WASHINGTON -- Several years ago, federally funded researchers drafted a national health survey of 90,000 U.S. students in seventh grade and higher. The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, known as Add Health, became one of the most comprehensive studies ever of teenage health and behavior.
But a key behavior is missing from this monument of science. Working with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., project researchers included questions about oral sex, then removed them at the last minute. After vigorous debate, the investigators decided the project might not win congressional funding if questions about oral sex were included.
A similar reluctance to talk about any adolescent sexual behavior other than intercourse can be found among parents, doctors and teachers, according to those who treat or teach the young.
"We don't tell young people how they can give and receive sex that gives pleasure and is not risky," said Debra Haffner, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States in New York. "We have nothing for young adolescents on how to negotiate sexual limits, and only a little bit for older teens."
Meanwhile, teenagers live with movies, TV shows and advertisements that all carry the same message: "Hi, how are ya? Let's do this, see ya," said Deborah Roffman, a sexuality educator in the Baltimore-Washington area. Without adult guidance, Roffman asked, "how are they supposed to know what to do?
Everyone agrees parents are the most effective guides. According to "Peer Potential," an analysis of more than 100 studies on peer influence by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington, "adolescents rely on peers for advice or assistance on sexual matters only when parental assistance is unavailable or inadequate."
But how can parents help their kids?
Ideally, assistance begins by teaching body parts to the very young child and remaining open to questions and discussion, said Haffner.
And as children pass through elementary school, Roffman noted, parents should inform themselves about the range of behaviors being discussed on the playground and use "teachable moments" to talk about those behaviors. …