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Just Say 'Know' to Teen Sex

Grown-ups spend a lot of time worrying that the next generation is sexually stupid. “Today’s teens,” the cries begin, and they end with the words “wild,” “in such a hurry,” or “setting themselves up for heartache …”

They’re not unfounded, these accusations. But they were true of us, too. And they were true of our mothers, grandmothers, and — sorry for the mental image — great-grandmothers. Sex is like driving. Before you slide into the driver’s seat and take your foot off that brake, you don’t really know anything useful about it. And the education can be terrifying.

My friends learned the hard way. “I didn’t anticipate how emotionally overwhelming the experience would be,” said one.

“I wish I’d been better educated about STDs,” confessed another.

Me? My first time was slow and sweet, passionate and perfect — until my mother walked in on us. Wish I were kidding.

It’s true that “today’s teens” are dealing with brand new issues. Puberty happens earlier than it used to. Music videos dare 11-year-olds to wear booty shorts and shake body parts whose very functions they have yet to comprehend. And explicit digital photos — which we all know seem like a ducky idea at the time — can circulate through campus infinitely faster than a dog-eared Polaroid ever could.

But I wonder if girls today are actually smarter about sex than I ever was. More knowledgeable. More conscientious. That’s what it seemed like recently, when I sat in on a Sexual Wisdom workshop for teenage girls.

Run by therapist Jennifer Freed, the 10-week group aims to help teens make informed decisions about sex by fostering casual, confidential conversations about everything from flirtation to masturbation, virginity to pornography. On a recent Monday night, a dozen Santa Barbara girls aged 14 to 18 trickled into Freed’s living room-like therapy office. Some are there at the suggestion of school counselors, or their parents. Some come simply out of curiosity.

Dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, they plop onto couches and armchairs, dip into a bag of organic snacks, and start talking about sex.

A girl announces that her boyfriend wants them both to date other people. Freed asks the group to rate, on a scale of one to 10, one being lowest, how comfortable they’d be with such an “open relationship.” When no one goes above four, she explained that women’s hormones make us want to bond, and that sharing partners may actually be harder for women than men.

“I’m kind of on a crusade,” said Freed, who cofounded the Academy of Healing Arts for area teens. “One third of girls will have had sexual intercourse by the time they’re 14 — so they’d better know what that means for them.”

Abstinence education is a joke, she said. “That doesn’t help anybody in the midst of teen lust.” So instead of advising them to resist “sexting” (sending nude phone-to-phone photos of themselves), for instance, Freed asks them, “‘What motivates us to do that? Why is it exciting and interesting? And what are the consequences of this?’ You have to slow it all down so they can really examine the emotional aspects of the choices.”

The workshop operates on donations and includes Freed’s workbook, which prompts participants to write or draw responses to questions like, “How would you react if someone walked in on you during sex?”

And believe me when I say that’s one you want to think about before it happens.

New Sexual Wisdom groups begin on February 2 — one for girls and a new one for teen boys, led by psychologist Michael Seabaugh. Enrollment closes January 22. Contact Jennifer Freed at or 565-0845 for more information.

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