Gilbert Herdt wrote a fantastic summary of the issue with American sex education yesterday on the Voices of American Sexuality Blog. (Ignoring, of course, the blatant outrage that is abstinence-only education.)

The Trouble with Kids — Parents’ Sexual Literacy

A guest blog from Gilbert Herdt, Director at the National Sexuality Resource Center.

Kids need sexual literacy and parents are a prime source. The trouble is: most parents are reluctant, fearful or ill prepared about what to say, and when to say it. Studies have consistently shown that American parents fail to teach their children about sexuality. Ironically however polls reveal that parents want their offspring to have comprehensive sexuality education. How do we explain the contradiction? Poor parental sex literacy.

Americans have not received the literacy they need to have comfortable conversations anytime, anywhere, with their kids. Mature teens may suffer from the illiteracy the most. Psychologist Robert Epstein suggests that US culture is too restrictive of older adolescents who demonstrate good judgment and decision-making. Older teens should have the right to vote and drink and “have sex with whomever they want.” When adults condescend to youth, the young people fail to mature, learn good judgment. Others, such as John Cloud did in his Time magazine article in the April 9 issue, are not so sure that we should affirm young people’s judgment when it comes to sex. That is a conversation parents need to have with their kids. But they are not doing it out of fear and shame.

Parents in The Netherlands learned long ago that mature young people are going to have sex—it is not a matter of conjecture—and that it is better to acknowledge the fact and talk about it. As sociologist Amy Schalet has shown, Dutch parents apply this practical attitude with mature teenage sons and daughters, allowing them to sleep with their boyfriends or girlfriends in the parental household. The next morning the parents have the right to ask about what happened, however, and whether the sexual relations were done in an appropriate and safe way. That may seem fantastic to some Americans. But it seems to work: the Dutch have low rates of unintended pregnancy, HIV, sexual violence, and other sexual problems, compared to the US.

We need a new campaign to help parents be sexually literate and more comfortable with such conversations with their young. The trouble with kids begins with the parents.