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Changing Teens’ Minds About Sex: Why Do We Act Stupid?

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

The Chicago Department of Public Health has launched ads depicting teen boys with pregnant bellies in an effort to curb teen pregnancy.

I get what they’re trying to do because for 26 years I’ve been trying to do the same. But teen advocates need to understand something that clearly the Department of Public Health doesn’t.

WHEN TALKING ABOUT SERIOUS TOPICS WITH TEENS, DON’T ACT STUPID. KIDS DON’T LIKE BEING ADDRESSED AS MORONS.

Ten years ago I was at a medical conference addressing teen pregnancy and we asked seven teens to come on stage and tell us what they thought was going on in the teen culture with regard to sexual activity.

One young girl brought her infant with her and told us that she tells her friends not to get pregnant. Another girl said that she was a virgin but didn’t get much support from her friends or doctors (how embarrassing is that?), and that she believed that she could wait until marriage for sex.

Then something remarkable happened. A young man about age 17 strutted to the front of the stage to address the hundreds of physicians and health care workers. With the waist of his jeans gripping his mid-thighs, he pointed his right arm at us and said, “You know what our problem is?” We were stunned. No one dared speak because clearly, this young man was angry.

“Our problem is YOU!” he said. “You doctors, teachers, and parents don’t believe in us. You think we’re out of control. You think we don’t have feelings, beliefs, or thoughts and that all we—especially guys—want to do is have sex. Well, you are wrong! We want a whole lot more in life, but every one of you believes that we are going to have sex so you might as well just help us ‘stay safe.’ Do you think we’re animals?”

I can still hear his tone of anger and disappointment with each of us adults trying to “help.” How do you think this young man (and his friends) would respond to these new ads? I’m sure that they would echo the same sentiment again, “Do you think we’re dumb?”

TALKING DOWN TO TEENS NEVER WORKS WHEN TRYING TO CONVINCE THEM OF ANYTHING, ESPECIALLY ABOUT CHANGING THEIR SEXUAL BEHAVIOR.

I have had good fortune getting through to teens and I think it’s because I tell them that I intend to speak to them as capable and intelligent thinkers. Then I apologize on behalf of my generation for all of the ills that we dumped on them when we fought so hard for sexual freedom. The truth is, we left them with an epidemic of STDs and an advertising culture dying to make a buck or two off of them by using sex to sell their products.

Will teens stop having sex or “use condoms to stay safe” (an incredibly inaccurate medical statement because condoms don’t prevent the spread of HPV) by showing a derisive photo of a teen boy’s belly swollen by a baby?

I don’t think so.

I think that many, like the fellow who spoke at the medical conference, will look at us in anger wondering why we think they are so stupid.

Surely, we can do a lot better than this.

What do you think about these new ads?

How effective do you think they will be?

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Feeling a a bit uneasy about having "the talk" with your son or daughter?
Dr. Meeker is here to help! “How to Talk to Your Kids about Puberty & Sex (ages 8-18)” is her most comprehensive course ever and she’ll equip you to have that conversation with knowledge, confidence and sensitivity. Check it out!

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