Pressure comes from unexpected source

Globe and Mail, 26 July 2007

Emma doesn't see eye to eye with her parents about sex.

"They can guide us all they want," says the independent-minded 18-year-old, who is leaving her Toronto home for university at the end of the summer. "But we will do what we want."

It's not the conflict you'd expect, though. With Emma, it's her parents who think she should consider premarital sex - and she's the one resisting.

"I would only do it with Mr. Right," says Emma, who asked that her real name not be used. She wants sex to be something she shares with a serious partner, probably her eventual husband. And her boyfriend of 18 months is cool with that. "He's not pressuring me," she says.

If there is any pressure at all, it's trickling down from above.

Parents have always had to cope with headstrong teenagers and mismatched mores. But as boomer parents usher their kids through adolescence, some are finding themselves in an unusual position: They're the ones encouraging their children to give sex a whirl, while their cautious teens are preaching chastity. And it's a reversal that many boomers, who came of age in the era of free love, didn't anticipate.

Emma's mother, Ruth (not her real name), is mystified by her daughter's decision not to have sex. She's made it clear that Emma's boyfriend is welcome to spend the night - she even gave him a house key.

Ruth, 56, was 17 when she first had sex, and she estimates that she's had more than two dozen partners. "Sex is a learned activity," she says.

Although she says the best sex she's ever had is with her husband, Emma's father, she doesn't regret any of her earlier adventures. That experience, she argues, made the marital sex better.

In Girls Gone Mild, Toronto author Wendy Shalit examines some of the reasons why young people are putting off their sexual debut. She says that half of all e-mails she receives from young women are about parents urging their kids to try sex.

Parental pressure to have sex, Ms. Shalit says, is just as oppressive as the expectation the previous generation faced to remain a virgin until marriage. "Parents mean well, but many are adding to the pressure," she says. "Sometimes, they can make their kids feel there's not another option."

In her book, Ms. Shalit describes one woman in her late 20s whose mother was aghast when she heard her daughter hadn't slept with her new boyfriend during a weekend getaway. Her mother warned her that she'd lose him. (She didn't; they got married.)

Another young woman complains that her mother is afraid to let her drive at night but couldn't believe the daughter hadn't slept with a man twice her age with whom she'd shared a hotel room. "My mom thinks I'm a freak," she writes.

A report released earlier this month by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, a consortium of U.S. agencies, found that fewer U.S. high-school students are having sex - down to 47 per cent in 2005 from 54 per cent in 1991. The percentage of students reporting that they have had sex held steady from 2003 to 2005.

Roger Libby, a Seattle-based sex therapist and author of The Naked Truth About Sex: A Guide to Intelligent Sexual Choices for Teenagers and Twentysomethings, thinks the impulse toward teenage chastity is a form of rebellion. "You have to rebel against your parents in order to establish your own identity," he says.

But teens such as Emma say that times have changed since her parents' hippie days. "With what we know today, it wouldn't work," she says. She adds that concerns about AIDS in particular have made promiscuity seem a lot riskier. "We know too much about the consequences, so we're more careful, or we wait," she says. "If we do have sex, we ask the person to get tested."

Still, even some parents who urge caution see the benefits of a little experience. Sara Dimerman, a child and family therapist based in Thornhill, Ont. - and mother of a 16-year-old girl - counsels parents to guide their children toward long-term relationships when they're psychologically ready for sexual intimacy. But while she hopes that her own daughter will wait until she's prepared, she wouldn't advocate "saving herself" for a one and only. "I would want to discuss the pros and cons of premarital sex," she says.

For her part, Ruth hopes her daughter at least gives sex a try before making a lifelong commitment. There's no guarantee that two people will be sexually compatible, she says.

"If that part isn't there, it's going to colour everything. This is an integral part of a marriage."