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The epidemic of meaningless teen sex

''MISTAKE" AND ''consent": These words have appeared with alarming frequency during discussions of recent events at Milton Academy. Their very presence reflects a likely misperception of the immediate events and a dangerous misunderstanding of an epidemic problem among our children.

As a psychologist who works with adolescents I hear quite a bit about how oral sex is common, not only among college kids ''hooking up," but among middle teens. It even occurs among 12-year-olds and younger. And I also hear what young people say about these experiences: ''It's just a thing to do. It doesn't mean anything."

We should not be surprised by either the age or the attitudes of these kids.

We've built a world that bombards our children with sex. Advertisements, television, magazines, movies, the Internet, and the increasingly mainstream multibillion-dollar porn industry saturate them with the message that great and frequent sex is key to status and satisfaction and that all things sexual are possible -- indeed, expectable. The images convey a sexuality that is more virtual than real, more impersonal than personal, more available on demand than negotiated by consent. They emphasize superficial pleasure over the deeper and more enduring meanings of intimacy, tenderness, connection, and even procreation.

Sexual behaviors and attitudes change from generation to generation, but the explosion of sex without meaning or substance signifies more than yet another generation's effort to stake its claim by shocking its parents (in this case, parents often too jaded to be shocked). The new sexuality is deeply symptomatic. Emotional deadness, disengagement, and constriction are increasingly the norm. (Oral sex is, after all, ''just something to do.") ''Sexual addiction," our term for moving from sexual experience to sexual experience without ever being satisfied, is prevalent. Meanwhile, for many kids precocious sexuality represents not freedom and experimentation but is a byproduct frequently seen with sexual trauma: compulsively driven activity that both expresses and aims to manage the effects of chronic intrusion and overstimulation.

Under these circumstances, using words like ''mistake" and ''consent" to describe what happened at Milton represents a failure in both understanding and authority.

As adults we are charged with knowing more than our kids. Looking through a lens made wider by experience, we anticipate consequences that often show themselves only after the passage of time. I have spoken with many women who, when younger, found themselves in situations similar to the one in question. Years later they recognized the subtle and explicit coercions involved, and they came to understand that aspects of their own history, often traumatic, had caused them to have been less ''consenting" than they imagined. As one patient, a woman in her 30s, said to me, ''What I and everyone else called group sex when I was a teenager was more like a gang rape." To speak of ''consent" under these circumstances is at best naïve.

And then there is the matter of authority. To be sure, we need to help our kids learn from what they do, and we need to insist that they take responsibility for their actions. But it is one thing to teach our children important lessons and another to shift responsibility from ourselves, the adults who should be minding the store, to early teenagers who often haven't achieved the emotional, even neurological, maturity necessary for making autonomous and self-aware sexual choices. Under these circumstances the word ''mistake" suggests a shifting of blame, an abdication of the protective and authoritative responsibility of adults.

There is a legitimate hierarchy in adult-child relationships. As grownups we need to exercise our authority in order to create a more buffered environment in which our children can find, at their own pace, sexual selves that possess the capacity for the kind of liveliness, meaning, and connection that can occur with real and respected partners. But if we are to succeed, we'll have to do more than dispense a few do's and don't's regarding our children's behavior. We'll have to undertake an honest reexamination of the very attitudes for which our generation was once so self-congratulatory.

The fact is, the sexual freedom and permissiveness in which we baby boomers once reveled has undergone an unexpected transformation, and the result, ironically enough, is an overstimulating sexual culture that now shackles and oppresses our children.

Mark O'Connell is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and author of ''The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity and Life in the Family."

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