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I feel like a hypocrite but I don't want my younger sister to have sex

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Shell0523 asks:

Hey, so I'm a nineteen-year-old male who has been sexually active for the past three years. I've been with a few girls (I was only in a "real" relationship with one) since I lost my virginity at sixteen. The thing is that I have a sister who's fifteen and I just found out that she and her seventeen-year-old boyfriend have started having sex. I don't want her to be doing anything like that-at least not until she is living on her own. Am I being a hypocrite, considering I was about her age when I started having sex?

Lena replies:

Hello Shell,

You bring up a good point here, something that most people with siblings deal with in some way or another. I am going to answer your question based on my background and experience as an older sister, sociologist, and online sex educator here at Scarleteen.

Concerned older brother or hypocrite with double standards?

My quick answer is both yes and no. The longer reply is that it really depends on the specific reasons why you don’t think your younger sister should be having sex.

I don’t believe it’s hypocritical for you to care for your sister’s well being. In fact, it shows me that you have a concerned, loving relationship with your sister and what sibling could ask for more? The fact that she brought it up with you– I’m going to assume she told you rather than you finding out through someone else– tells me that she trusts you and feels comfortable enough to share her life with you. Your support, understanding and, most likely, approval are very important to her.

However, I do also agree that it’s hypocritical for you to not want her to be sexually active at 15 while living at home when you were– and continue to be– doing the same thing since around her age. That said, let’s now explore this in depth because it’s not as simple, cut and dried as a yes or a no.

We may not be made of clay but we are shaped by our surrounding

We are raised by a number of institutions, from our family to our schooling to our government to our religious organization and beyond. Someone who grows up attending a church where no sex before marriage is preached is going to approach sex and sexuality differently than someone who grows up with the Scarleteen book, S.E.X., as their “bible” of sorts. At Scarleteen, we’re obviously partial to an inclusive, empowering and sex positive attitude, but if another philosophy is your thing, then go for it!

Just as we are affected by what we’ve been taught, we’re also shaped by our experiences– good, bad, and ugly– as is our worldview on everything from spiciness of food to attitudes towards sex. What is your family’s attitude towards sex? What have your sexual education and experiences been like?

Let’s talk about you and your experiences first, so I’ll throw a slew of questions your way: How have your sexual experiences been? What was it like becoming sexually active? Please tell me more about your one relationship as well as the other encounters– friends with benefits or hook-ups, I assume! Have you discussed sex and/or relationships with your friends, male and/or female, and what have their experiences been like?

Perhaps all your experiences have been great, but you may also have learned some stuff the hard way. Maybe you’d wished you waited a bit longer before becoming sexually active, because you look back and feel you weren’t mature enough yet. Perhaps your family is not supportive of teenagers being sexually active outside of marriage and you had to sneak around, something you don’t want your sister having to do. Maybe you’ve seen friends not be so respectful of their sexual partners or others. Maybe you feel sad or upset when you hear female friends describe sexual encounters did not go positively. For all these reasons and more, it’d understandable that you, as a caring person and especially as a concerned sibling, would want your sister to not go through the same thing.

It can be tricky to find a balance between giving good– solicited or unsolicited-- advice and being a nag. To borrow an example from my own life, there are some safety precautions that I won’t budge on, such as having all passengers buckle their seatbelts in the car. Conversely, I have to pick my battles and there are so things I have to let people experience on their own. Then they can learn from their experiences and make up their own minds, such as refusing to wear a really warm coat on a cold day and later deciding to always bundle up. The same thing applies to people’s sexual decisions; we want to help people to make good decisions but also don’t want to micromanage their lives.

We want to protect those we love so they do not get hurt, but if we overprotect them we risk their pushing us away or detouring them on their road to independence, something essential for being fully-functioning and happy adults. If you think this is hard as an older brother, imagine what it is like for parents who deal with this all the time– for better or for worse!

Siblings and their sex lives

For those of us with siblings, our relationships with each other tend to be multifaceted, dynamic, and ever changing as we, our surroundings, and our situations change over time. For all the happy memories of sleepovers and shared secrets to the unhappy memories of stolen clothing and sibling rivalry, the bad can become good and good can become bad and so on. Your teenage or adult relationship as brother and sister will probably be different from that as children, but it sounds like you two have a very good framework of sharing and support.

Throw sex into the mix and it gets more complicated. I know it can sometimes feel weird talking about sex to siblings whereas hearing about friends’ experiences can be fun while talking with strangers about sex can seem much easier. It also depends on the particular subject up for discussion; for example, it may feel fine to talk about safer sex tools with a sibling but feel funky to discuss specific sexual activities in detail.

As her older brother, you want her to be happy, healthy and safe; being older, you probably also feel a certain need to protect her. Likewise, as an older sister, I understand this feeling. Growing up, I would have much rather had something bad happen to me than a younger brother or sister. As an adult sibling, I will admit to sometimes feeling the same way you do about your sister being sexually active. For example, whereas I might feel OK and ready for to be in a certain age-disparate relationship myself, I hypocritically think: “If some sleazy old dude tries to get with my little sister, he had better watch out!” or I might contemplate, “I hate to think how some guys will get a girl pregnant and abandon her!” but also worry about a brother wanting to be safe but ending up with a girl who says she’s using birth control but secretly wants to become pregnant.

Tell me why…

I will spare you the Backstreet Boys song that popped into my head out of nowhere, because this isn’t really about heartbreak, I hope not! But I will ask exactly what bothers you about your sister having sex right now? If it is because you think she should put off sex simply or mostly because she’s a girl, whereas it was OK for you to be sexually active as a boy, that’s something I’d address in a bit.

Do you see any red flags about this relationship or your sister overall that make you wary of her being sexually active. Is it because you don’t think she’s ready yet emotionally? Is there something about her boyfriend that rubs you the wrong way? Has her behavior changed or has been become more secretive? Has she suddenly started doing worse in school or stopped hanging out with her best friends? Does she ever say things like, “Everyone is having sex at school except for me!” or do you think she a negative self-image?

Let’s talk about sex baby (sister or brother)

While we can’t usually control what sort of (at times hypocritical) feelings pop into our heads as concerned older siblings, we can control how we deal with them. In fact, if we do so in a kind and careful way, we can discuss most everything, even the trickiest of topics.

For example, to revisit the sibling-in-a-age-disparate-relationship thread I mentioned earlier, here are two conversations I could have. Which one looks better to you?

Concerned sibling conversation about sex, Take One!

Sister with much-older partner:“I love Dylan, he’s sooo romantic and mature and nothing like those high school guys I’ve dated.”
Me: “What!?! Dylan’s a sketchy scumbag and I can’t understand how you’d ever find that loser attractive?! If I ever see the two of you somewhere out together, I’m going to beat him up!”
Sister with much-older partner: “Fine, then I’m going to do what I want and you can’t stop me. I knew you wouldn’t understand, you never understand! YOU better watch out because Dylan could totally kick your ***!”

Whoops, that didn’t go over too well and might even have the reverse effect I had hoped for. My sister got defensive when I put her boyfriend–- and, unwittingly, her taste-- down. It’s even more escalated now that since potential violence was added to the mix. Chances are we’re both feeling frustrated and angry.

Now let’s try it again with a different approach.

Concerned sibling conversation about sex, Take Two!

Sister with much-older partner: “I love Dylan, he’s sooo romantic and mature and nothing like those high school guys I’ve dated.”
Me: “Hey, I know you really like Dylan and feel he’s different from other guys you’ve dated. But I’m also a little concerned because you seem to be worrying a lot more than before and even stressed when you come home from dates. Is everything OK?”
Sister with much-older partner: “Well, it’s OK… for the most part. Sometimes I feel like I’m not mature enough for him and have to act older. He’ll take me to parties with college kids and it’s cool but I really wanted to go to the school dance this weekend. I didn’t want to tell him to come because I didn’t want to seem like a baby.”
Me: “I’m sorry to hear that. You know, I’m older than you but we hang out and can have a lot of fun! How is spending time with Dylan different?” or “Wanting to go to the school dance isn’t babyish at all! I went all through high school and had fun. Why didn’t you want to ask Dylan?”
Sister: “Well…”

There I’ve gone and opened up the conversation. I carefully picked my words and tried really hard to listen and validate my sister’s feelings. The key is just listening, showing you care without seeming judgmental, trying to be open-minded, and leaving the door open for future conversations. Instead of threatening physical harm upon a potential harm doer to my sibling like in the first scenario, I can have a mature and respectful conversation, express my concern as well as experience without getting preachy or off-putting. Even if my sibling were to continue the relationship, she would keep what I said in mind and knew she could come to me again. It can be really hard to find a balance, especially when you’re so concerned, but it’s worth a try on both parts for the long-term.

Older and wiser… or more worrisome?

It’s also worth mentioning that younger siblings can be equally concerned about older siblings. The added challenge that they face is that they may feel more like passive observers because they are younger and have less experience or knowledge. They are also likely looking up to older siblings for guidance and learn from example, both what to do and what not to do. It can be tough for older siblings trying to be themselves and find their way. Younger siblings may put their older siblings on pedestals while not quite understanding what they’re going through and then become disappointed when their hero doesn’t live up to their standards or morals.

Younger siblings, or older ones for that matter, can also feel caught between their parents’ wishes and their siblings’ desires. In the late 80s-early 90s there was a popular US television series set in the late 60s-early 70s called The Wonder Years that featured, among other things, a family dealing with challenging issues during an already challenging time in American history. The main character and narrator Kevin played by Fred Savage feels really stuck between a rock and a hard place when his hippie older sister and overbearing dad have a falling out over her living with her boyfriend at college: Kevin wants to stay close to the older sister he loves and recognizes that his dad is overreacting while he also wants to respect his dad’s wishes; he isn’t sure what to do or who to listen to. That’s just one scenario where a conflict of interests where siblings gets caught in the middle.

The phase “no one likes a tattletale” is pretty true, but there are absolutely times when it’s important to inform a parent or other trusted adult. You may not be her parent but you are a trusted adult; sometimes you have to play the “bad guy” and tell when nit’s actual the good thing to do. For example, if you see someone in an abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationship or see someone harming him or herself or very likely to do so, it would be key to get additional help.

I don’t know how your family feels about teenagers having sex; I would hope that you are all very open and supportive of each other, that your sister can ask to see a gynecologist and explore birth control options, but I know that isn’t always the case. While here at Scarleteen we do encourage openness and talking to parents when one is sexually active, spilling the beans just to get her to stop seeing her boyfriend when things seem otherwise OK would seem unfair when you were and continue to be sexually active while living at home, too. However, I don’t think this is an issue here.

Home Sweet Home: Or how living at home can seem sweeter for adult men than women

Speaking of living at home and being sexually active, if you feel she should wait until leaving home until becoming sexually active because she is female, I would seriously encourage you to reconsider your double standard. I don’t mean to get on your back when you obviously mean well, but this reasoning would frankly be unfair. Did you ever see the show Hogan Knows Best on VH1? At first glance, it epitomized a Happy Family – be it one with loads of money and celebrity status –- with a dad very much in charge and calling the shots. I only saw an episode or two until the issue of daughter Brooke dating came up. Whereas the son was allowed to rule the roost and do what he like, the younger daughter was – quite admittedly held to a double standard when it came to dating. Way off-putting and totally uncool… and how surprising to hear this family’s “traditional values” turned out to be quite the nightmare with the son driving drunk and having an accident that will require his injured friend to spend the rest of his life on life support and the father having an affair with a high school friend of his daughter’s! Too bad that the so-called “traditional family values” there didn’t prevent the rest of the family from controversial if not downright immoral behavior.

To move from reality TV to sociological research, for young people living in Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, the UK, the US and beyond, there are significantly more young adult men than young adult women aged 18-24 living at home. In this day and age with global economic woes growing in addition to almost always great service at “Hotel Mama,” living at home can be either a lucrative option or an unwanted necessity. However, for a number of reasons in a number of places, many more women live on their own than men. Among those reasons is the young women’s wanting freedom. Traditional gender roles often mean the daughters are expected to help pitch in and take on familial responsibilities in addition to their studies or jobs, whereas the older men often get looked after and taken care of. Additionally, there may be the double standard of girls not feeling comfortable or able to be sexually active while living at home whereas the guys don’t. Does the same thing apply to your family? If it does or is the reason you’re uncomfortable, it is pretty unfair, right?

I encourage you to examine your perceptions of family life and gender roles, should this play a part in your feelings. To put in one way, in some much more traditional cultures, there is a concept of “honor killings” where a family member murders a relative for “dishonoring” the family. For example, this could include being sexually active outside of marriage. I’m sure this idea seems completely wrong to you as it does to me. While I’m all for respecting cultural differences, this is something I cannot condone in any way or form. This is a far extreme, if also an unfortunate reality for some, but the idea behind it is in the same vein of it seeming OK for a male but not female to be sexually active while living at home as a teenager. Again, I don’t mean to jump to conclusions or assume in any way that this is where you’re coming from but rather frame things in a different way.

So, what can you do?

You certainly can discuss your feelings with your sister. In addition to the possible conversation above, here are some things to keep in mind.

Engage: It sounds like you and your sister are already pretty close; however, engaging her in a discussion about sex and relationships would likely be timely and appropriate if done the right way. She may even really be hoping to discuss this with you but be too afraid to mention it. You can always write a letter or even text message if that makes it easier at first.

Include: I’m sure you and your sister already spend time together but a little more never hurts. If you feel her relationship is becoming all encompassing or that she’s letting school slide, giving her a new perspective and inspiration to stay focused academically would be nice. For example, if you attend college, inviting your sister to visit campus would help her see what college life is like and help keep on track academically; plus, you seem even cooler in her eyes (and you get “nice big brother” points from the people around you!) If you work, invite her to come visit your workplace for the day or a few hours or join you and your coworkers at lunchtime.

If she’s having this relationship because she’s not feeling so close to family or friends, your spending time with her as well as helping her explore other hobbies and interests outside the relationship will help her fill that void. (After all, a romantic and/or sexual relationship can’t and shouldn’t meet all our social needs in life—something you know as someone who lives a full life while single.)

Doing special things together like watching a movie or attending a sporting event can be a lot of fun, but doing errands or other everyday stuff together can really open the floor for some serious discussions. A lot of this has to do with not having direct eye contact while getting stuff done, taking the pressure off and making the situation seem a little safer. You might be surprised at how many children come out to their parents with tough stuff while en route: “Mom, I think I’m gay” or “Dad, I’m pregnant.” What do two do isn’t so important as much as just doing something. Try to include her boyfriend as well – even if it means resisting an urge to chew him out or ask probing questions a la “What are your intentions with my sister?!” – is good because you can get to know him better, too, and observe his and your sister’s relationship dynamic. In fact, your sister’s boyfriend might have some of the same traits you do, whether or not she conscientiously realizes it or not.

Inform: If your sister does already know about Scarleteen, this is a perfect time to share the site with her. Helping her become more informed will help empower her and, ultimately, help make the best decisions. Sharing an outside source also puts some of the pressure off of you as she can explore the information more privately and then bring up specifics later. Teaching her about safer sex, be it simply showing her the link to an article, is especially important and is one way to really show you really care. It also can open the door to pick up on dangerous behaviors, should they be present: “But my boyfriend says we don’t need to use condoms!” I have included some links for you and her at the end of my reply, but the whole site has so much to offer.

Advise: You can express your concerns to her about being sexually active; I’m sure she’d be glad to here them if you pose them in a respectful, non-judgmental way. (Please see above for some phrasing suggestions.) Please do remember that the two of you are different people and in different situations. For example, I’m not one to say that sex should only occur in committed relationships – not at all actually – she’s sexually active in what seems to be a serious relationship whereas you have experienced mostly more casual scenarios. (Also fine!) It’s also important to live by example; you should do what you want but remember it’s important to put actions behind our words. For example, if you want her to use safer sex in her relationship, so should you.

The bottom line is your being open, welcome, and accepting. Telling her you love her no matter what is important, even if you don’t always agree with her actions. Letting her know that you always will come pick her up, for example, also shows her you’ll be there for her.

You sound like a really caring older brother, something so many people could only wish for! You are feeling what you’re feeling but also are smartly reflecting upon it; you’re brave enough to call your own values or feelings into question, something that’s never easy but commendable. You are surely one of the most important people in your sister’s life, a loving brother and important role model and that’s pretty special. I wish the two of you luck with this discussion and please do come back with any more questions here or on the message boards!

Some articles for you and your sister to check out:
Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner While this was written with sexual partners in mind, most of it can certainly be applied to other discussions.
Birth Control Bingo!
A Calm View from the Eye of the Storm: Hysteria, Youth and Sexuality
Potholes & Dead Ends: Relationship Roadblocks to Look Out For
Safe, Sound & Sexy: A Safer Sex How-To
Safer Sex...for Your Heart
Sexual Health 101: Hers
What is Feminist Sex Education?
Yield for Pleasure
Your First Gynecologist Visit
Magical Cups & Bloody Brides: Virginity in Context
I'm 13 and totally sure I'm ready for sex

written 17 Jan 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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