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ISSUE 121 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/30/2007

Sex on the Hill: Sex: Like a Fine Wine

By Miriam Samuelson
News Editor

Friday, November 30, 2007

We all know what it's like to talk to our parents about sex. They talk to us about our changing bodies around age 12, and start giving us books and pamphlets a few years later. I believe I received one called "Sex, God and You." As prepubescent youths who blush at the word "vagina," we want everything to do with figuring out how sex works but nothing to do with our parents -- and we certainly don't want to mix the two topics in any conversation. Any mention of our parents' sex lives makes us want to vomit; a Viagra commercial during family TV hour is on our list of top ten most embarrassing situations.

Later, when our bodies have finished changing and we start to think more critically about sex, we're still afraid to talk to our parents. Although we may feel more comfortable discussing sexual issues with our parents than they did with theirs, talking about the subject on a personal level can be incredibly awkward.

The acknowledgment that both you and your parent are sexual beings can often be taboo in unwritten family codes, which is a little surprising given that your parents probably had sex to conceive you. Still, a 2002 Kaiser foundation study found that among teenagers who refused to talk to their parents about sex, 83 percent worried about their parents' reaction and 78 percent said the subject was too embarrassing. Other reasons included not knowing how to bring the subject up to parents and the worry that a parent might think his or her child was having sex or was going to have sex. The reason on the top of my list is the fact that my parents simply don't understand what it's like to be sexual in our generation.

Or do they? After all, our parents did grow up in the era of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. They rebelled from their own parents, seeking ways to break down social structures and build up new ones. As archaic as our parents seem, they dealt with similar generational struggles not too long ago, and we should respect their perspective on the subject. Grandparents too -- the viewpoint of someone who grew up in another generation can be a valuable resource to the ways in which we think of our own sexuality and our own place in the world.

In the spirit of anti-ageism and sexual respect for the greater and baby-boomer generations, the American Association of Retired Persons commissioned a comprehensive study on the sexual habits of adults over 45 years old. And as mind-blowing as it may seem to members of our generation, our parents and grandparents do in fact have sex. Sex that is frequent, enjoyable and subject to changes in emotional and physical well-being. Sound familiar?

The study did find genuine generational differences that make it difficult to talk about sex, especially between the two generations in the study: those aged 45-59 and those 60 and over. Most of these differences were in attitude. For instance, women of the Baby Boomer generation were much less likely to consider widowhood the end of their sex lives compared to their parents' generation.

The study also revealed interesting statistics about older generations and talking about sex. Most striking was the fact that the majority of people over age 45 listed books, not health care professionals, as their number one source for information about sexual health. I'd argue the same for our generation in terms of magazines and peer conversation -- think of how little you talked about your sexual habits at your last doctor's visit compared to how many conversations you have with your friends about the subject. We're simply not okay with talking about sex outside the comfort of our own homes or even outside the comfort of our own generation.

Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of previous generations because we're unwilling to bring up the subject? I think the first step in talking about it is being okay with the subject yourself -- being okay with using terms like "vagina," "penis" and "sexual intercourse," for starters. And when talking to members of other generations about the subject, there's always a delicate balance of frankness and decorum. Clearly you can't talk in gory detail as you would among friends, but you can talk about sexuality as it relates to larger aspects of life. So remain open to the notion of your parents and grandparents as sexual beings. You may receive some valuable and pertinent advice.

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