A Buddhist Approach to Sex and Your Teenager

If we are honest, as parents we would all probably like to see our children join a monastery and be celibate until they are older and more mature! How many of us can forget the turbulent early years of trying to negotiate our own sexual terrain? In this article, I would like to introduce a mindful approach to sexuality and parenting.
Evolution created our desire to procreate and then made the experience pleasurable. We are driven by millions of years of genetic tendencies and whether we like it or not, without sex we would not be here. It is a vital, ordinary and necessary part of life. The problem is that we often ignore our evolutionary proclivity and pretend that we can somehow control our instinctive drives. Religions have interfered by creating strict rules about the who, what and how of sexual relations. Most of these notions are based upon fear of either displeasing the deity or becoming “impure”.
We artificially create social constraints to hold back this vast evolutionary energy but these restrictions usually end up failing. For example, we want our children to wait until they are older to have sex when nature has pretty much secured their sexual potential by age 12 or 13. We traditionally have very different expectations of girls’ conduct as opposed to boys. Some of us believe that the images American pop culture creates have oversexed our youngsters, everything from Elvis’s hip gyrations to the soft porn rap videos on MTV. Some of us try to keep our children from this exposure through strict controls on what they watch or wear. But in the end, no matter the extent of our control, nature will find a way.
My wife and I decided early on that we would not make sex a taboo in our home. We also hoped that we could raise our son in such a way that he would be inclined to follow our advice, not through fear but through understanding (incidentally our same approach to the subject of drugs and alcohol). We let him take the lead and as he grew into puberty, we watched him change from finding girls annoying to alluring. He suddenly developed hygiene and began to be concerned about how he looked. He developed crushes and was sometimes crushed by them too.  We encouraged him to be open about these feelings and tried to create a very liberal atmosphere where he would feel comfortable talking with us. We helped him establish friendships with adults we trusted with whom he could turn to discuss sex if he wasn’t comfortable conversing with us. Ultimately, we wanted him to share our values with regard to sex.
The following is an example of our approach, not necessarily to be copied, but rather to provide one idea that has worked very well with our now 20-year-old son. Some of the content is very mature and if anyone finds it offensive for religious or moral reasons, I apologize in advance.
Samuel Clemens once quipped that “masturbation is the best policy” and I have to agree. Early on I had a frank discussion with our son and encouraged him to use masturbation as a way to explore his own sexual feelings. I explained that sex was completely natural and good and that masturbation was a way to satisfy the drive. I encouraged him to allow his fantasies to be a source of pleasure and not to judge anything as forbidden or “bad”. I advised him to read about the subject and learn everything he could.
As he matured, I suggested that he also study how to do this with a partner and recommended keeping sex to mutual masturbation (what our parents used to call “heavy petting”) to minimize the risk of STDs and pregnancy. At the same time, he could learn to be a better lover.  While intercourse is often upheld as the holy grail of sexual relations, most men (this I learned from 25 years of counseling) do not really know how to please a woman. They often rush into intercourse without much concern for the well being of their partner. I advised my son that instead of focusing on intercourse, he take his time and learn to really physically connect with a woman.  I further reasoned that having intercourse when a person is not mature enough to provide emotionally and financially for a child is irrational and selfish.  I gave him multiple examples of children who grow up with insufficient affection from their parents and how they will seek it out in other relationships. I showed him the proper use of a condom and stressed that he always use one, regardless of a partner’s indicated birth control method.
One of the other main ideas I tried to communicate was that he not confuse sex with love. Our culture has tended to either romanticize or degrade sex. Our choice is often portrayed as either sex as love or sex as sin. The reality is that sex can occur without love and love can blossom without sex. When sex is confused with love it lends itself to peer pressure. I can’t tell you how many women have confessed to me that their first time sexually was to prove that they “loved” someone. As a counselor, I have also witnessed that sex is not required to have a wonderful, loving long-term relationship. Many older couples whom I have counseled have demonstrated that even when the libido fades or health problems inhibit sex, a relationship can continue to grow deeper.
Another important concept is to enjoy sex as another way to have fun together. Don’t make too much of it or expect it to always cause fireworks. A simple rule of thumb has been that many men require sex to feel more emotionally connected and that many women feel just the opposite. It seems a quirk of our evolutionary past where males were driven to create progeny to carry on their genes and females needed security to undertake the long maturation process of children. A willingness to maintain open and honest conversations around these realities improves everyone’s happiness.
Sexual mores have always been fluid across societies—some of them were probably more realistic than ours and some more harmful, especially to women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folks. In some ancient cultures, when a young person matured sexually, special members of the tribe would instruct them in the ways of sex and even help them to find a partner. In others, it was a sacred elder who would guide them in the ways of sex and procreation. Many older cultures prearranged relationships for their children and some even held up the ideal of finding that special soulmate.  I believe that we can learn a lot from these cultures and perhaps integrate certain aspects that would serve us now. While I personally consider a very open and frank view of sexuality to be the best approach to sexual relations, I am also a proponent of long-term committed relationships that require love, respect and familial bonds.
Finally, I offer this parable from evolution. About 2.5 million years ago, as a result of environmental changes, two different groups of primates split off from a common ancestry. One group, to the north of the Congo, became known as chimpanzees, the other to the south became known as bonobos. What is striking is the stark differences in sexual relationships. For the chimps, males dominate harems that often involve abuse and infanticide. They can be murderous. Sexual relations between between chimps is very carefully controlled and often the basis of group violence.  In direct contrast are the peace-loving bonobos. They are not only more intelligent than chimps but also have little violence with no record of murder. Because everyone is having sex with everyone else, and consequently there is an obscured paternity, the young are literally raised by the whole group.

Some scientists speculate about why these two groups are so vastly different from one another, but one thing is clear: the group that favored sexual openness developed into a peaceful and admirable culture. Those that tried to control sex became a lot more like us. While I am neither advocating promiscuity nor suggesting that awareness of one’s parentage is unimportant, one cannot help but wonder if our closest cousins have something to teach us.

Previous articleDiscovering Culture Through the Olympics
Next articleThe Science Behind Bilingual Children’s Brains
With over two decades of leadership in Engaged Buddhism (community organizing, social issues, faith and politics), Sensei Tony Stultz is also an internationally recognized expert on the use of Mindfulness Counseling. He is the Founder and Director of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society, former director of the Cambridge Zen Group and former leader of the Harvard Buddhist Fellowship. He is the author of SoulQuest: Zen Lessons for the Journey of Life (2000), The Book of Common Meditation (2003), Free Your Mind (2007), The Invisible Sun (2010), Mere Buddhism (2010), and a contributing author to Engaged Buddhism in the West (2000) as well as Action Dharma (2003). He studied Buddhist Philosophy at Harvard and Oxford and received a Masters Degree in Theology from the prestigious Episcopal Divinity School. He also runs the Center for Mindfulness Counseling, integrating Eastern and Western counseling techniques. Sensei Stultz is available for private counseling and direction.


  1. I encountered this article by chance. I wasn’t searching for this type of parenting advice, but I am so glad I found it. This is extremely non-traditional, and having grown up in a more traditional family, my first instinct is to reject it. However, having grown up in a traditional family, I know first hand that the traditional approach to sex does not work; I was pregnant at sixteen. I am wondering now, before my son grows up, how I can teach him to respect and understand sex before his hormones make him a crazy person. It will take me a while to mull over this approach. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  2. Im a monkey lover! And when my little monkey grows up, hes half american and half italian, I know his father will teach him with an open mind the pleasures of masturbation. I will be open and loving and aware of his maturity, but I suppose this area willbe better addressed by papà. We have been fortunate to have a relationship with each other and with our son in a way that follows my understanding of buddism, and look forward to readingmore of your writiings.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here