The need for sexuality education among American youth has not diminished. According to recent statistics, 1.1 million teenagers become pregnant every year; the incidence of AIDS cases among persons aged 13 to 24 increased by seventy-five percent between 1989 and 1990; and approximately three million teens are infected with a sexually transmitted disease annually (Schroeder, 1992). Clearly, such problems have necessitated families to be more concerned about educating their children about sex.
This paper presents the results of a review of the research on the incidence and process of sexual communication between parents and adolescents. In addition, since many parents receive much of their parenting information from the media, particularly magazines, the messages being sent to parents via the popular press about parent-child sexual communication are analyzed. Finally, the implications of the information provided by the popular press and what steps can be taken to improve sexual communication within families are explored.
Studies have indicated that few parents adequately educate their children about sex. Despite their reticence, most parents express the desire to openly communicate about sex with their children. Moreover, parents feel they should be the primary providers of sexual information (Mueller & Powers, 1990). However, only about 15% of adolescents cite their parents as a major source of sexual information. Parents often feel inhibited and embarrassed when talking about sex and have also indicated that they lack accurate information (Brock & Jennings, 1993). In fact, Reinisch (1990) has contended that the average person is still poorly informed and unable to communicate fully about sexuality. Parents feel especially inadequate discussing the issue of AIDS (Croft & Asmussen, 1992).
Clearly, both teens and parents find talking about sex to be difficult (Rozema, 1986). In addition, an adolescent's sexuality may be threatening to adults, who may not have resolved their own sexuality issues. The sexual "coming of age" of a child may be perceived as a family developmental crisis (Baldwin & Baranoski, 1990). If the family is unable to deal with the crisis, high levels of anxiety may cause communication to be blocked (White & DeBlassie, 1992). Interestingly, even in homes where sex is discussed, communication diminishes as the child gets older.
Because of parental reluctance, discussion of certain sexual issues may be delayed until early adolescence. The timing is typically too late, as many teens have already turned to peers for information. Hence, the effectiveness of sex education by parents is limited (Koblinsky & Atchinson, 1982).
Not only are parents reluctant to communicate verbally with adolescents about sex, but they may also send nonverbal messages that discourage open communication. Brock and Jennings (1993) found that women recalled negative nonverbal messages in discussions with their mothers about sexuality. As one woman stated about her mother, "! don't want to say that her idea was that sex was dirty, but that's the impression I got at the time." Thus, parents may find it difficult to provide open and positive communication.
Kelly (1983) has argued that American parents are likely to model negative sexual attitudes and behavior. For example, parents may discourage expressions of sexuality and, with respect to modesty taboos, communicate negative affect to children. By inhibiting discussion of sexuality or hiding sexual expression between marital partners, parents may lead adolescents to interpret sexuality as something bad (Andre, Frevert, & Schuchmann, 1989).
When parents do talk to teens, it is typically the mother who initiates communication. Generally, mothers are perceived as being responsible for child care, which may involve more open interaction and communication (Rozema, 1986). In addition, mothers may seem more approachable, expressive, and capable of dealing with intimacy issues. Mothers also report feeling more comfortable than do fathers in discussing bodily changes with their children (Koblinsky & Atchinson, 1982).
Mothers are more likely to communicate with daughters than with sons (Gebhard, 1977). Mueller and Powers (1990) found that college-aged females have a significantly higher level of sexual knowledge than do male students, seemingly attributable to more open communication about the biological processes of menstruation and the negative consequences of female sexual activity (i.e., pregnancy). Koblinsky and Atchinson (1982) found six topics of discussion between mothers and daughters: menstruation, dating and boyfriends, sexual morality, the process of conception, sexual intercourse, and birth control. However, women participating in a qualitative study recalled that their mothers had a tendency to use more warnings and rules when …