It hasn't happened the way any parent, educator, or school would wish for, but by putting a 15-year-old girl on leave and expelling five varsity hockey players for engaging in oral sex in a locker room, Milton Academy has given parents everywhere a reason to talk openly with our children about oral sex. That's a good thing. Researchers and clinicians have mostly only anecdotal evidence to rely on, but here's what they widely accept as true:
By third grade, the typical boy has heard the colloquial term for oral sex, but doesn't have a clue what it means.
By sixth or seventh grade, most boys and girls do. Some are experimenting with it, often in groups, sometimes in the back of a school bus.
By high school, about one-third of them are having oral sex, saying it's easy, safe, and not sex. The 2003 Kaiser Foundation report, which generated that statistic from a survey of 1,800 teenagers, says the findings ''may suggest" the number is low.
Few if any of these preteens or teens know what their parents think about oral sex.
More than anything, it's this last bit that gets teenagers into trouble. ''Sooner or later, every one of our kids will be stranded on a moral street corner, faced with whether they should or shouldn't," says Jenifer Marshall Lippincott of Weston, co-author of ''7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You And How to Talk About Them Anyway" (Ballantine).
''When a teen gets to that point, whose voice will be loudest in her head?" she asks. ''If it's not yours, it will be the culture's."
That's a problem. ''What the culture presents as normative in fact often isn't, and can be very hurtful to the teen and to others," says Chestnut Hill clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, who consults to schools nationwide on preteen sexual behaviors.
Many teens (about 20 percent, according to the Kaiser study), for instance, think oral sex is safe. It's not. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, and even HIV (if there are open sores) can be spread. (Encourage teens who think they aren't vulnerable to check out the PBS documentary ''The Lost Children of Rockdale County," www.pbs.org, about a 1996 outbreak of syphilis among teens in an affluent community in Georgia.) Lippincott and others tell teens to protect themselves during oral sex with condoms or dental dams, latex squares that fit inside the mouth and create a barrier. (For a good description on how they work, visit the Brown University Health Services website, www.brown.edu/healthed.)
The other dangers are emotional. How does a girl feel afterward if she was talked into it by a casual friend? What about the boy who did the talking? How does either one feel if friends watch? If the partners are girl- and boyfriend, they may see oral sex as a way to retain their virginity. But how do they each feel down the road if it's performed only on the boy?
This is some of what parents need to be talking about with teens. Believe it or not, it's easier if you start when they're young; not only does it give you common language, but it means your voice and values are that much more prominent.
When a young child asks questions like, ''Where did I come from?' " parents' answers typically involve placement of body parts. That's fine as far as it goes, says Baltimore human sexuality educator Deborah M. Roffman, author of ''Sex & Sensibility, The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense about Sex" and the book ''but how'd I get in there in the first place? talking to your young child about sex" (both Perseus).
The downside is that, by fifth grade, the typical child defines sex as the juxtaposition of body parts for the act of reproduction, and that idea that sex equals intercourse is what stays with them. What's missing, of course, is the concept of intimacy.
By 7 or 8, Roffman's explanation of sex would also include something like this: ''Sex is a very special way that two grown-ups hug and kiss and touch one another. It makes them feel very close to each other and it gives their bodies great feelings of pleasure."
Sometime at about 9, Roffman also suggests finding a context for talking about arousal. For instance: ''Do you know why touching something hot makes your finger hurt? It's because it made certain nerve endings in your finger wake up. It's called arousal. It happens to our sex organs, too. Most of the time, sex organs are not aroused. But sometimes a person sees or hears or touches something, and experiences pleasurable feelings in their sexual organs. That's sexual arousal." With these concepts in place, it's just an extension of the conversation to convey your values about oral sex to your 12-year-old, she says.
If you haven't put down the foundation as Roffman describes, she would initiate a conversation with a child 12 or older: ''There's something we've never talked about and the subject is so important that I want you to hear it from me."
The typical preteen or teen will freak out as soon as you utter the words ''oral sex." That's OK. The purpose of the first conversations is simply to let your child know you can talk about it. ''Don't be put off," says Monica Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (siecus.org).
As if this wasn't difficult enough, what makes it even harder for parents is that there's a new breed of teens with which we have little first-hand experience. One is the ''macho girl" who says giving oral sex is empowering. ''She decides when to stop and when to go," says Lippincott. To a girl who says it's not sex, Roffman would say sex is more than intercourse: ''Sex is a variety of behaviors that are sexually arousing."
The other is the enlightened boy, raised by feminist-era parents, who gets that it's important to respect a girl but whose culture still expects him to ''prove he's a man."
Both need unambiguous information from parents. Steiner-Adair would tell a girl, ''You wouldn't want to be a mother at 13, would you, because you know you would be a better mother when you're older? Well, sexual behavior before you are ready can spoil the lover you could be in the future." To a boy she would emphasize that he shouldn't accept oral sex ''if you don't care about her, if you're not in a committed relationship, if it's not reciprocal, and if you're not ready to be sexually intimate and vulnerable."
Getting your values into the mix takes perseverance. ''This is not one conversation. It's many," says Rodriguez.
Perhaps the ultimate conversation to brace yourself for is the one in which your teen says he's had oral sex and regrets it.
''Don't overreact," urges Steiner-Adair. Whether it's a son or daughter, she might say, ''Sweetie, I'm so sorry. That must have been really uncomfortable." That may be too nice for some parents' tastes, but she says the only way a teen can tolerate turning to us is if we are nonjudgmental. It doesn't mean your values won't come through.
A daughter who tells you might think of herself as a ''slut." She needs to know she's not a bad person and that you still love her. A son probably feels confused: It felt good but he knows the context was bad. ''Boys get coerced into this a lot more than parents realize," by both girls and boys, Steiner-Adair says. She would tell him, ''I have so much respect for you. Your willingness to talk about it tells me already that you know this wasn't the right thing to do."
To each of them she would say, ''Let's try to figure out what was going on for you so that you understand yourself better, and you trust yourself not to make the same mistake twice."
Contact Barbara Meltz at firstname.lastname@example.org.