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Gay Youth, HIV Risk, and Parental Influence: The Power of Love


Imagine being a frightened parent who sees her child facing danger and is helpless to do anything about it.

Gay Youth, HIV Risk, and Parental Influence: The Power of Love

Adolescents and young adults, particularly males, are notorious risk-takers, and their parents, inveterate worriers. So, it is no wonder that parents are terrified as they launch their young gay sons into the world knowing they are exploring sexual relationships among a pool of people in which a sizeable proportion are believed to carry a dangerous, sexually transmitted virus.

Parents of all types of kids must find a way to reconcile themselves to the helplessness they feel when they realize they cannot fully prevent their children from engaging in risky behaviors, nor shield them from the consequences of such actions. However, this feeling of impotence can be exponentially greater for parents who must send their gay son into a world in which a moment of simple carelessness could leave him with a potentially fatal illness-so understandably they do what they can to convince their sons to be careful. As described by this mother of a gay 18 year-old:

Like any kid, he doesn't want to talk to me about sex so since my current thing is fear about his sexual activity...I wouldn't be in his face about it. But I am with him about this. So he gets mad at me. You know, "Leave me alone! I know all that!"

And this next mother:

He has told me that he has no problem jumping into bed with whomever because he thinks is cute. That is when the condom conversation starts.

When this mother's 17 year-old son was asked if he thought his mother worried about HIV, he responded:

I'm sure she does... She has tried to give me the talk and I always shut her up. Because I'm like, "You are my mother! We are just not going to have this conversation!"...I don't want to hear about them so why do they want to hear about me?

In most families, discussion of the children's (or parents') sex lives is notoriously difficult. Kids don't want to hear about their parent's sexuality (Yuck!) and most parents would rather not know the details of what their children are doing in bed. Considering that gay sons are engaging in sexual acts that are taboo and stigmatized makes sex even harder to talk about. Moreover, nervous parents often attempt to control their children in ways that not only don't work but instead push their sons away. In my own research, I have found when parents urged their sons to talk about their sexual experiences or hounded them to use condoms, they were ineffective. Sons found these attempts to be intrusive, embarrassing, and irritating--not exactly the result parents were trying for.

But Parents DO Have an Influence

The good news is that-family relationships can have an impact on a son's sexual behaviors. Among the gay youth I interviewed for my book, Coming Out, Coming Home(www.comingoutcominghome.com) , a little over half conceded that their parents had in fact influenced them to avoid unsafe sex. However, the influence they cited wasNOT their parents' cajoling lectures or nagging warnings. (Does that ever really work?). Instead, it was the young men's feelings of obligation to their parents to stay healthy-these feelings inspired them to either avoid anal sex altogether or consistently use condoms when they engaged in it. What seemed to hold sway for the youth was not what parents did but the relationship they maintained with their children. These guys knew that if they were sexually careless and got sick, they would not only hurt themselves but also those who loved them: 

You know my father always says: "I don't know what I would do... God forbid if you ever become HIV. I will still love you and I will be there for you and support you." But he was like--that fear of losing his son--possibly I could die if, God forbid I get this virus. That's why I'm so anal about safe sex. If someone doesn't have a condom they're not going back there, it's not gonna' happen. I just won't do it. (22-year old black gay youth)

After watching their parents react and eventually adjust to the news of their sexual orientation, sons do not want to risk further upsetting them with an HIV diagnosis. As stated by the following 18 year-old gay youth:

Since, like, there's people like her that I know care about me--it  just makes me want to take that extra step to, you know, use a condom or something. It was hard enough telling her I was gay. I would die if I had to tell her I was HIV positive.

Youth who explore their sexuality while feeling obliged to their parents to avoid unsafe sex are balancing their desire for sexual relationships with their concerns for their parents' feelings---a sure sign of the combination of family connectedness and independence that is the hallmark of emotional maturity.

After reading a scholarly article of mine on this topic, a respected colleague who does research on HIV prevention, asked with stunned incredulity, "Are you saying that a child's guilt is a good thing?" After a pause--during which I briefly felt...well... guilty for thinking guilt can be a good thing, I responded: "Yes, if it keeps the child safe." Guilt is a problem if parents use it excessively to manipulate their children but can in fact, be beneficial if it reminds kids that their behavior has implications for those who love them.

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