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by Lynn E. Ponton
Dutton, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Feb 13th 2002

The Sex Lives of Teenagers

The rather sensationalist title of this book might mislead potential readers; this is not an exposé of all the shocking sex acts that teens perform at ever-decreasing ages, or a blow-by-blow account of what goes on at debauched parties.  Instead, it is a collection of cases by a child psychiatrist, dealing with the emotional issues teenagers face concerning sexuality.  Lynn Ponton, also author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do The Things They Do, discusses her experience in helping teens work through a wide range of issues, including reputations, menstruation, fantasies, masturbation, pornography, the decision to have sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, HIV, rape, and their parents’ sex lives. 

Ponton practices in San Francisco, and her attitudes are liberal.  She is non-judgmental about the sexual choices of teens in the sense that she does not automatically condemn young teens having sex, homosexuality, or the frank discussion of sex.  But she is judgmental in the sense that she thinks that there are productive and unproductive ways to deal with sexuality and make important choices, and her aim is to help teens and their parents to sort through issues.  As one would hope, she gives the impression of being a wise and caring therapist.  She manages to connect with the young people and parents who come into her office individually and in groups, and she helps them through getting them to express their feelings and talk openly with each other.  Ponton does not ally herself with any particular theory of psychotherapy; most of her cases seem to depend largely on clearing up misconceptions about sex and sexuality, ending miscommunication between family members, and helping people deal with the stigma attached by society to their choices or mistakes.  Much of this should be common sense, but unfortunately emotions run very high when it comes to sex, and parents often find themselves wanting to control their children, yet unable to do so.  In many of these cases, Ponton has to help parents learn to trust their children and be available to help rather then judge them. 

The Sex Lives of Teenagers could be helpful to both teenagers and parents if they have emotional problems connected with sexuality.  This is not a self-help manual, and so there are no instructions about how to sort out sex problems, but it is likely that most readers will be able to find someone to identify with in one or more of the cases collected here.  Seeing how the teens in these stories come to terms with their troubles and sort through them can be helpful to readers grappling with their own problems.  Even though it may seem obvious that family members need to talk with each other if they are going to make progress, and that ignoring problems does not make them go away, most of us need constant reminder of this when it comes to our own lives, especially when we are embarrassed by the very personal issues of sexual feelings and behavior. 

Those who are looking for a deeper analysis of the social issues of trends in teenage sexual behavior may find Ponton’s discussion on the light side; she does not address how other therapists might try different ways of dealing with similar problems, and she does not say much about social policy.  But Ponton writes well, filling her cases with conversations between herself and her clients, and the book is an easy read.  I would recommend it to parents, teens, and anyone interested in the ways that we deal with sexuality in society today.

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.