Parents Don't Think Their Own Teens Are Having Sex

Many parents don't think their kids are interested in sex, but believe that everyone else's kids are, a new study reveals.

"Parents I interviewed had a very hard time thinking about their own teen children as sexually desiring subjects," said study researcher Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. "At the same time, parents view their teens' peers as highly sexual, even sexually predatory."

These disillusioned parents are factually wrong, as there were 435,436 births to teens aged 15 to 19 in 2006, and 6,396 for those aged 10 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the dual thinking about teenage sex has its own consequences. By viewing their own children as holier-than-thou, parents shift the responsibility for potential sexual activity to others.

If little Janie somehow gets pregnant, mom or dad might say she was pushed into it, the thinking goes.

Who's having sex

Elliott interviewed 47 parents of teenagers, including six fathers and the rest moms. Interviews, which lasted from one to 2.5 hours, included various questions about parents' beliefs and experiences regarding teen sex. Questions about sexuality focused on what parents teach their children about sex and the dynamics of those discussions, including: why parents say what they say; how they feel about talking to teens about sex; and what they think of teen sexuality.

Parents consistently characterized their children as young, immature and naïve.

For instance one mother, 52-year-old Beatrice (white, lower middle class) commented on her 16-year-old daughter, saying, "One thing I've noticed is that she's probably a little bit more immature than some of her friends, and that's okay, I think it will come."

Even though Elliott interviewed many more moms than dads, she found fathers similarly viewed their daughters as immature.

Another mother, Beth, 39 (white, upper middle class), believed her son, 16, was a virgin because that's what he told her, and he hadn't dated. This mother added, "When you look at your child, they're just so little and young. You just don't think of them ever even thinking about [sex]. It's hard to even think about what you should be saying to kids. You don't think they are old enough when you think about those things."

Speaking of her 14-year-old son, one mom (Kate) said, "I don't think it's safe for his age. Maybe it's just him, I don't know. But he's a little naive."

As for why she didn't think it would be safe, Kate said, "I guess, [that] he'd do something he didn't want to do. Get pushed into something or let himself be pushed into something. I think he would definitely do that. 'I'm not going to be cool if I don’t do this.'"

Essentially, these parents considered their teens as sexually innocent, and even asexual, Elliott said.

Another theme that came up was the association between teen sex and deviance.

Portia, 46 (Latina, upper middle class), discussed her shock when her then 15-year-old son said his girlfriend might be pregnant: "Because he was such a young teenager and I really didn’t think. And again, this is a really good, solid kid," she said. Since then, Portia has not discussed contraception with her now 16-year-old and doesn't plan to until he's off to college, because "he's just a good kid who got in over his head."

Other teens are different

Parents seemed to have no trouble envisioning other people's teens as having sex, however, saying their teens' peers were "real sexual," and "promiscuous." One parent said, "[Teenagers] got their cute little bodies and their raging hormones. They're like raring to go."

Some parents specifically contrasted their kids' lack of sexual desire with peers' hedonistic tendencies.

"This binary thinking does more than simply establish their teens as asexual and, therefore, good; it also creates a scenario in which their teenagers are imperiled by their peers," Elliott writes in the May issue of the journal Symbolic Interaction.

For instance, parents of teenage boys often voiced concern that their sons might be lured into sexual situations by teenage girls who, the parents felt, might use sex in an effort to solidify a relationship. Meanwhile, parents of teen girls expressed fears that their daughters would be taken advantage of by sexually driven teenage boys.

These beliefs not only shift responsibility for any sexual activity away from such teens, they contribute to stereotypes of sexual behavior.

"By using sexual stereotypes to absolve their children of responsibility for sexual activity, the parents effectively reinforce those same stereotypes," Elliott said.

Furthermore, the stereotypes paint teen heterosexual relationships in an unflattering and hostile way.

"Although parents assume their kids are heterosexual, they don't make heterosexual relationships sound very appealing," Elliott said.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.