Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers
reviewed by Melissa Sherfinski - March 29, 2013
Title: Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers
Author(s): Sinikka Elliott
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 9780814722596, Pages: 214, Year: 2012
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Adolescent versus adult, responsible versus irresponsible, autonomy versus danger, trustworthy versus untrustworthy, and good versus bad: these are the false dichotomies that, according to Dr. Sinikka Elliott, permeate contemporary US discourses of adolescent sexuality. Elliott seeks to reveal and disrupt these binaries in her book, Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Teenagers. In this sociological exploration of the meanings that parents construct around their teenagers sexual identities and practices, Elliott ultimately calls for a societal transformation that positions teenagers and parents as the subjects of their own sexualities. In this vision, we and our children need mutually respectful, safe, fulfilling relationships, whether or not the relationships conform to normative standards (p. 155).
Elliotts arguments are based on rich qualitative data that include nearly 50 interviews with parents, observations of middle and high school sex education classes, and observations of parent and community meetings. Desiring to capture the views of parents of varied political, religious, social class, and racial/ethnic backgrounds, Elliott does not sample sex education activists.
The setting for the study is a liberal city in a conservative state (Texas). As many of us are aware, the controversial Texas abstinence-only textbook policy of 2004 silences contraceptive discussion and recognizes marriage as only heterosexual. The policy has had national influence because of Texass dominance in the textbook markets (Dimick & Apple, 2005). Thus, Elliotts exploration of the policys underside is particularly relevant for education. As Elliott shows, the non-activist parents included in this study (mostly mothers) express complex thinking that belies the polarized nature of the public debates on abstinence-only policy. Data are presented to suggest that both abstinence-only and conventional forms of sex education rely on discourses that demonize teenage sexuality.
Elliott examines the structural, cultural, and psychological factors shaping relations among parents and teenagers. In the process, she troubles notions of gender, bodies, and sexuality through her complex story of parents experiences (dis)engaging with their teens around sexuality. Ultimately, she argues that, in US society, there are very few opportunities to consider teen sexuality that do not involve negativity, risk, and despair.
Across eight chapters, Elliott builds readers understandings of the present. The chapters address the reform context (Chapter One), parents constructions of adolescent sexuality (Chapters Two-Five), parents strategies for mediating sexuality discourses (Chapter Six), the uncertain nature of the field (Chapter Seven), and suggestions for reconceptualizing policies and practices (Chapter Eight). There is also a brief methods appendix.
In Chapter One, entitled Sex Panics: Debates over Sex Education and the Construction of Sexuality, the author introduces the debates around sex education in the US. She examines how social movements and media discourses of the 20th century have constructed parenting logics that view ones own teenager(s) as innocent, asexual, and at risk of abuse.
Elliott analyzes, in Chapters Two-Five, the processes that serve to constrain teenagers sexual subjectivities. For instance, while parents see their own teens as naïve and poised to succumb to peer pressure, they view other youth as hormonal and potentially dangerous, even when their own adolescents have engaged in the same risky behaviors. The discourses that parents take up to Other their childrens peers rely on inequalities of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Elliott illustrates that leaving for college has become the new threshold for sex talks between parents and children: up to this point, parents perceive that their children actively resist discussion about sex. While parents explain this resistance as a normal part of growing up, Elliott points out how conservative movements have re-mobilized to promote sexual shame.
Chapter Six is titled Anxious Monitoring: Strategies of Protection and Surveillance. A major contribution of this chapter is that the findings presented complicate Annette Lareaus (2003/2011) well-known theory of class-based parental behavior: middle class cultivation versus working class and poor families logic of natural growth. For Elliott, the danger discourse of sexuality undergirds the surveillance behaviors of parents of teens who, regardless of social class, seek structured activities outside of the school day. In Not my Kid, poor and working class families rely on public schools to provide safe activity spaces for adolescents even though resources for transportation and equipment are stretched very thin. As Elliott points out, parental monitoring (of clothing, of neighborhoods, of the internet and other technologies) burdens individual parents (often mothers). This can be an especially difficult task for parents who have limited access to resources, and some parents worry that this responsibility of surveillance will continue even as their children leave home for college.
Chapter Seven, Uncertainty in Parents Sexual Lessons, presents sensitive portraits showing the sense of ambiguity that parents feel around issues of abstinence education. They may wish for their daughters, for example, to be sexually empowered, but worry about how that empowerment will be read by a society that scorns women who seek autonomy and sexual pleasure. Elliott uses parents stories of their own cultural and religious upbringings to reflect how parents childhood socialization contributes to their present thinking and practices.
Concluding the book is Elliotts powerful personal story of how her 14-year-old daughter was labeled a slut when she spoke out against abstinence-only sex education in class. In response to the present hostile environment, Elliott calls for a new, affirming language of sexuality that promotes bodily pleasure and care, rather than simply (re)inscribing false dichotomies of sexual danger. The project would also involve confronting social inequalities. Families, as the author argues, should not have to fear societal repercussions for using a new language, and do not need to see themselves as ultimately responsible for problems related to teen sexuality that have their genesis in ideologies and institutions.
The use of parents voices is a major strength of the text. Through Elliotts deft weaving of voices, theory, and analysis, one can see, hear, and better understand the predicaments in which contemporary families have been positioned.
One drawback of the book, for me, is an issue of scope. While Elliott covers much territory in her analyses, I had hoped to learn more about her participants social networks, and more about the socio-cultural and historical contexts influencing the community under study.
A second limitation that I see is an issue of framing. Tight attention to teen sexuality may mitigate the importance of both childhood and adolescence as important spaces for constructing sexual identities. As Kevin Kumashiro (2008) has suggested, the construction of commonsense views of sexuality happens in part through the use of age-appropriate discourses for young children. For example, young children are often deemed unready to understand LGBTQ issues presented in quite developmentally appropriate ways because underlying the discourse of young childrens innocence is the fear of contagion (Kumashiro, 2008). In centering adolescence, Elliott shows that readiness is not only an issue of childhood. I agree with her that we need to revision sexuality, and I stress that this project should reach sensitively beyond the realms of adolescence, sex education, and text book policies in middle and high schools to examine possibilities for transformation that begin at birth.
Overall, Elliotts book is a solid contribution to a number of fields, including sociology, health, and womens studies. And, it is a text that will be of interest and use for many of us in education.
Dimick, A., & Apple, M. W. (2005, May 2). Texas and the politics of abstinence-only textbooks. Teachers College Record, ID Number: 11855.
Kumashiro, K.K. (2008). The seduction of common sense: How the right has framed the debate on Americas schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Lareau, A. (2003/2011). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life, 2nd edition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.