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Author - Lynn Ponton M.D.
Interview about her book:
The Sex Lives of Teenagers

This is an interview from the Contra Costa Times from Wednesday, September 6, 2000
with the author Lynn Ponton about her new book "The Sex Lives of Teenagers". (ISBN 0-525-94561-X)
To locate and order this book online from a local independent bookstore use BookSense.Com,
or contact the publisher directly: Dutton, Published by the Penguin Group at:

CCT Article date: Wednesday, September 6, 2000

Teens and sex
Author says confused kids need to talk

WHO: Lynn Ponton, author of "The Sex Lives of Teenagers," will speak at an event sponsored by Acalanes Parent Education Program.
WHERE: Acalanes High School cafeteria, 1200 Pleasant Hill Rd., Lafayette
WHEN: 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m., Oct. 4
HOW MUCH: Free; everyone is welcome to attend.

By Sara Steffens

They grow up so fast, especially when it comes to sex. Our permissive culture has produced a generation of teens who are uninhibited, boldly adventurous, ready for anything. Surrounded by racy movies and explicit song lyrics, these young people are savvy and sophisticated.

In fact, they're hardly kids at all -- more like amateur adults with improbably thin thighs and raging hormones.

Well, that's what some people seem to think, anyway.

San Francisco author and psychiatrist Lynn Ponton knows better. Working with Bay Area teens, she's learned that lots of young people -- in fact, most young people -- are confused, scared, and longing for guidance and information about sex. Today's young people may see and hear a lot of sexual images, but they find it hard to get answers to the big questions they have about themselves, their bodies and their relationships.

Ponton's conversations with young patients became the backbone of her new book, "The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret Lives of Adolescent Boys and Girls," (2000, E.P. Dutton, $25). In it, she explores the array of experiences that adolescents have with sexuality, touching on everything from masturbation and fantasy to performance anxiety.

It's a topic that, not surprisingly, has won national attention. Since the book's release this month, Ponton has been booked for a busy autumn schedule of interviews and appearances, including an upcoming parent workshop at Acalanes High School in Lafayette.

Ponton is also the author of the "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do," and the mother of two teen-age girls.

She spent a morning talking with TimeOut at her home office, just before leaving on a whirlwind cross-country book tour.

Q. How did you come to write this book?

A. Most of my work is on adolescent risk-taking.

Sexual behavior can also be seen from the perspective of risk. It's not always dangerous. It's also growth. It's a natural kind of step from studying risk-taking to the subset of sexual behavior and sexual risk-taking.

Sexuality is more difficult to write about than risk, because it is a taboo topic. My own mother has not made it past page 74 ... An older generation of readers, they keep saying, 'This is really different, this is provocative.' They're making it through the book -- they're not all like my 80-year-old mother -- but it isn't that easy to read about, or to overcome the taboo.

Q. Where do you think that taboo comes from?

A. It's long-standing in our culture. I've traveled around Europe, all over the world. I went to Cuba, traveled to Israel, India, everywhere, to study adolescent risk-taking. What other cultures believe about our country is that we have a much more stringent attitude about sexuality. They do believe that that's related to the early Puritanical religious groups that came here. They wanted religious freedom, but really at the price of containing sexual behavior.

I also believe (we) have a culture where the passion is really more focused on risk in making money. Our culture is defined by risk, westward expansion, not around personal and sexual fulfillment. So it's a combination of the Puritan ethic with the focus of the culture.

Q. Do you think that we tend to think of teen-agers as more adult than they actually are?

A. Absolutely. You can see that in the stories in the book.

I expected to see kids with fully developed notions about sexuality. And I put in a pretty good spectrum of what I found. So Daniel, who's pretty preoccupied not only with the vacuum cleaner, but with masturbation and penis size, is fairly typical. You know, boys who are pretty preoccupied with function -- how long can I sustain an erection? -- are very typical.

I think we assume that they've got all the moves down, and they don't have any of them. But if you don't talk about it, you don't know that ... They don't perceive much around sexuality.

Q. Tell me more about that.

A. They're just stimulated by more superficial stuff. What's out there. It takes a while to get past that with sexuality, to think, "I am not stimulated by what I see in the media, but it's actually related to fantasies in my own head, which is a combination of media, my own body, everything else." The complexity of sexuality is hard to grasp, especially if we don't talk about it.

Q. So adolescence is when they're developing their own personal relationship to sexuality?

A. Yes, and their own sexual identity. They're struggling to find out: What are my fantasies? How does my body work? How will the opposite sex or my own sex see me?

If they can't talk about that, we do them a great disservice. If they have a person to talk to about it, they really can test out their weird ideas.

Q. One of the premises of your book is that sexual behavior -- or at least sexual feelings -- is a normal healthy part of adolescence.

A. When people talk about postponement, they're really talking about "postpone your sexual life." And that is not possible. So even a girl like Mia (in the book) was very sexual, although she wasn't sexually active. I think we need to acknowledge that, that teen-agers are sexual beings. The idea of abstinence -- I think you have to start with, "You are a sexual being, you may choose to postpone activity with another person, but you already have a sexual life."

Q. What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual experimentation?

A. That's perhaps one of the easiest things to see.

Experimentation is usually one or two behaviors that might be unhealthy. Sexual victimization, repeated unprotected intercourse, chaotic relationships that leave you in a painful situation, lack of responsibility, so that for example you have sexual intercourse in your parents' living room and your little sister uncovers the situation. All of those things are in the unhealthy arena.

But it's really the clusters, the groups of unhealthy behaviors that define a problem. Because every teen makes a few mistakes with the process. Healthy risk taking is about responsibility. (About), I think, joy -- that you start to look for fun.

For girls, it's so much about discovering their own desires. I think the girls' stories in the book are upsetting for different reasons. Like Heather's story -- she was the one who fainted when she couldn't really acknowledge her sexual thoughts and desires.

Q. It makes me wonder how girls ever develop to be healthy women.

A. That is why I wrote the book. You know, I'm going to be 49 this year ... Women in my generation have not had healthy sexuality. I think it is a response to society -- starting in high school, friends had to be shipped off and have babies separated from them. There was no birth control. The whole saga has been terrifying.

I would like that to be different for my daughters.

Q. So you think the generation as a whole has a chance.

A. Has a chance, yes (laughs) ... I would like it to be different. I would like religion to, instead of magnifying the virgin, to really talk about healthy women and their complexity, what they could be. That's my goal with the book, is to really see a change.

But I think you have to tell the boys' stories, too, in order to understand. And I found the boys' stories equally sad in many ways.

Q. Boys are often seen as the sexual aggressors, but the picture that comes out in your book is one of them sort of bumbling and trying to scrape by.

A. That's right. Even though they can impregnate a girl in adolescence, the thought that they could be an emotional partner in any way -- boys really do not have that ability yet.

Which is, I think, equally important. So then you don't villainize them, but really see them for what they are and offer them guidance. A few of the dads in the book were able to come through and really say, "Gosh, I was telling you the wrong thing, this is what you need to know."

Q. On that note, what are some of the discussions you'd like to see parents having with their teen-agers?

A. I'm working on a book with one of my daughters, called, "Let's Talk About Sex: Mother Daughter Conversations." It's our taped conversations about different topics. One of the most interesting discussions we've had was about virginity and the double standard for girls. This is really important for mothers and daughters to talk about. And I found that we had lots to tell each other.

So I would say, looking at the idea of "Studs and Sluts," just starting there. How do you see boys? How do you see girls?

And some conversation about sexual orientation. That's really important.

With fantasy, I think you want to tell them, "This is part of your sexual life, I'm not going to intrude, it's different for everybody. Good luck with it. And if there's anything I can do to help you, I'm here."

We do our best job around abuse, because we do talk about it with our kids. But we need to talk about it with boys, and to say there's a risk.

One of the most unhappy jobs I've had is to interview boys who have been abused by priests. Those boys really gave a consistent message that we've got to change what we do about all of this. So that's a conversation to have. Not just, "Take care of yourself, stay away from cars," but to say that "People you trust may be attracted to you and try to take advantage of you."

Intercourse: You want to make sure they know where everything is available to help them. I think you can talk about your own relationships with intercourse a little bit. Not about the details. But about what draws you to people, attractions, what you've learned about relationships connected with intercourse.

Q. You make an interesting distinction between parents talking about specific experiences they've had vs. talking about general lessons that they're learned. You say the teen doesn't really want to hear about the experiences.

A. They don't. The thought of your mother or dad ...

I think to say things like, "From that relationship I learned that I don't want a partner who's very authoritarian. He was like that, and eventually I wanted to escape." Something basic like that.

And for dads to say, "I realize that I needed somebody I could talk to. And beautiful women who can't talk are complicated." I think that's helpful information.

Q. Is it possible for a parent to say the wrong thing?

A. I think avoiding criticism is really important with teens. They're really vulnerable. Even if they don't say it, they're tentative about their own sexuality. It's not easy for them.

That's what I see here. They come in, and they think they're weird. Their perception -- to validate that they're normal is really important.

Q. What kinds of questions do teen-agers have?

A. With a lot of girls, very specific ones about intercourse and oral sex, but not sophisticated questions. They really don't get it. Sometimes they have fears that the semen or the sperm can impregnate them anyplace, all over their body. So they ask things that are childlike.

Girls and women have questions about orgasm -- wanting to get there, but not knowing what it is. Boys, too, sometimes.

And a lot of guilt about sexuality and sexual fantasies. Asking, "Is this normal? Why do I feel bad about it? Will it hurt anybody?" Those things are really big questions.

And boy, once they start talking, they don't stop.

I think I've changed, too, during the course of the work. I'm much more able to have the conversations back. I've learned to listen to things differently.

And I think parents can move in that direction.

***end of article

Orginal Contra Costa Times Article Reference: http://www.contracostatimes.com/timeout/stories_feattop/x6teensex_20000906.htm

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