiatrist's new book offers inside look into the sex live

By Leslie Harris

Sexuality is both an important and confusing part of adolescence. It is also a
subject parents and others often do not want to talk about-sometimes going so
far as to deny that teenagers have sexual lives.

But adolescents have sexual lives and they need parental guidance to navigate
through the risks involved in sex and to make safe choices, said Lynn Ponton,
MD, UCSF professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and author of the new
book: The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys
and Girls (Dutton publishing, $24.95). The book will be released in early

Experimenting with sexuality is a natural part of growing up but this idea is
often unaccepted in American culture which has Puritan attitudes about sex,
Ponton said. “Many believe we have a permissive sexual culture,” she said.
“That is not true. We largely have a restrictive sexual culture. We have poor
communication, restrictive gender roles for teenagers and strong taboos. In
that environment, it’s hard to get honest and fair information about teenagers’
sexual activity.”

Fifty percent of American 16-year olds have had sex. And both boys and girls
are physically developing two years earlier than they did 30 years ago. In
addition, adolescents are being bombarded with a flurry of sexual images
through movies, videos and music. But they are discouraged from exploring their
own sexuality, Ponton said. Honest and open communication between teens and
their parents about sex is crucial in helping teens have healthy attitudes
about their sexuality, which will follow them into adulthood, Ponton said.

“Adolescent sexuality is a natural area of fear,” Ponton said. “This book is to
help people be a little less afraid of it.”

The dialogue between parents, educators and teens can also empower adolescents
about their sexual choices and help steer them away from danger zones, such as
feeling pressured to have sex or being victimized. In a compilation of 20
individual stories of the teenagers and parents she has counseled in her
practice, Ponton illustrates some of the issues young people face around
sexuality, including abortion, masturbation, sexual orientation, sexual abuse
and HIV infection.

“These taboo topics are not talked about in the culture. There is a mounted
effort to ignore the sexual lives of teenagers,” she said. “By not addressing
these issues, it stops teenagers from developing in a healthy way.”

Ponton also discusses how teenagers are pushed into tightly defined,
stereotypical sexual roles in the chapter called “Studs and Sluts.” Boys, the
studs, are the pursuers. “The stud concept is very negative. It’s the idea that
their manhood is tied to their penis and the mechanics of how the operation
goes,” Ponton said. “Boys have a very hard time developing full sexual roles.
They are pushed into the narrow gender role as sexual performer and girls are
objects to be acted on. These narrow roles confine sexuality.”
While being a “stud” is often encouraged and expected of boys, girls who do
not shy away from their sexuality or femininity—or those who just look womanly
at a young age—are often labeled “sluts.” “Women in this culture don’t talk
about their sexual activity because if they do they are defined as sluts,”
Ponton said. “This can cause girls to grow up into women who fail to
acknowledge their own sexual desires.”
The book introduces the concept of parental readiness and provides tips to
parents on how to talk about sex with their teenagers, which include speaking
directly with teenagers about sex, using simple language to describe both
feelings and activities and starting the discussion early. “Parents don’t know
how to have a conversation about this with their kids and they are looking for
ways to talk about this topic,” she said.

The book also includes a list of sexual readiness questions for teenagers to
ask themselves, including do you feel rushed by a partner, do you trust your
partner and is your body ready. “Teens need to ask themselves these questions
so they don’t get taken advantage of and they keep their sexuality under their
own control,” Ponton said. “Asking themselves these questions can also help
prevent them from becoming abused and assess the risk in the situation.”

Lynn Ponton is a noted UCSF psychiatrist who has worked with adolescents for
more than 20 years. She also is author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers
Do the Things They Do.