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To paraphrase the Beatles, I read the news a few days ago, oh boy. When I stopped to pick up a paper, the newsstand was plastered with girlie magazines, reminding me of a tabloid news story, "Bar Mitzvah Blowjobs," that I'd recently overheard fellow parents discussing in horror.
All this came on the heels of a scandal in our own backyard: My then-11-year-old daughter's teacher had recently been indicted for attempted dissemination of indecent material to minors. (He is accused of exchanging sexually explicit e-mails with someone he believed to be a 14-year-old; he is currently awaiting trial.) When Alliana told me, she was ashen. "At Christmas he asked us for our class pictures and I gave him mine," she said. Rumors were flying that her teacher might have pasted naked bodies on those photos.
I was part of the "why don't you do it in the road, make love not war" generation: The first group of women who grew up knowing that when we wanted to, we would have sex. And I've always wanted the same for my daughter.
Now, don't get me wrong; it's not that I consider teenage abstinence a missed opportunity. Still, I've always wanted Alliana to know that with the right person in the right circumstances (with protection), sex is delicious.
But today's environment is making me feel that the 40-year difference between the free-love 60s and the New Millennium is as vast as the gulf between the Revolutionary War and the assault on Iraq. How am I ever going to raise a sexually happy, healthy child in a world where the likes of Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera are role models, minors purportedly pull up their shirts on Girls Gone Wild, and culture watchers muse that perhaps Janet Jackson might have flashed her breast at the Super Bowl to one-up Madonna's girl-on-girl smooch with Britney at an MTV awards show?
My initial thoughts are along the lines of "Get thee to a nunnery," or anywhere where Alliana won't be bombarded with...well, things I don't think she's ready to make sense of. I started turning off the Today show when reports about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping first surfaced. I was bothered by the insinuations of mind control and molestation as reporters theorized that the 14-year-old had been taken as a "wife." It's not that I could shield Alliana entirely from the case, but I didn't think she needed a daily dose of it. Exposing kids to sexual frankness doesn't necessarily give them a framework for understanding it.
Take "Stranger Danger." I'm grateful that Alliana's been trained in it. On the flip side, a few months ago when she and a friend went by themselves to the local Chinese restaurant for lunch, they freaked: The waiter, just being friendly, chatted them up and asked them their names. "Adults aren't supposed to ask you private information about yourself," said her pal, who insisted they hightail it right back home.
How can they possibly know the difference between small talk and big trouble?
Alliana's school handled the teacher situation with care and attention -- there was an assembly, visits with guidance counselors, and more. But it's not clear that all of this communicating helped Alliana. When a close family friend who is a learning specialist with a degree in psychology asked her about her teacher, she told him, "I don't remember what happened to Mr. Davis. I don't want to think about it."
My friend's diagnosis? Alliana's being "clubbed by information she's not ready to process." He thinks the kids were given too many details. We suffered from sexual scandals being swept under the rug. Now maybe the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
I feel similarly about how sex is portrayed in the media. Lord knows, I'm no prude. But I'm happy that unlike her friends, Alliana's not interested in Sex and the City. I don't think she needs to see people popping in and out of bed with each other, never mind unwed pregnancies.
And although I hitchhiked in the 60s and met men and made new friends as casually as Elizabeth Taylor changed husbands, I recently forbade Alliana from opening a roadside lemonade stand beyond my sight line.
Some might say that given my freewheeling past, I'm being a hypocrite. I think that I'm simply being a realist. Times have changed, and accordingly, I've shortened the leash. My neighbor recently revoked her 12-year-old's instant-messaging privileges after her daughter opened a series of e-mails from a stranger that were, well, pretty gross. "The possible exposure to evil is just greater than when we were kids," my neighbor explains. "It's different now." Sadly, I have to agree.
And yet. When I stop and take a deep breath (okay, several deep breaths and an Om), I realize that, yes, our children are bombarded by sexual images, but it isn't as if I spent my own teenage years safely at the malt shop with David and Ricky Nelson. A friend reminded me that on my last hitchhiking trip, I jumped out of a speeding car after the driver lunged at me.
The point is that we survived. And I came to realize that when all is said and done I still stand by my stand: I don't want Alliana to be pressured into having sex too soon, but I'm glad that she lives in a time and a place where she won't be pressured into getting married just because she wants sex.
For now, at least, I can control the remote, her Internet access, and even her wardrobe. And despite Stranger Danger and her experience with her teacher, I don't get the impression and that Alliana thinks that all men are evil any more than I did after my encounter with the pervert in his car. I'm also counting on the fact that as she gets older, her antennae will get sharper. And that when she starts to break the rules -- as of course she will -- she'll have good instincts.
But my biggest reassurance about Alliana's sexual future is the behavior of my friends' teens -- and a recent poll that showed that teens themselves say that we parents have more influence on their attitudes toward sex than the media, sex education, or even their peers. My friends' high school and college-age children seem to be waiting until their late teens for someone who will be there the next morning, someone with whom they will enjoy a monogamous relationship.
These kids aren't Goody Two-Shoes. But they're not wearing the MTV uniform of mile-high stilettos, torn fishnets, or bitty belly shirts either. It is a combination, I think, of luck and parents who make the distinction between expressing personality and attracting trouble.
There will always be crazy kids, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed; call me in a couple of years and we'll talk. But we're teaching Alliana that having sex is a big move that requires emotional maturity, and I trust that she's learning to think and make her own choices.
When I was a teen, my parents pretended my sex life wasn't happening. Today, from what I can see, my generation of parents has projected the kind of comfort level that lets our kids know that they can ask -- or tell -- us anything.
In a scene that would have made my mother turn redder than if she'd just swallowed a jar of jalapeno peppers, my friend's son, a college student, recently sought her advice on whether or not to wait to have sex with his girlfriend. Another friend told me that her daughter called her after she slept with her boyfriend for the first time, to talk about birth control and touch base about the experience.
"My mom says it gets better," she sang out to her college roommate, giggling, while she and her mother were still on the phone. Maybe our attitudes do, too. Because when all is said and done, the 60s weren't the best of times. And these aren't the worst.
Lynn Schnurnberger is coauthor of The Botox Diaries (Ballantine, June 2004).
Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2004.