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Parents Are Failing Miserably at Talking to Teens About Sex

A new study found a glaring disconnect between what adults and teens think is happening in college dorm rooms versus what is really happening.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo by Guille Faingold via Stocksy

According to a new report released today from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, many young people have no idea how to navigate healthy romantic relationships. They also don't recognize certain types of gender degradation as problems in society and had never had a conversation with a parent or educator about misogyny or what consent means.

Researchers with Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted two formal surveys and hosted a number of informal workshops over the span of several years in order to gain perspective from more than 3,000 students in high school and college nationwide. They also spoke with parents, educators, counselors, and other adults to get their take on teen culture.

Among the findings was a glaring disconnect between what adults and teens think is happening in college dorm rooms versus what is really happening. According to the report, participants thought that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds had hooked up with more than one person in the past year. However, the CDC estimates that figure is actually closer to about 27 percent.

Read more: Letting Teens Teach Each Other Sex Ed Works

This misconception can take a toll, the report's authors note. "Our conversations with teens and young adults suggest that they can feel embarrassed or ashamed—that they are lacking in some way— because they believe they are not adhering to the norms of their peers," they write. As a result, many young people may feel compelled to engage in activities they don't really want or feel ready for.

Because of this focus on hookup culture, the authors continue, two bigger issues are being ignored: One is that society is failing to teach young people how to have healthy romantic relationships, and the other is that rates of sexual harassment and misogyny appear to be increasing—and with little intervention from parents and other adults.

In one survey of 18- to 25-year-olds, researchers found that 87 percent of women reported being catcalled, touched without permission by a stranger, insulted with sexualized words (e.g., slut, bitch, ho) by a man, insulted with sexualized words by a woman, having a stranger say something sexual to them, and having a stranger tell them they were "hot" at least once in their lifetime. Yet a majority of respondents (76 percent) had never had a parent talk to them about how to avoid sexually harassing others.

61 percent of young people said they had never spoken with their parents about 'being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex'

Even more alarming is the lack of parental guidance on consent: 61 percent of young people said they had never spoken with their parents about "being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex" while 57 percent said they'd never talked about the "importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex."

"For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about romantic love—and sex—to popular culture is a dumbfounding abdication of responsibility," the authors write.

Richard Weissbourd is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and lead author on this report. He says part of the impetus for this research is that the development of young people's romantic relationships is so understudied. "It is maybe the most important thing we do in our life," he tells Broadly, "to figure out how to love someone else and be loved by someone else. Adults have really neglected this issue and are not providing wisdom to young people."

Young people have really important questions about love, Weissbourd says, and they want answers. In fact, the study found that more than 70 percent of respondents said they wished their parents had talked to them about how to deal with breakups, how to avoid getting hurt and how to even have a more mature relationship.

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"Freud said there are two things that are most important in life: work and love," Weissbourd says. "And we devote huge amount of time and resources to prepare young people for work— that's what our education system does, that's what a lot of parents are focusing on, their kids' academic life and their work life. We do next to nothing to prepare them for love."

"Healthy romantic relationships can be our most profound source of gratification, but unhealthy relationships are also often responsible for divorce, depression, alcoholism, domestic violence. The emotional toll is huge, and the emotional upside is so great. So you start to think, why aren't we guiding young people more?"