“Yes, Your Kid”—and Maybe You?

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Dr. Debby Herbenick, one of the world’s most important sex educators and researchers, has a new book out, and it’s great. It’s called Yes, Your Kid: What Parents Need to Know About Today’s Teens and Sex.

Before you go away because you don’t have kids, or because your kids are too young or too old, read on. Because there’s stuff in this book that’s relevant to all of us.

Herbenick is a Provost Professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health. She’s the lead investigator of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, so she arguably knows more about what Americans do in bed than anyone else alive. She’s also written five great books about human sexuality.

Herbenick has researched the sex lives of kids and young adults for years. And some of what she’s found is startling. American parents have always been willfully ignorant of their kids’ sex lives, and have always hoped their kids could grow up without asking a single question about sex. Too many parents, unfortunately, get their wish.

In response, Herbenick’s new book addresses contemporary issues like sexting, technology, porn, hooking up, consent, youthful blowjobs, and, perhaps most importantly, rough sex. It’s this last subject that I’m most interested in—and I invite your interest, as well. This is about you, too.

Herbenick’s recent research reveals that huge numbers of young people have rough sex—especially “choking” (it’s actually suffocation and/or smothering, but participants typically call it choking), slapping, and aggressive, gagging fellatio. For example, a 2020 survey of 5,000 college students showed that more than half of the women had been spanked during sex hard enough to leave a mark more than once; more than half of women and a quarter of men had been choked.

And it’s not just men demanding this from unwilling women. Herbenick documents the high number of young females who invite and actually enjoy being choked, hit, and treated roughly during sex. (I bet you didn’t know that.)

MY QUESTION IS, WHY?

My question is, Why? In a recent conversation, I asked Debby why young people do this. What exactly are they enjoying about it?

We agree that one obvious “why” is pornography. Anti-porn hysteria claims that 99% of porn is violent and misogynist. While most of porn is NOT violent, today’s porn does portray rough sex more than ever. And it’s frequently portrayed as consensual.

So we might hypothesize that more people now do rough sex because more people are seeing it in porn. But that doesn’t explain why it’s more common in porn than it used to be, or why people enjoy watching it.

Until I spoke with Debby recently, I had assumed that when females participate in rough sex they were just going along with it, fearing they’d otherwise be branded prudes and be competitively disadvantaged compared to young women who did it. But according to Debby, a lot of women who do it enjoy it. In fact, one reason men do rough sex is because they believe their partner will enjoy it—and in many cases, apparently, they’re right.

My hypotheses about why so many people now do it include that it’s a meme representing sexual intensity. I believe many young people have trouble building or expressing sexual intensity the old-fashioned way because instead of dating and rehearsing coupled behavior, they spend most of their “relationship” time mediated by screens, minimizing the role of the five senses in building connection.

This, of course, is a problem in relationships of most generations. When the Boomers and Gen Xers die off, it will be a problem in relationships of ALL generations.

ALCOHOL? APPARENTLY NOT SO MUCH

I also wondered if rough sex was a product of all the drinking that accompanies youthful sex. But Herbenick says there’s been a decline in alcohol use among young people, and that lots of them have sex sober. Hmm. I was a little behind the times on that.

Debby noted that some women enjoy the euphoria of oxygen deprivation during rough sex. The young people in her sample variously talked about enjoying dominance/submission, gender exploration, and new ways of looking at their bodies. 

I finished our conversation still unsure of what young people are getting out of all the sexual slapping, choking, and gagging they’re doing. Given the lack of sophisticated communication skills young lovers typically have, I’m concerned that this is their definition of “sex” or “good sex.”

I’m more familiar with what people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s get out of rough sex—and it’s a mixed bag. Some people delight in consciously playing with the power dynamics in erotic connection. Others are smacking or being smacked without feeling much connection with their partner—or, for that matter, with themselves. Alienation during sex seems to be a common feature with this group of people.

Over my career, I’ve asked thousands of people why they do what they do sexually, and whether they enjoy it. I’m still intrigued by how many men and women do things in bed they don’t enjoy (sex when it hurts, sex to prove they love their partner, a sexual activity their partner “must” have). Whether something is “kinky” or “vanilla,” I continually challenge people to realize they have choices about whether or when to do it.

Herbenick’s book offers an updated vision of how parents need to talk with kids about not just sex but relationships, emotions, self-respect, and decision-making. I agree with about 99% of what she says—and she says it in a graceful, life-affirming way that’s a pleasure to read.

COMMUNICATION, BUT…

As I discussed in my own book Sexual Intelligence a few years ago, I do wish more adults could talk to each other like that. Everyone agrees that “communication is key to good relationships”—but many of them are waiting for their partner to step up and do it better.

Herbenick also talks about “consent” in a broader way than most people do. She recognizes that many young people face a complicated relationship and sexual landscape. And she’s among those expanding our cultural concept of “consent” to be more useful, with greater recognition of the many ways in which people may experience pressure in erotic settings.

If you have a kid under 25, buy this book and talk with them. If you don’t, buy it and talk with your mate—or yourself—about its ideas and sample conversations.
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Like short videos about sexual subjects? See my channel at www.youtube.com/@Marty_Klein
Like your Sexual Intelligence even shorter? See www.instagram.com/doctormartyklein/

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