Do girls feel more pressure to have sex? Would a kid lie about being molested by a teacher? John Stossel examines these questions and more in his book, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel -- Why Everything You Know Is Wrong." Read about four different sex myths in this excerpt from his book, below.
MYTH: Girls feel the most pressure to have sex.
TRUTH: Boys say it isn't so.
It's an image we've all grown up with: The boys are aggressors and girls are reluctant prey. If it was ever that way, it isn't today.
Now it's boys, more than girls, who feel pushed into having sex. My colleague Deborah Roberts recently interviewed several high school students from New Jersey who confirmed a surprising survey from the Kaiser Foundation: 33 percent of teen boys feel pressure to have sex, compared to only 23 percent of girls.
HIGH SCHOOL BOY: Like, guys who were experienced with having sex, they'd be, like, going to younger kids, like, "Well, I have sex like, all of the time."
DEBORAH ROBERTS: So, does that make you feel the pressure to have sex, because you don't want to own up to not having done it?
HIGH SCHOOL BOY: [It] gets me nervous like, knowing that I'm at this age and I haven't -- done it yet. And, like, everyone else has so, like, maybe, like, I feel like I should be doing it.
2ND HIGH SCHOOL BOY: When you're with somebody, there's a lot of pressure from your friends. Like, all right now you're with her, how long is it going to take you? What are you waiting for?
Boys aren't necessarily the unabashed sexual predators we'd always assumed. Often, when they pressure girls, it's only because they feel pressure themselves.
MYTH: Talking to your kids about sex will make them want to have sex.
TRUTH: They're already thinking about it.
I understand why people hesitate to talk to teens about sex. It's logical to think that if we parents bring it up, our kids will think, "Oh, I guess it's time for us to do it."
Yet there's a lot the kids should know. Not talking about sex leaves room for so much ignorance. Years ago, there was so little sex talk that even adults were ignorant. That's actually why we now have products like Kellogg's Corn Flakes and graham crackers. People thought spicy foods would lead kids to have sex -- Dr. Justin Richardson, author of "Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid They'd Ask," explained that those bland foods were designed to avoid "inflaming the sexual appetite." Today we know more about sex, and parents are told, "Don't wait for the kids to ask, you bring it up." I spoke to Dr. Richardson.
STOSSEL: Couldn't bringing up the subject backfire? If you tell a twelveyear- old kid about sex, they're going to want to go have sex.
DR. JUSTIN RICHARDSON: That's the myth and it's a really common fear. But the research says the answer is no.
STOSSEL: And how can that be? I mean I would think the twelve-year-old, the fourteen-year-old says, "Gee, if everybody is talking about it, I should check this stuff out." He might have never thought about it before then.
DR. JUSTIN RICHARDSON: You may not be going there as a parent. But believe me, their friends are going there! And the media is going there. They're hearing about sex. What you want to do is lend your voice to the chorus. It's important to make sure that somebody is talking to your kid about sex other than their best buddy or a character on a television show.
Twenty-eight studies of school sex education programs, regardless of whether they teach abstinence or condoms, found no suggestion that early sex discussions lead to earlier experimentation. Nine studies concluded it made the kids wait longer to have sex. Of course sex ed isn't the same as parents ed (there are no controlled studies on parents talking to children), but every expert we asked said: Talk to your kids.
Susan's daughter, Emily, was twelve when Susan decided to have The Talk.
SUSAN: I said, the best time to do this is in the car.
EMILY: She locked the doors, wouldn't let me get out. [Emily was so uncomfortable, she wouldn't look at her mother.] I looked at my feet, the floor, out the window. Anywhere else but at my mom.
But she said the talk itself was comforting, and her mother was glad she did it. "I think it relieved some of the things that were going on in her head about the other kids in school. And I think it gave her what she needed."
MYTH: "My teacher molested me." Kids wouldn't make up stuff like that!
TRUTH: Yes, they would.
This trendy media scare sent people to jail. Many were innocent of any crime, but they were convicted by the court of public opinion. The witnesses against them were children who testified to horrible events -- events which, in many cases, never happened. But when the media express gets rolling, people get run over.
One victim was Kelly Michaels, a New Jersey preschool teacher convicted in 1988 of molesting twenty children in bizarre and sadistic ways. She spent five years in prison before an appeals court ruled that prosecutors had planted suggestions in the minds of the children who testified against her.
I don't blame the kids; I blame the prosecutors and the media. Reporters' imaginations and keyboards were fired up in 1983 by accusations of sodomy and satanic abuse at a California day-care center called the McMartin Preschool. The woman who started the barrage of charges was later discovered to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Her claims of devil-worship and sadism were outlandish on their face, but never mind: It was "good copy." Headlines blared, prosecutors roared, and seven people were charged in a total of 135 criminal counts.
It was nonsense. But the defendants had their lives ruined. The case against them was cooked up by therapists and social workers who planted suggestions in the minds of impressionable children, who then told horrendous tales to prosecutors. The prosecutors also listened to the drumbeats of the media, which stirred a different witches' brew for every news cycle.
Kids are highly impressionable. We know that, but psychology professor Stephen Ceci proved it in a study at Cornell University. He told me, "We are now discovering that if you put kids who were not abused through the same kind of highly leading, repetitive interview, some of those children will disclose events that seem credible but, in fact, are not borne out in actuality."
Ceci set up an experiment where he and his researchers asked kids silly questions like:
RESEARCHER: Have you ever had your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?
RESEARCHER: No? At first, the kids say no. Then, once a week for the next ten weeks, the researchers ask the question again.
RESEARCHER: You went to the hospital because your finger got caught in a mousetrap?
BOY: And it --
RESEARCHER: Did that happen?
By week four or six or ten, about half of the kids say, "Yes, it happened." Many give such precise information that you'd think it must have happened.
RESEARCHER: Did it hurt?
RESEARCHER: Yeah? Who took you to the hospital?
BOY: My daddy, my mommy, my brother.
RESEARCHER: Where in your house is the mousetrap?
BOY: It's down in the basement.
RESEARCHER: What is it next to in the basement?
BOY: It's next to the firewood.
By the time I met that boy, weeks after the experiment was over, he still "remembered" convincing details about things that never happened.
STOSSEL: Was there a time when you got your finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital?
STOSSEL: Who went with you to the hospital?
BOY: My mom and my dad and my brother Colin, but not the baby. He was in my mom's tummy.
What he told me was even more remarkable because just a few days before, his father discussed the experiment with him, explained that it was just a test, and that the mousetrap event never happened. The boy agreed—it was just in his imagination.
But when he talked to me, the boy denied the conversation with his father, and insisted the mousetrap story was true.
STOSSEL: Did your father tell you something about the mousetrap finger story?
STOSSEL: Is it true? Did it really happen?
BOY: It wasn't a story. It really happened.
STOSSEL: This really happened? You really got your finger caught? This really happened?
Why would the boy lie to me? I said to Professor Ceci that I assumed he wasn't intentionally making up the story. Ceci said, "I think they've come to believe it. It is part of their belief system."
Some molestation "experts" thought they'd come closer to the truth by giving kids anatomically correct dolls. With dolls, the social workers wouldn't have to ask so many questions. They could just say, "Imagine you are the doll; what did the teacher touch?" Lawyers argued that kids "wouldn't make up" what had been done to the doll. But Ceci's colleague Dr. Maggie Bruck conducted tests that showed that they would.
Bruck had a pediatrician add some extra steps to his routine physical examination. He measured the child's wrists with a ribbon, he put a little label on the child's stomach, and he tickled the child's foot with a stick. Never did the doctor go anywhere near the child's private parts. Then, a few days after the exam, using an anatomically correct doll, Bruck and the child's father asked leading questions about the doctor's exam. We caught it on tape.
FATHER: So what did he do?
GIRL: He put a stick in my vagina.
FATHER: He put a stick in your vagina?
[Then the girl claimed the doctor hammered the stick into her vagina. And she said the doctor examined her rectum.]
DR. BRUCK: He was where?
GIRL: In my hiney.
None of it was true. But when dolls were used, half the kids who'd never had their private parts touched claimed the doctor touched them. The tests made Dr. Bruck question her prior faith in the testimony of children. She told me she thinks dozens of innocent people are in jail.
Dr. Ceci told me their leading questions were mild compared to what the investigators asked: "What we do . . . doesn't come close, for example, to what was done in the Kelly Michaels case."
The appellate court decision that set Kelly Michaels free garnered just a smidgeon of the media attention her trial and conviction got. After she was freed, she told me about her nightmare.
MS. MICHAELS: One day you're getting ready for work and making coffee, minding your business, trying to get along as best you can, being a reasonable, decent, honorable citizen, and the next minute you are an accused child molester with the most bizarre -- I'd never even heard of such things even being done.
STOSSEL: They say you inserted objects, including Lego blocks, forks, spoons, serrated knives into their anuses, vaginas, penises --
MS. MICHAELS: And a sword. It was in there.
STOSSEL: -- and a sword --
MS. MICHAELS: Yeah.
STOSSEL: -- that you made children drink your urine, that you made kids take their clothes off and licked peanut butter off them. It's very hard to believe, yet the jury believed it and not you.
MS. MICHAELS: No one was willing to doubt a child.
The media certainly wasn't. Professional skepticism took a holiday in the face of "good copy."
The media like bad news, and tend to believe it.
MYTH: Teens need their parents less.
TRUTH: Teens need parents just as much.
Many parents pull away when their teenage kids grow quiet, or moody, and act like they don't need us. The moodiness comes as a shock because when they were preteens, the kids were so attached to us. Now they often act as if they don't care if we're alive or dead. Part of us understands that this is a necessary breaking away, a separation from parents that has to happen during adolescence for the teen to become an independent adult. But it is hard to watch. I liked how Dr. Foster framed it. He said, "Why put it in terms of rebellion? Why not put it in terms of a transition from listening to you, the parent, to listening to himself, as the adult?"
It's no longer enough for us to tell them the stove is hot; now they have to touch it themselves. I grew up in the 1960s, when we rebelled in all kinds of ways that bugged our parents. In the '50s, there was rock and roll. Now teens may dye their hair, pierce their tongues. It's the rite of passage, the need to try out new personalities, and become a separate person. If it appalls parents, so much the better -- because that reassures the teen that he is achieving a degree of independence.
But teens do need rules, and they need us, reminded the experts. Some of us parents feel that, by the time our kids are teens, we no longer have any influence, because the only people teens will really listen to are their peers. But that's not true.
Every psychologist we consulted told us teenagers may act as if they don't like our questions, but they do hear them, and they would be sad if we stopped asking. "You have an enormous amount of influence," Dr. Foster told me. "Deep down, your kid is feeling unloved and scared."
Interviewing teens, I was surprised at how often I heard that.
FIRST MALE TEEN: I've always been so scared of, you know, what am I going to do with my life?
SECOND MALE TEEN: I really wish I was, like, a lot closer with my dad especially, because he, like, gets home from work at, like, five or six o'clock and then he goes into his room and watches basketball and football or whatever season it is.
FIRST MALE TEEN: You know, sometimes I wish that they would be more strict, like, you know, set a little more rules. I know I'm going to regret [saying it on TV].
STOSSEL: Why would you want them to be more strict? That would take away your freedom.
FIRST MALE TEEN: Because if they're more strict, then, like, they participate more in my life.
Teenagers may not show it, but they do want our interest and want us to set limits. It makes them feel safe and loved. Research actually shows the current teen generation feels unusually close to their parents. I thought their heroes were rock stars, professional athletes, and friends, but the researchers said, "No, go ask them and you'll see." So I did.
STOSSEL: Who would you say are the people in your lives that are the most important to you?
FIRST MALE TEEN: My parents.
SECOND MALE TEEN: Mostly my father.
THIRD MALE TEEN: Both my parents. So it went. We are still very important to them.
But they are hard to talk to. To maintain communication, the therapists advised, don't lecture. Instead, said Mira Kirshenbaum, "Ask questions. Listen, listen, listen!"
"If you ask your kid questions about how she felt and why she did it and what it meant," said Dr. Foster, "she's going to feel that you are a safe person to tell things to. Then you can say, 'Can I tell you how I feel?' You've earned the right now to talk about how you feel because she's opened up first," he explained. "That's how parents who really do have influence with their kids get influence, by listening to their teenagers talk first."
Only after you listen should you say what you would do. The teens may not act like they hear it, but the experts say it will make a difference later. After all, surveys show most young adults eventually do adopt their parents' values.
For many parents, what worries them most during the teen years is the sexual experimentation. By the end of high school, about half the teens in America say they've had sex. It's always tough for parents to talk to kids about sex, especially when the kids roll their eyes and act like they don't want to talk to you about anything. But they do.
Watch John Stossel's special "The Age of Consent" next Friday, March 14 at 10 p.m. ET