MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

Sex and the single teen

CELIA MILNE December 28 1998
MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

Sex and the single teen

CELIA MILNE December 28 1998

Sex and the single teen

MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

SEXUAL ATTITUDES

CELIA MILNE

Sex—what a contradiction. It's naughty, and it's nice. Raunchy, and good for the health. It's intimate and private but, practised indiscreetly or carelessly, has the power to ruin families, topple careers and cause deadly disease. We are titillated—sometimes horrified—by sex in its various contexts: Who's doing it? With whom? Where? How? “Gross” is how kids tend to react when they first hear about conception. It’s hard to imagine your parents doing it. And when children become teenagers, it is the parents’ turn to be uneasy. This year’s Maclean’s/CBC poll finds considerable discomfort with the notion of allowing 18-year-olds to have sex at home—particularly homosexual sex.

The poll’s sex questions also show:

• Newfoundlanders, as usual, claiming bragging rights for the highest level of sexual activity (page 50);

• high levels of sexual satisfaction, particularly among women;

• Canadians are split over what advice to give a pregnant, unattached teenager, with the largest number suggesting she keep the child as a single mother; and

• seven out of 10 respondents convinced that attitudes towards sexual matters are becoming more permissive.

As for teenagers fooling around in the home, respondents do not discriminate between sons with girlfriends or daughters with boyfriends—almost 70 per cent say neither should be allowed to do it under their parents’ roof. “It’s easy to try to be open-minded,” says Darrell Lawrence, 46, a salesman in Woodstock, N.B., “but I don’t think it would be anything that I could allow.” When Lawrence’s sons, now 25 and 21 and married, visited their parents’ house with a girlfriend, the young couples would be allotted separate rooms. Felicia Chapman, a 21-year-old University of Waterloo student, agrees that 18-year-olds should not be allowed to have sex in their parents’ home. “If you allow that,” she says, “then anything goes. Would you also allow them to smoke pot and get drunk?”

Quebecers are the most likely to let teenagers in steady relationships sleep together, with 57 per cent feeling that way for heterosexual sons and daughters (compared with 18 and 16 per cent, respectively, in the rest of Canada). Claudette Charbonneau, 55, a mother of five adult children in St-Augustin, Que., says that when her 21-yearold daughter visits with her fiancé, they sleep together. “I have to say yes,” says Charbonneau. “It would be a huge issue if I said no.”

At the other end of the scale, just 16 per cent of Atlantic Canadians would allow it for a son, 12 per cent for a daughter. Restaurant cook Pauline Conley, 49, of Walton, N.S., is one of that rare breed. She has three daughters and a son, all in their 20s. “All four have had sex in the home,” she says. “I made sure they were protected. I talk to my kids about sex, about anything.” Conley is proud that her children have not had sex-related problems. “I have friends who wouldn’t let their kids out on dates,” she says, “and they have ended up with grandchildren born out of wedlock.”

Generally, the older Canadians get, the less likely they are to allow teenage sex in the home. Forty-five per cent of respondents aged 18 to 39 would say yes for a heterosexual son, but approval drops to 19 per cent among those 50 and over. “At 18, they are old enough to know what they are doing,” says Myron Finlay, 32, a farmer in Vanguard, Sask. But, says 53-year-old Ottawa consultant Dorothy Young, “I think 18 is pretty young, and I say no.”

'I don't think it would be anything that I could allow'

The opposition increases when respondents are asked to consider homosexual teenage sex. Would they allow a male teenager to have sex in their home with his steady boyfriend? Seventy-seven per cent say no, including Finlay. “Fie wouldn’t be allowed in my house, let alone his partner,” states the Vanguard farmer. “In rural Saskatchewan, that is not acceptable.” Finlay’s response is typical of fellow Reform party supporters—only seven per cent of them say yes to the male homosexual coupling, compared with 57 per cent of Bloc Québécois supporters at the other end of the scale.

Opposition to teenagers having sex in the home drops slightly if they are lesbians, to 71 per cent nationally. Ontarians and Atlantic Canadians are most uncomfortable, with only 10 per cent approving. British Columbians are relatively liberal about lesbian sex (23 per cent say yes), but extremely uncomfortable about male gay sex (approval plummets to seven per cent).

Regionally, Quebecers are by far the strongest proponents of a live-and-let-live attitude towards sex. In that province, 95 per cent of respondents—and fully 99 per cent of Bloc Québécois supporters—say it is important to accept others’ rights to different lifestyles. Montreal schoolteacher Jean Gratton, 33, who has no children of his own, says he has no problem with any of the 18-year-old sexual couplings suggested in the poll, as long as they were with regular partners.

Homosexuality “wouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “Everybody’s sexuality is not the concern of anyone else.”

As for shifting attitudes, a solid majority of Canadians—70 per cent—believe the country has become more permissive on sexual matters over the past 10 to 20 years. Dorothy Young, who has a 23year-old son and 19-year-old daughter, says parents talk more openly, sometimes just to keep ahead of what their kids are learning at school about sex, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. ‘We have discussions around the dinner table that I never had with my mother,” she says. ‘You have to.” But Canadians are not particularly happy with the trend. Among those who think sexual attitudes have become more permissive, only 29 per cent feel that is a good thing. Approval of the change is highest in Quebec, at 50 per cent. Claudette Charbonneau, who thinks more permissiveness is a good thing, says she was ostracized a generation ago, when, at age 20, she accidentally became pregnant three months before her wedding day. ‘Today when that happens, it’s not that bad,” she says. “They’ll get help or they’ll have an abortion.” Charbonneau, now 55 and her husband, Jacques, had that first child and four more, and now have four grandchildren. She has watched two of her children live with their mates before getting married. “I didn’t like it at first,” she admits. “I’m a mother. But we talked about it and I said: ‘Try it and we’ll see.’ ”

For Woodstock’s Darrell Lawrence, an “anything goes” trend in popular culture is a cause for concern. ‘You can’t turn on a TV now without seeing something sexual,” he complains. “I don’t find it that entertaining.” He found the presentation of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, with all its television melodrama and lurid details, positively embarrassing. “It’s more than we needed to know,” says Lawrence.

The poll does not ask directly about attitudes towards the Clinton affair. But indirectly, says Allan Gregg, chairman of the polling firm The Strategic Counsel, it provides “the final link in the Bill Clinton chain.” He says it explains, from a Canadian point of view, why Clinton gets off so easily with voters. While the respondents state forcefully that having an affair while in a long-term relationship is unacceptable behaviour (89 per cent hold that view), only a third of them think it is grounds for a politician to leave office.

Inevitably, a permissive society will have to deal with one untidy effect of sexual exploration: teenage pregnancy. The poll asks Canadians to imagine that their 17-year-old daughter was pregnant and didn’t want to continue seeing the father-to-be. Would their advice be to keep the child and be a single mother, to have the baby and give it up for adoption, or to have an abortion?

The most popular of those difficult choices is to keep the baby (44 per cent). “I definitely think she should keep the child,” says Finlay from his Saskatchewan farm, trying to imagine a pregnant daughter. “Our lifestyle is flexible, so we can help.” The people most likely to hold the same view were quite young— 25-29 (49 per cent)—or fairly old—60-64 (58 per cent), people with high-school education or less (53 per cent), the unemployed (54 per cent) and Atlantic Canadians (60 per cent).

Twenty per cent of Canadians would advise their daughter to give the child up for adoption. Most likely to hold that opinion are people over 65 years (25 per cent), English-speakers (24 per cent, compared with just five per cent of French-speakers), and residents of the Prairies (34 per cent). And the third option—abortion—draws roughly the same support, at 19 per cent, led by a 29-per-cent approval in Quebec. The lowest support for abortion was in the Prairies (seven per cent) and Atlantic Canada (nine per cent).

Claudette Charbonneau’s offence—premarital sex with a man she was about to marry and has since been with for 35 years—was slight by current moral standards. But she understands that a daughter’s unplanned pregnancy still presents difficult choices. “It’s a very big question that would need a very long talk to resolve,” she says. “I think I would suggest an abortion, but if she didn’t want one, the rest would depend on how mature she was.” Degrees of permissiveness may wax and wane, but sex, in its myriad forms, will always have too many consequences to be confined to the privacy of the bedroom. □

Willing to allow an 18-year-old daughter or son to have sex in the home with a steady partner of the opposite sex: 27%

Willing to allow a homosexual liaison in the home:

• For 18-yearold son: 18%

• For 18-yearold daughter: 22%

Percentage who would advise a pregnant 17-year-old daughter who did not want a relationship with the fatherto-be to:

• have an abortion: men 17 women 20

• give child up for adoption: men 22 women 19

• be a single parent : men 47 women 41