Sexual Promiscuity: Influence vs. Control

A recent study from North Carolina State University found that many parents view their own teen as sexually disinterested but other teens as highly sexual and, therefore, as a threat to their own child’s sexual safety. For many parents with this head-in-the-sand approach to their child’s sexual development, the discovery of sexual activity, or even promiscuity, comes as an unwelcome shock. Because they have refused to acknowledge their child’s sexual maturation and her responsibility for good reproductive decision making, they may have missed opportunities for important conversations about the touchy subject of sex.

For these parents, news of their child’s sexual promiscuity may evoke a strong and counterproductive reaction in the form of punishing or controlling strategies. A study of 5000 teens conducted by Dr. Rebekah Levine Coley of Boston University indicates that an overly controlling reaction to teenage sexuality may actually precipitate more, not less, sexual activity. More broadly, the study suggests that parents who generally engage in controlling rather than influencing parenting styles have a higher probability of raising sexually active teens. Sexual promiscuity not only puts teens at greater risk for STDs and pregnancy, but it’s also correlated with alcohol and recreational drugs abuse among teens.

So while sexual promiscuity can create serious hazards for teens, the solution does not seem to lie in ratcheting up parental control. Rather, studies suggest that increased parental engagement and support may be the key. Along with being honest about the awkward fact of your teen’s sexual maturation and personal sexual responsibility, suggested strategies include:

1. Increasing trust and open communication by:

  • Having fun family outings
  • Sharing meals together as a family

2. Creating a conversational tone that is supportive by:

  • Being curious rather than judging
  • Listening more and talking less
  • Communicating in a style that is open ended rather than agenda driven

3. Fostering a balance of freedom and responsibility by

  • Matching new privileges with new responsibilities (e.g. use of the car goes with maintenance responsibilities for the car)
  • Making consequences and rewards “natural” and logical rather than random (e.g. staying out later than the agreed upon time with the family car leads to a loss of car privileges rather than to being grounded)

In general, a more influencing than controlling approach to parenting honors your child’s developmental need to assume increasing responsibility. This style of parenting a teen also increases the likelihood that you will be a strong and welcome influence in that process of maturation—sexual and otherwise.