Teens are fad-ulous.

26 04 2012

I was fourteen years old when Bill Clinton was impeached. It was a changing moment in every young woman’s life. Well, that’s what I was told by the elderly nun who taught my global studies class. I just thought the world had gone crazy.

On a day home sick in 9th grade, I indulged in that grand sick day tradition–day time television. It’s offensive, it’s terrible, it’s an overall delight. The ladies of The View were yammering on and talking over each other about the negative effects that the impeachment was having on our society’s youth. Yes, like me having to hear Sister Marie talk about the sanctity of the Oval Office being desecrated by “the oral sex?”

No. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Kids are blowing each other left and right.

Huh.

I also heard this on an episode of Boston Public. (Anyone else remember that? I had the misfortune of watching it with my parents. That was awesome.) In the episode, a couple of students were busted while engaging in the oral sex. They explained that they weren’t doing anything intimate, and one of the kids was running for class president, so it was cool, y’know?

The kind of dialogue written by someone who last spoke to a teenager when they were one. And even then, the conversation was brief.

All of a sudden, everyone was hysterical about how every kid my age couldn’t go a day without going down on a casual acquaintance. I was confused, because I was a kid my age. I wasn’t doing any of these things, and neither were any of my friends. Some people were, but they seemed to be pretty quiet about it, and I doubt their behaviors would have changed if Sister Marie had been president. Certainly, no one I knew had talked to Barbara Walters about any of it.

When I got older, I heard new stories about trends started by this new, terrifying generation.

Law & Order informed me that every child on my caseload had at least attended, if not hosted, a “rainbow party.” That’s when all of the girls wear a different shade of lipstick, perform oral sex on a boy, leaving a rainbow behind. (The logistics of this make no sense and I can’t believe it was ever featured on network television.) Though they might have been too busy at a pill party, when they cleaned out their parents medicine cabinets, dumped the pills in a bowl, and passed it around like Karen Walker party mix. All while wearing bracelets that indicate what sexual activities they’ve engaged in recently (probably sexting), which gained them entrance into their morning after pill based sex cult.

None of this applies to my children’s lives.

One, because most of these panic trends are about upper middle class white kids. Because then it’s shocking, news-worthy, and something must be done. Recently there was talk of kids somehow extracting alcohol from hand sanitizer in order to get drunk. My coworker said that this was old news. The teens she worked with in prison used to do it, ultimately causing them to eliminate Purel altogether. No one gave a shit when it was those kids, but if there’s a possibility that it’s spreading, then it’s interesting.

Two, because they’re mostly made up and stupid. If there is a ridiculous thing on the planet, someone has done it. That doesn’t make it a trend. Of course there are weird trends that catch on for no reason. Back in the day, people used to attempt to cram everyone on their block into a phone booth. Now, I believe people are inhaling cinnamon on the internet. But whatever, it’s a fad. They are fads because they come and go quickly.

The parents I work with so often freak out about trends. The hysteria they hear about. The mother of an acting out, extremely hyperactive eight year old didn’t want to accept that her son might have ADHD. She was, however, concerned that he would be a serial killer, because she read an article in Time magazine that listed bedwetting as a surefire symptom. All of my parents now worry about bullying, which is good if that’s what their kid is dealing with. But most of them aren’t. A lot of their kids are fighting, or jumping other kids. “So, it’s not bullying? All right.”

There are actual problems that our kids are getting into. They might not be new or remarkably creative. A lot of my teens are having sex. Some of them are having unprotected sex. It’s not some new-fangled colorful dick-in-her-ear sex, it’s just the same old pre-marital, maybe-we-have-a-condom, quick-before-my-parents-get-home sex that kids have been having for generations. It shouldn’t have to be something we’ve never heard of to get our attention. We shouldn’t be relieved by the fact that they’re just doing the stuff that can lead to pregnancy and STIs.

Things change, of course. But I don’t think people do. Parent now talk to me about how different things were “when we were kids.” Young people weren’t perfect, but they didn’t dress/talk/act/dance like kids these days! Except we did. I heard that I was a new breed of awful and a part of the most self-centered and reckless generation the world had ever seen. Now I’m supposed to look back on what I was a part of as the last era of childhood with any respect. It goes on and on. Watch Rebel Without A Cause. 1955–they’re juvenile delinquents! Their parents can’t control them! Eek!

Like I said, things change. There are more guns, so fights are more dangerous, and there is more technology, so the urge to take a naked photo of your hot teenage form won’t be impeded by the notion of having to get it developed at your local Walgreens. Overall, though, teens are teens. They experiment because they’re supposed to. If they’re testing boundaries and doing dangerous things, they’re right on schedule. We don’t need to be so concerned that they’re reinventing the sexy, drunk wheel. Think of what interested you as a teen, and what you were doing that you didn’t want your parents to know about. Apply it to the kids you know. Repeat.

Kids know buzzwords and parental hysteria when they hear it. It makes them realize that you’re talking to them as part of an age group that you learned about on TV, rather than as a person. It’s our jobs as the adults in their lives to be aware and talk to them about these things.

Whether or not what they’re doing has ever inspired a Lifetime movie.





“It’s Women’s Day, Rudy.”

7 03 2012

I’ve hardly had time to put away the decorations from last year, but once again, International Women’s Day is upon us! Before we get started, am I the only one who thinks of that episode of The Cosby Show when Rudy gets her first period, and they all go out for “women’s day?” Just me? All right.

The theme this year is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” To which I say: cha-ching! I love those things!

I might have mentioned once or twice that my favorite work to do is with my teen girls’ groups. These groups are fun, challenging, different each time, and important. There is something special about bringing a room full of teen girls together and telling them that what they have to say really matters.

Feminism is an integral part of working with girls. We can act like it’s an option, but it’s really a requirement. Trying to help them deal appropriately with their anger, improve their self-esteem, make good choices, have safe sex, live peacefully with their parents, or anything else would be a lot easier if they weren’t already considered a bit less worthy, simply because they are girls.

It seems especially important since we’re living in a country that is still debating birth control. You know, that stuff that lets you have fewer than seventeen kids? And in which a man with millions of listeners saw fit to publicly declare that an intelligent, civic minded, possibly sexually active law student was a “slut” and “prostitute” because she thinks that universities and employers should not have the right to determine what medications the insurance she pays for will cover.

I just need to get this out, and then we can move on. The entire thing is bull shit. The next person who says, “Well, why should I pay for your birth control?” is getting a foot directly in the ass, as that is the orifice that they are talking out of. We are talking about INSURANCE COMPANIES, not taxpayers, paying for medication. We’ve had enough sexism and misogyny, we don’t need outright lies. Taxpayers do pay for birth control–it’s called Medicaid, everybody. The country hasn’t crumbled into the sea and been sucked into the fiery pits of Mordor just yet, so I think we’ll survive a private insurance mandate.

Oh, and I don’t care if you say birth control is not preventive medicine. Doctors say it is. Insurance companies cover it when not blocked by squeamish employers. That’s kind of it.

I’m also sick of all the false information being spread about birth control. Our kids are misinformed enough, we do not need politicians and drooling radio hosts further confusing them. It’s been said a million times now, but apparently it hasn’t sunk in. IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW FREQUENTLY YOU HAVE SEX, IF AT ALL, YOU STILL TAKE ONE BIRTH CONTROL PILL PER DAY. Rush Limbaugh is thinking of condoms…or Viagra…or those other pills he’s known for being so fond of, I’m not sure.

But way to mislead young people, and make them ashamed for taking control of their reproductive health. Yes, better to just have sex without protection. We wouldn’t want people hearing about my prescription.

Whether or not our girls have ever even heard of Rush Limbaugh (I’m sincerely hoping they haven’t) they are living in a society that has given him a platform. In a society that punishes women for speaking out about their rights and sexuality by shaming them for being sluts. A society that publicly admonishes a woman for daring to have sex, because that’s bad, but then says she should let men watch, because it’s cool when men do it.

Or something. It’s so convoluted I have trouble keeping up.

Working with girls to get them to recognize their own value and worth as women in this society is often an uphill battle. It is complete with peaks and valleys, which I present to you now.

Valleys:

14 y/o: “Wait, you can say you were raped even if you’re married? That’s stupid.”

Yes, so silly. If you say yes once, you say yes always, everyone knows that! And your body is there to be used by a man as he sees fit! I’m going to rock in the corner for a bit.

13 y/o: “My teacher was saying that like, if you get pregnant, it’s your responsibility, so like, you have to have the baby. So that’s why abortion is illegal.”
SJ: “OK. That might be what your teacher feels. But we all know that abortion is legal, correct?”
13 y/o: “No, I don’t think it is.”
SJ: “It definitely is. It’s been legal in this country since 1973.”
13 y/o: “Really? That doesn’t make sense, how is that possible?”
SJ: “I’m not saying you have to run out and have an abortion. But it’s really important to know your options.”

Teenage girls in America, many of whom have mothers who have had abortions (trust me) don’t know their rights. That is how demonized and muddled this issue has become. Scary.

15 y/o: “Miss, if a girl is giving head in a stairwell, she’s a slut! It’s ok to call her that!”

Fine. Now we’ve degraded her, and remained suspiciously silent about the boy involved. Are we better people yet?

“You should consider what people are going to think if you dress a certain way, because you might get a reputation. People will think you’re a certain type of girl.”

That was from my co-leader. Because if there’s one thing teen girls need to consider more, it’s what others think of them. And there are very few, very clearly defined types of girls.

Peaks:

15 y/o: “Do you guys notice that we get in more trouble for fighting than boys do?”
13 y/o: “Yeah, they expect them to be aggressive but we’re supposed to be perfect angels. It’s not fair.”

Wait…yes! That’s a double standard! And you’re noticing it on your own!

16 y/o: “Sometimes I think girls say they just got caught up in the moment and had sex because they don’t want to say that they wanted to do it. Like, because people will think they’re slutty. But that’s not slutty. And if you think about it and prepare then you’ll use condoms.”

No shame in wanting to have sex, and condom use?! High five!

14 y/o: “Slut is such a stupid word, can we please not use that in here?”

We should TOTALLY not use that stupid word in here!

15 y/o: “You know, I think I finished an entire bottle of ranch dressing in here tonight, but I don’t even care.”

It’s not groundbreaking, but comfort is important.

14 y/o: “Yeah, but whatever you do and however you dress someone is going to have something bad to say about you, so you might as well do what you want.”

Accurate.

The valleys, the downfalls, the moments that make me want to tear my hair out, have so much value, even though the peaks are what keep me going. Without that being presented, we can’t counteract it effectively. Feminism, and challenging the status quo, is a point of view that these girls are really not hearing.

A lot of lip service is paid to what in my day was called “girl power” (even when I was 13 and the Spice Girls were massive, I thought it sounded a bit silly.) You’re tough, you’re strong, girls rock! While it’s fun, a lot of it is meaningless. People are very often not talking about the real issues with girls, and educating them on issues that affect them. These girls aren’t stupid. They’re young, they’re easily influenced, but at the same time they’re smart, and they know on some level when they encounter inequality. Talking to them and introducing the idea that things actually can be different is an amazing gift for all of us.

So please, let’s try it this women’s day. For Rudy Huxtable, if no one else.





Sexily sexing for sexiness. Do I have your attention?

22 12 2011

We all know that’s it’s my favorite time of year–Solstice sex talk week. Every teen girls group I run, no matter the focus, at least one week is devoted to this topic. Self-esteem, communication, body image, basket weaving, I don’t care. I’ll find a way to work it in.

It’s important. I hear more and more about the Obama administration ushering in an era in which pre-schoolers are putting condoms on anatomically correct dolls, but I feel like my girls are less informed with each passing year.

This isn’t true for all of them. Some are at least savvy in some matters. Just recently I was walking to the office with one of the twelve year olds I work with who started informing me of the girls she has crushes on. After a minute, she looked at me and asked, “Do you know what bi means?”

Um, yeah. I was watching My So-Called Life before you were born. I remember Danielle rolling her eyes and telling her mom “it means bisexual.” Not to mention I’m fifteen years older than you, come on.

My teens, though, they’re confused. They’re not sure what they think or who to believe. We’re battling the media, you know. It’s not always giving them the best information.

14 y/o: “Can’t the baby claw its way out of you?”
SJ: “Not outside of Twilight.

15 y/o: “Oh, I know this one girl…”
SJ: “Do you know this girl, or is this another ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant’ story?”
15 y/o: “It’s ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.'”

14 y/o: “But one girl on Maury said she didn’t have sex with the guy the DNA test said was the father, she just…”
SJ: “Maury is not an acceptable source. For anything. Ever. Except for funny ‘not the father’ dances.”

I’m glad they at least feel comfortable asking questions.

“If a boy masturbates and then shakes your hand, can you get pregnant?”
Wow. Why would that even happen? No you won’t get pregnant, but maybe invest in some Purel if that’s really a concern. Bonus points for use of correct language, though.

SJ: “You can get STDs from oral sex, but you can’t get pregnant.”
15 y/o: “Even if you swallow?”
And now I’m nauseated.

There’s always the one who thinks she really knows what she’s talking about. Rather often, that’s the one with the greatest number of “facts.”

“Well, there’s always the risk of STIs. And those can turn into STDs!”
You’re a little misinformed. But I think your heart is in the right place.

“Two guys together is nasty to girls, and two girls together is nasty to guys.” Now you’re just grossly misinformed. Not to mention the fact that we’re respectful and non-judgmental in this space. (But seriously, have you heard of the internet? Silly.)

15 y/o: “The fetus is what the baby grows in.”
SJ: “Well that’s actually the uterus. The fetus is what we call the baby when it’s developing, before it’s born.”
15 y/o: “No, but like, it grows in the fetus.”
OK, you’re saying it a little differently, but still no.

“If you go off the pill, and then have sex with a bunch of different guys, you can get pregnant with like, four different guys’ babies at once.”
That’s it, you’re staying after for a remedial session.

Some girls are just uncomfortable, and need a little baptism by fire.

SJ: “Some people only consider it sex if it’s penis in vagina.”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
SJ: “What, vagina?”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
14 y/o: “Or penis?”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
15 y/o: “We all have a vagina in here.”
13 y/o: “Ew!”
SJ: “OK this is silly. Penis vagina penis vagina penis vagina.” (To the tune of “La Cucaracha.”)

And sometimes, they’re just hilarious.

“Pfft. Her booty isn’t a virgin.”
Did you steal that from a book of proverbs?

“I don’t want to have sex ever! Well, I mean, I guess before I die. I don’t want to be a nun. I heard you can die if you don’t have sex.”
Yeah, I don’t know either.

“I would like to see you all wait until you’re 21.”
My group coleader. Isn’t that cute? She’s new at this.

SJ: “Is it ok for someone to have sex because they want to have a baby?”
Group: “No!”
SJ: “OK, at your age, I agree. But what if the person is older, and they’re married or in a relationship, and they want to have kids?”
13 y/o: “I just don’t feel like that’s a good choice in this economy.”

Occasionally, there are moments of awesome.

13 y/o: “Is it good if you tell a guy you’re not ready, and he’s ok with it, and he still wants to date you?”
SJ: “Yeah, I think that’s great.”
13 y/o: “Oh yeah, that’s my man!”
14 y/o: “Can we clap for Liz’s man?”

You know we clapped. Also, Liz’s man is in fact fourteen.

For all of the laughs, and the moments of wanting to slap myself or others in the face (YOU CAN GET PREGNANT YOUR FIRST TIME AND BIRTH CONTROL PILLS ARE EFFECTIVE WHEN TAKEN CORRECTLY) I love these sessions. Somewhere along the lines, we’re really failing our kids in terms of sex ed. It’s a very concrete way we can shape kids lives, and help them to make good, informed decisions.

Or at least teach them to say “vagina” without cringing.





The Education of SocialJerk

21 11 2011

I think people know by now that I, like many of my colleagues, never fully remove my social work hat. At best, I wear it jauntily askew. My profession colors how I see most things.

Most people also know by now that I, like my colleagues with taste, am a stark raving Gleek. (I assure you, this is relevant.)

Social work is full of surprises. You discover hidden talents–how else would I learn that I am awesome at assembling cribs? And you learn that you might be passionate about things you didn’t know mattered to you so much.

This is how I fell into sex education. I discovered my love for working with teen girls, a social work surprise I’ve discussed elsewhere. This work also led me to being horrified by the topic of sexuality coming up.

Not because I’m bothered by talking about it. More often, people request I stop. It’s because their attitudes and knowledge were kind of appalling. It’s scary, it’s bad, it’s something that you end up doing, but dammit if they could figure out why. (“Boys want you to” was deemed not a good reason.)

The girls always know the “right” answer. They’re supposed to wait. Wait until marriage, preferrably, but if not, at least until they’re adults. Twenty, thirty if they can.

And yet, very few of them achieve this goal. This is why I’m so obsessed with providing them with safe sex information. Pregnancy prevention, avoiding STIs, knowing where your local Planned Parenthood is, and getting regular check ups at the gynecologist.

I don’t feel awkward doing this. Biological terms don’t make me uncomfortable. So really, this is the easy part.

The difficult part is why. Why have sex? Why wait?

I’ve had debates here and there with people who believe that our ultimate message to young people, particularly girls (for some reason) should be to wait. To wait for as long as possible. That’s why, when pressed, a lot of parents admit they tell their kids to wait for marriage. They know that’s not realistic for most people. (The only people I know who have actually done that were very religious, and got married when they were about 20. Guess why?) But maybe that idea will at least get them to hold off on their first time.

I get it. Sex, and sexual relationships, are not something that people can possibly be ready for until they reach a certain age and maturity level.

But is being older always better? I was asked once “Is there any benefit to not waiting?” My first thought was, sure. You get to have sex. I realize that wasn’t exactly the “right” answer, but it kind of is. It should be enjoyable. That is a perfectly acceptable reason to have sex. It’s a reason that this teacher discusses at length with his students, in what sounds like a very well-planned, effective, and innovative sex ed curriculum.

There’s more to it, of course. I trust teenagers enough, and remember enough about myself way back in the late 90s/early 00s, to recognize that they do, at times, understand their feelings. It’s possible for them to be in love. Is it better to wait until age 21, when you realize you haven’t met anyone particularly special, and just get it over with when you find someone decent? Or would it have been better to have that first time with your first love, even if you were 16?

This nice first time isn’t an option for everyone, I realize that. But I don’t think it should be painted as something automatically negative.

I’ve always been vehemently against abstinence education. When I first heard about it, when I was in high school, I thought it sounded ridiculous. Who needs to be taught to be abstinent? Will there also be lessons on not jumping rope and failing to read books? Seems unnecessary.

As I got older, I found only more reasons to dislike it. For one, it’s entirely ineffective. It leaves kids unprepared while not achieving its goals. Not only that, but I noticed something about hearing the abstinence lessons, or being around people who really subscribed to those ideas. I felt defensive. I felt judged. I couldn’t always put into words the why of it, though.

That’s where Glee comes in. I was watching a recent episode, laughing and crying loudly on the elliptical at the gym, as I so often do. (I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until I’m asked to leave.) The episode was called ‘The First Time,” and guess what it was about.

Speaking of which, I don’t think I’m that old, but a couple of high school boyfriends in bed talking about masturbation? Wouldn’t have happened when I was in high school. We have made some strides, prime time television.

Tina, a character who has been in a relationship for well over a year, gives some advice to a girl who is considering sleeping with her boyfriend for the first time. This comes in the midst of a chorus of girls urging her to wait by sharing negative experiences, from getting pregnant, to not really wanting to do it, to not really enjoying it.

“Losing my virginity was a great experience for me. Because I was with someone I loved… And when that moment came, we just knew. It was right. It wasn’t rushed, it was amazing. He’s my first love. And I’ll always look back on that moment as absolutely perfect. No regrets.”

There’s no “it’s OK because we’re going to end up married” or “it had to happen sooner or later.” Just a young girl who had a lovely experience with a boy she regards as her first love, a boy with whom she’s always had a positive, respectful relationship. They communicated with one another, they felt ready, even though they probably won’t be together forever. Provided they’re safe (which was covered elsewhere in the episode, thank you) is this really such a bad thing? As someone who had a similar experience to Tina, and who has had years to consider it, I think it’s just fine.

Not surprisingly, not everyone shared my warm and fuzzy feelings about Glee. This CNN article lamented that it’s television’s fault that kids want to have sex, because television makes those stupid kids think that “everyone’s doing it!”

Once again, I think this article, and these ideas, are what sends the wrong message. Sex is bad, it’s scary, it’s very very serious and we need to stop making people feel otherwise! Until they’re adults. Because once you’re eighteen, or married, you are instantly ready for such heady concepts.

I’m not a fan of the concept of virginity or purity. “Purity” I just find to be offensive. Being pure means not having sex, so having sex means you’re…impure? Dirty? Sullied for life? That’s really not a helpful message. It’s chock full of judgment, and comes from a value system not everyone subscribes to.

Virginity is supposedly more straightforward, but it’s not. What counts as “sex” is so unclear. So, someone can have oral or anal sex with a hundred different partners, and their virginity is intact. Vaginal sex once, and forget it, you just gave it up. What about gay kids? What about a plethora of other sexual activities?  And when we’re talking about such technicalities, does it really matter anymore?

Aside from technical issues, talking about “losing one’s virginity” just doesn’t send the right message to young people, in my opinion. (It’s my blog, it’s all my opinion.) I don’t think it needs to be seen as a loss, something you give up, something you can never get back. We’re always much more interested in girls, not boys, remaining virgins, if we’re honest with ourselves. This whole concept sets them up as gatekeepers. When girls and mothers talk about the importance of hanging on to virginity, I can’t help but get a mental image of vikings attempting to storm a fort.

I’m pretty sure that this isn’t how we should be educating kids about sex. Especially since they also get the message that once they’re married, it’s fine to go to town. Do everything you can think of. That thing that would have killed you and made you dirty? Now it’s an expression of love and babymaking.

That same article talks about kids feeling embarrassed to be virgins, but we don’t talk about being sensitive to kids who have decided to have sex, and who don’t regret that decision. I didn’t tell my best friend for almost a year, because I knew she’d judge me as she was always talking about waiting for marriage. (Spoiler alert: there was some judgment, but she didn’t wait til marriage.) This was something I experienced repeatedly in college. I have had girls in group start talking about how they haven’t had sex because they’re waiting for it to be special, they’re not going to get caught up in a moment and let it ruin their lives, they’re not that stupid, they have respect for themselves, etc.

And I can’t imagine that it makes the girls who did feel that they were ready for sex feel too good, or comfortable sharing. I know how it made me feel at that age. It can really shut the conversation down for kids who have questions, are grappling with whether or not to have sex, or who have decided to have sex already. When one student is being praised for their declaration of caring enough about themselves to wait, who is going to raise their hand to say, “This is why I didn’t?”

We need to think realistically about what kids need to know about sex. What we wish we knew, what we wish we had heard. Not just about biology and how to be safe, though that is, of course, crucial. We need to help young people determine what is actually important to them. I have friends who waited until they were in their 20s, finally choosing to have sex because they felt that waiting was no longer meaningful, and was holding them back in relationships. I have friends who thought they would wait until marriage, and didn’t, but were still grateful for a foundation in that value. I have friends who regretted the first time they had sex, and many others who did not.

There is not one right answer for everyone, is what I’ve learned. I don’t think kids who choose to remain abstinent should be judged, but I think fear of judgment by peers or family is a pretty bad reason to decide to have sex, or to decide to wait. Empowering young people to know what they want and figure out their own morals on this subject is not only necessary, it’s possible.

And if we can sprinkle in some musical numbers, even better.





Dating’s all fun and games, until someone loses their self respect.

24 10 2011

Dating is a funny thing. Older people, and people in relationships, tend to talk about it like it’s fun and exciting. Nights out on the town, meeting new people, the thrill of the chase. (Or is that a safari?) I blame romantic comedies. Terrible movies sending a bad message. Why do they even make those things?

In reality, I hope we all know that it’s pretty horrible. Debating whether or not you should call, or if you should be waiting for the other person to text. If he texts, rather than calls, what does that mean? What is she really saying with that Facebook friend request? How soon is too soon to introduce this person to friends? And why do we all get so pissed when we’re rejected by someone we weren’t even interested in? (Side note: if the son of a friend of my aunt’s happens to be reading this: when she gave you my email address eight years ago, I didn’t even know that she was doing that. I didn’t want to talk to you either.)

OK. Glad I got that out there.

Dating drama has always been fairly minimal in my own life. But my clients manage to bring it back, and remind me of what I missed.

Thank goodness I missed it.

I have to give most of my female clients credit for being hopelessly optimistic. “Hopelessly optimistic” is my strengths-based translation of “blindly in denial.” One young mother I worked with had two children by two different fathers. She presented as being rather tough, and had in fact had a very difficult life. Her father was a drug addict, her mother was abusive, and she was in and out of foster care. She was extremely intelligent, and really trying to be a better parent for her children.

All that intelligence, experience, and toughness, though, didn’t stop her from wanting the storybook romance. I was thrilled to pieces when she finally seemed to be putting those restraining orders against her violent former partners to use. She talked about needing to focus on her children, work on herself, get back to school.

When she came in to the office with stars in her eyes, telling me that she and a friend were suddenly more than friends, I think she could sense my apprehension.

I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to have the best friend, boyfriend, whatever she wanted. But I also really wanted her to see that the problem wasn’t just that men turned out to be assholes. It was that the men she chose turned out to be assholes. It wasn’t a matter of getting out there and trying more and more, and eventually you’ll find the right one. It was a matter of saying, hey, I’m attracted to scumbags. Let’s rectify that.

But it’s not an easy thing to do. I had to close her case when she moved herself to a foreign suburban land to be with this man. He seemed like a genuinely good guy, so I’m hoping they made it work. Realistically, I assume he either turned out to be hiding his jackass nature really well, or he remained a good guy, so she got bored and left.

Hopelessly optimistic I’m not. But unfortunately, I’m often correct. (I might need to make that my new tagline.)

The world of teen dating is just as torrid, dramatic, and unpredictable as I remember. My goodness, they don’t learn and they don’t give up. No matter what their parents and social workers try to teach them.

Teenagers, particularly girls, are always talking to me about their latest romantic fiascos. The boys are involved in these too, but they like to act as though they’re only interested in sex. They also have a hard time getting their viewpoints across, once I explain to them that they have to say “women” or “girls,” rather than “bitches” or “hos.”

I hear these kids complain about their significant others all the time. One fifteen year old I’ll never forget kept going back to this one boy in particular, always assuming he’d change at some point. He cheated on her, made fun of her in public, swore at her, called her names, and set her up to get jumped by his friends.

He claimed that he tried to get back the jewelry they stole. Apparently that made everything better.

When he said he wanted a baby with her, she was pretty heavily considering it. I mean, who wouldn’t? She’s only human.

We tried to figure out what she liked about him. It took a long time to identify even one thing, though she vehemently defended this boy to her mother. It finally came down to her saying that he was nice to her when it was just the two of them. Sometimes.

This boy being “nice” once erased a thousand wrongs. Just the opposite of this girl’s relationship with her mother.

The mothers are always very concerned about their daughters’ dating. The concerns for “reputation” start very early on. My personal view is that the neighbors can talk all they want, as long as you’re healthy and not pregnant. But I seem to be in the minority.

Yes, your thirteen year old daughter has a hickey. OK, your sixteen year old daughter admitted to letting her boyfriend, in her words, “grab her titties.” (Sounds like a lovely experience, by the way.) My concern is that the relationships they’re involved with are respectful, and that they’re being safe. The moms had other concerns.

“People could have seen them. What are they going to think about what kind of a parent I am, that I’m letting my daughter run around like this?”
Well, your daughter is running around with their sons, so they don’t have a leg to stand on.

“I just need to know if she’s still a virgin.”
Is the priority knowing the answer to that question? Or is it about finding out if you know what your daughter is doing, knowing if she’s at risk, and if she can handle the activities she’s engaging in? P.S. I’ve heard about what some “virgins” get up to. The entire concept is useless and far from exact.

“Can I take her to the doctor to find out if she’s still a virgin?”
NO. For the last time. That is not possible, shows a poor understanding of female anatomy, and is wrong and ridiculous.

“Can you ask her if she’s a virgin?”
All right, I don’t know if we’re getting anywhere with this.

The best handling of a teen relationship I’ve witnessed was a few months ago, during a home visit. The sixteen year old daughter, who is very sweet, quiet, and a wonderful student and artist, had brought her girlfriend home to meet her family for the first time. She was appropriately mortified. Her mother asked, “Oh, you’re Shawna’s girlfriend? OK. You’re gonna be around? You’re gonna be good to her? You’re a junior too, right?” The tattooed gang member twin brother hopped around like a hyperactive goober, making empty, joking threats about what would happen if this girl was mean to his sister. The two then left to take Shawna’s six year old sister to the park. And apparently returned with her intact.

Apparently it can be done. Dating, romance, all that crap, can be gotten through with minimal injuries, physical and otherwise. We can learn from it, and occasionally enjoy it.

But that’s no excuse for the existence of romantic comedies.





Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.





My job would be easier if they all drove vans with tinted windows

22 08 2011

May-December romance. It’s a source for fine cinema (Harold & Maude is my nutty roommate’s favorite) as well as good comedy (see Daniel Tosh’s take on Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s marriage.) But then it also so often ventures away from the romance, into illegality, assault, and general creepiness. (Mary Kay and friends, grown men telling high school girls that they’re quite mature for their age.)

Such relationships are rather popular with the families we work with. Sometimes it’s clear cut that this is not going to work. Just a hint–if you are forty years old, and sleeping with a fifteen year old, perhaps don’t accompany that teen to her counseling session. You think it makes you look better, but you’re so wrong. And creepy neighborhood guy with a regular rotation of underage boys staying with him, after getting kicked out of their homes for being gay? No one is buying the humanitarian story.

There are also a good number of older women, with children, dating guys just over the age of eighteen. So far I haven’t had any with an underage boy, but they must be out there. Dating a nineteen year old, while caring for pre-teen children…maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but it sounds just dreadful. Whenever there’s a significant other in the home, we try to figure out what his established role is. Is he a father figure, does he provide discipline, is he contributing financially? Frequently in these situations, it sounds like the mom picked up another kid. The children love the boyfriend, because he knows tons of cheat codes for X-Box. Or they bicker and fight like siblings. I tried to figure this out with an old supervisor, who posited, “Maybe it’s just good sex?” We exchanged a look before she said, “Probably not.”

Sometimes, though, you’re at an in-between. A limbo of sexual impropriety. Technically, the relationship is illegal. But there’s a question as to whether or not to make a call.

In a girls group I helped to run, a 15 year old happily shared with us the tale of losing her virginity. To her 19 year old boyfriend. After I cleaned up the confetti I had shot out of a cannon, in celebration of the fact that they used a condom and checked the expiration date, my co-leader and I had to have a conversation.

Age of consent if a big topic in teen groups. People are often under the impression that it’s simply what it sounds like–an age, at which people can consent to sex. But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Yes, in New York, the age is 17. However, there are degrees. What is considered abuse, misconduct, criminal sexual act, or rape? If the victim is between the ages of 15 and 17, and the perpetrator is under 21, there won’t be a charge of rape. If the victim is between 11 and 15, and the perpetrator is under 18, or less than four years older than the victim, there also won’t be a rape charge. If the victim is under 17, and the perpetrator is over 21, there can be rape charges filed. If what went on between that victim and perpetrator wasn’t what the hetero kids these days are calling “real sex” it gets dropped to a criminal sexual act.

Got it? OK.

These kids already have a lot on their minds when contemplating having sex. Am I ready to do this, will my parents find out, why do I have the voice of that crazy social worker ringing in my ear about not keeping condoms in my wallet? Trying to remember all of these different rules and regulations, writing them out until they resemble a calculus problem, tends not to make it any easier.

But back to that 15 year old. This incident happened when I was an intern, but there have been many since then. The law is clear (I guess) but our best response isn’t always.

You might think being a mandated reporter makes this easier. We don’t have a choice, we just report! But really, it’s more complex. (Of course.) If the parent allowed it to happen, you can report child abuse. Otherwise, you can call the police. Which is, in all likelihood, going to go nowhere.

In the girls group case I mentioned above, the girl’s worker spoke with her supervisor. It turned out that the girl’s mother knew about the relationship, but not the sex. The supervisor told my coworker that she either needed to not discuss this any further, or get all the information she could to go to the police. By the time my coworker got over her internal crisis, (Is reporting a violation of her confidence? Will reporting it protect her or drive her to run away with him? If I turn the boyfriend in, will the girl run from services?) the relationship had fizzled.

We had another girl in that same group who was constantly having sex with men significantly older than her–she was 15, they were in their 20s or 30s. But calling it in never came up, because these guys were randoms, so to speak. There was never a steady boyfriend. We couldn’t get the information on them, because not even the girl who was sleeping with them had it.

In which case, I guess the lesson for creepster guys is to be as much of an asshole as possible, and don’t even friend her on Facebook?

In general, of course, there’s not even a debate here. Sex with someone underage is a terrible, disgusting, dangerous idea, and if you disagree, you really need to take a good look at yourself. And don’t try the tired predator line “Age is nothing but a number.” Yes, it is indeed a number. It is a number that states how many years you have had on this planet, and therefore, how much time you’ve had to accumulate knowledge and experience. So it’s a pretty important number. Try this with the IRS. “Your honor, I know they said I owed $15,000. But income taxes are just numbers!”

At the same time, my first boyfriend was 19 when I was 16. (If my mom asks, he was 18 though. Cool?) Many of my friends and cousins were in similar situations. So I can see how those questionable age differences come about. When you were in high school at the same time, things can be blurry.

Calling the case in doesn’t always fix things. I think back on that 15 year old with the 19 year old boyfriend. They lost interest in one another fairly quickly. I’m fairly certain that Romeo & Juliet style drama would have forced her to realize that he was her one true love. After all, what’s more attractive than an ankle monitor?

Once again, we’re back to using our social work powers– judgment. Hard line regulations are nice, because we can all throw our hands up and say, “Sorry, it’s policy!” But these are situations that supervisors are very often hesitant to get involved in, and frequently throw it back to the worker. “Well, just be careful. Use your judgment.” The admonishment is often that less talk is better, because we don’t want to know, because then we have to do something, is not, I think, the healthiest way to deal with a difficult issue.

I hope that we can at least talk to each other. If for no other reason than those laws are damn confusing.