I recently spoke to a large group of high school students about sex and sexuality. A number of students had told the staff that they were either gay or bisexual. Many of the teachers didn’t know what advice to give them beyond, “That’s OK. I still accept you.” Recently, Yahoo News posted a photo of a cake baked by a fifteen-year-old girl with the words “I’m gay” written in frosting. That’s how she announced to her parents that she is gay. Her last line to them was, “It gets batter.”
Unfortunately for our kids, understanding sexuality is a mess in our culture. The truth is, the development of one’s sexuality is a complicated, important, and serious one that takes time—much more time than we are willing to give it. According to my colleague, Dr. Armand Nicholi, a psychiatrist from Harvard and editor of The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry, a child’s sexuality isn’t fully developed until he or she is near twenty years old. The reason for this is that sexuality isn’t simply a matter of genetics, parental ideals, or the configuration of genitalia. It is a beautifully complex process, which is influenced by environment, personal experience, hormones, personality, family dynamics, and genetics.
Sadly, our culture pressures kids to make decisions about their sexuality way too soon. The reason for this is social engineering and financial gain. Kids are bombarded with sexual messages from the time they are seven years old, and they are led to believe that being sexy and defending their sexuality should be front and center in their lives. I told the group of students to whom I was speaking that their sexuality should not define them. It is a part of who they are, but it isn’t who they are. They aren’t gay, bisexual, or straight. They are Josh, Tanya, Lucy, and Amelia. When I said this, they all cheered. They want the pressure off.
So when a fifteen-year-old girl or boy tells me that she or he is gay or bisexual, I ask them why they believe that and if they feel confused. Usually they say “yes.” After listening, I encourage them to give themselves time to develop. In my experience, girls or boys make such declarations because they are beginning to become sexually active. They feel pressure from our culture to define who they are and a big part of this begins with sexual activity.
Then I tell them exactly what I tell heterosexual kids. Beginning sexual activity during their teen years is serious and risky business. When they make adult statements, I respond with adult statements, like “Do you know that 20 million Americans contract an STD every year in the US, that one out of five Americans over age twelve tests positive for genital herpes, and one excellent medical journal projects that if teens don’t put the brakes on with sex, that by the year 2025, 39% of all men and 49% of all women in the US will be positive for genital herpes?”
Their faces drop because no one speaks to them as though sex is serious business. Kids think sex is fun and consequence-free (maybe they worry about pregnancy), and they feel that they can be and do whatever they want as long as they use a condom. No one wants to tell them the scary truth because the biggest, little secret in America is that we are experiencing an epidemic of STD’s amongst our youth. But so much money is made from selling sex to our kids that no one wants to shout this from the rooftops. Lawsuits would appear from clothing and shampoo manufacturers. They want their money.
Teens have never been as confused about their sexuality as they are today. My concern for all kids is that cultural pressure forces them to figure out a beautifully complex process prematurely. So if your teen announces that he or she is gay, bisexual, or transsexual, listen. Then gently tell them that their sexuality is wonderfully complicated, and that regardless of what they think about their sexuality now, they really can’t be sure because at fourteen or fifteen, they aren’t fully developed. Encourage him or her to take time to figure things out. I fear that many kids stand their ground on being gay or bisexual because it’s cool (on college campuses it’s considered sophisticated if you are open to experimentation), and they are pressured by our culture to announce a decision far too soon. So encourage your son or daughter to take a deep breath and slow down.
One’s sexuality is too serious to be written on a cake. Sadly, kids think that it isn’t. So help your teen along and always encourage him or her to hold off on sex. I promise, they’ll thank you later.