The Birds, The Bees and Britney's Undies

A generation ago, kids watched the wholesome "Brady Bunch" kids. These days, they're likely to be confronted with Britney Spears in costumes that could be confused with underwear and constant discussion of the pop star's chaotic love life. Sexual innuendo seems ever more prevalent in both ads and entertainment. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 70 percent of all television shows they surveyed on the major network and cable channels in 2005 included some sexual content, averaging about five sex scenes per hour. In 1998, that number was about three scenes per hour. And while teen pregnancy rates are down slightly, there are other alarming statistics. More than 6 percent of high-school students say they had sexual intercourse before they turned 13, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 2005.

What's a parent to do? Sex educator Logan Levkoff, author of the new book, "Third Base Ain't What It Used to Be" (New American Library), urges mothers and fathers not to put off discussing sexuality with their children. NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talks with Levkoff about the best way to tackle the topic in the era of bad girls, the Internet and those explicitly worded TV ads for erectile-dysfunction drugs. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Let's talk about the title of your book.
Logan Levkoff: The whole idea behind "Third Base Ain't What It Used to Be" is in the last 10 years or so that I've been working with teens, they always ask, "What was it like when you were our age? Were bases the same?" A generation ago, third base was kind of below-the-belt touching. And now third base is, or can be, oral sex. Intimacy has changed. The bases have changed. Because of that, we need to start talking.

What should parents do when their kids ask them about their own first-, second- and third-base experiences—like, "Mommy, how old were you when you first kissed a boy?" And "did you ever sleep with anyone besides Daddy?"
Depending upon the relationship you have with your child, and depending developmentally where your child is, it's OK to answer some of those questions. Especially as tweens become teens, it's important to share some of those experiences. I think we empower our teens by sharing some of those things with them. It means you care enough about them to show you trust them. It doesn't just have to be telling if and when you had sex with someone other than the other parent, but why did you decide to go out with someone or hold someone's hand.

Parents should decide if they feel comfortable talking about it?
Yes. And parents can say, "That's an important question. Tell me a little bit about why you want to know. Are you considering doing these things, or are your friends?"

What about the effects of exposure to sex in the media?
They're exposed to everything. I had a sixth-grade girl ask me what a dildo was. She heard it; she wanted to know what the word was. I think she heard it on [HBO's] "Sex and the City." You have to use them as opportunities to talk. Otherwise, you're doing them a tremendous disservice. I don't know if you know that networks will air ads during prime time for Viagra and birth-control pills and herpes medications, but the majority of them will not air condom ads [then], even if there's no mention of the word sex. Even our advertising, not just our entertainment media, is giving us lots of messages about sex, but we're not getting the protection message.

How should parents respond if kids are accidentally exposed to sexually explicit material on the Internet?
Let them explain to you what they saw. Really get a sense first of how they felt about this, what their questions are. Inevitably their question is, "Why are people looking at this?" I do have this whole chapter on pornography and the Internet. You do have to explain that there are some people who like to look at naked people. But that doesn't mean you have to, it doesn't mean you'll ever want to. Because it interrupted your studies, what you were looking for, let's find a way to fix this so it doesn't happen again. That should hold them off until they start asking more sophisticated questions.

What should parents say when kids ask about the sometimes R-rated troubles of celebrities like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan?
They're wonderful opportunities to talk to your kids, certainly to get a litmus test of their values, about what's acceptable to do. I would use this as an example of, "How are you feeling about what's going on? What are some of your friends talking about? When I was a teenager, we had this particular [popular public] figure, and they weren't doing these things." Through that kind of open dialogue, you can infuse what values you see fit. Let them talk to you.

So don't just say 'Bad Britney!'
You don't want that to be the first thing out of your mouth.

The Centers for Disease Control's survey of high-school students says 14.3 percent said they had already had sex with four or more people. What should parents take from those alarming statistics?
Statistics are always tricky. But we have an incredible opportunity to start giving kids really positive, healthy messages about sexuality, which means saying sexuality is a wonderful and important part of our lives, and there are a lot of ways to be in touch with those feelings, but not necessarily to make poor decisions. [The statistics are] motivation for all us to be better parents, to be better educators. One of the reasons I wrote the book is, pardon the pun, to get parents to step up to the plate. We have to change our game and be candid. We shouldn't pretend that sex isn't wonderful and pleasurable.

What about the role alcohol plays in teens' lives? In the CDC survey, 25.6 percent of high-school students said they had drunk alcohol (not just taken sips) before they were 13.
Alcohol plays a huge role in why people make poor decisions about sex. One of the reasons people drink alcohol is to lose their inhibitions and give them permission to do things they want to do but can't do in their real life. People need an excuse to feel sexual so they can blame it on something else. [The message you want to convey is:] I don't need alcohol to make me feel good about who I am or those feelings.

So parents should talk to kids about alcohol and sex at same time?
Normalize sexuality. We all have sexual feelings, but we don't always have sex. Being a sexual person does not mean you're sexually active. It is absolutely acceptable and recommended for a large majority of teens to stay abstinent. But it's not the only option. They'll find other ways around it, for example, using alcohol to legitimize it. I don't have to own the decision if I was drunk.

There's no right or wrong age for a child to have sex?
No. It's not age that determines a good or bad decision. It's not that parents want teens to stay abstinent for the rest of their lives. Our goal is to raise teens who know how to protect themselves and how to avoid the potential negatives, like sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies or abusive relationships. It is possible to have a healthy, love-based sexual relationship as a teen. That's not to mean 13-year-olds should go out and have sex. But I don't want us to say all teen sexuality is bad. There are 16 and 17-year olds capable of making good decisions about having sex. I for one would far rather have them have sex in the context of a monogamous, safe, loving relationship than getting drunk at a frat party because they're 21 and are a quote unquote adult. It's OK if people don't believe that, but I want parents to really ask themselves, what is our goal? Is our goal for them to never have sex in their whole entire lives, or to make sure they find a way to become sexually healthy—however we define that?

Some kids feel shy about bringing up sex. Should parents leave some good books around the house?
What a parent should do, before they just leave a book in a child's room, is read it first. Find out if there are parts that are more important to read now. Cut and paste as you see fit. Say to your child, "I want you to be able to talk to me. Why don't you read this, and we can talk about it?" The idea hopefully is that if you start young and you're talking about these things as if they're no big deal, and part of what makes us human, hopefully they're not totally freaked out by the time puberty arrives.

Some sexual education methods seem to focus on a lot of the scary aspects of sex.
If you scare your kids, they know you're not telling them the whole story. I was doing a three-week eighth-grade workshop. After the first session, we came back. I said, was there anything that surprised you? A girl raised her hand and said, "I was surprised you even spoke positively about sexuality. I thought you'd say, never have sex or you'll die." That's not what we want our kids to think. We want to protect our children, and it's OK to tell them that. But we want them to know sex is a wonderful, pleasurable part of life. There are ways to have sexual experiences that are pleasurable, without having a partner, too, but you can't scare the daylights out of them. They know it's not true. At some point, they will make a decision about sex, and you want them to come back and share with you.