Love, Sex and Tenderness: Dr. Sommer, the Birds and the Bees

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In sex positive Germany, millions of teens first learn the ins and outs of flirting, falling in love and having sex in a wildly popular column in Bravo magazine. "Dr. Sommer" has been teaching kids how to do it since 1969.

Ask your German friends where they first learned about the birds and the bees and nine times out of 10 they'll say the same thing: Bravo, that pop-culture, teeny music mag that at first glance looks more like a publicity rag for Tokio Hotel than a periodical for the young and pubescent.

But far from merely hinting at sexuality like Tiger Beat or Smash Hits, the German puberty catalyst actually takes its pedagogical prerogatives seriously -- and doesn't shy away from visuals.

Lodged between the ads for tampons, zit concealers and mobile phone ring tones is a weekly sex advice column splashed with photos of teenagers, au naturel -- kind of like Penthouse Letters for kids. It's the kind of thing that would land the publishers in jail were it to hit newsstands on the other side of the Atlantic. If the Christian right or America's comb-over Congress got their hands on this, the courts would be busy for months.

But this is sex-positive Germany, not the Bible Belt. And here there are few taboos when it comes to telling kids where to insert the dipstick should they need to check the oil. The cultural epicenter of this sex-friendly youth society is "Dr. Sommer," the weekly Bravo column that has been providing teens with sex advice since its birth during the 1969 Summer of Love. And the Germans love it. The column's liberating message to teens has been greeted with open arms from across the religious and political spectrum. Indeed, it's not unusual for the column's staff to receive invitations to church groups to deliver youth sexuality sermons.

"It's true that there are fewer taboos about sex in Germany than in many other countries," says Dr. Eveline von Arx, the 31-year-old Swiss editor who has served as the pseudonymous Dr. Sommer since 2003. "In each issue of Bravo, we interview two youth about very intimate issues and publish nude photos of them. The idea of having naked teens in a magazine in the United States would be unthinkable. But in Germany, we're more open about these things." It's no coincidence, she adds, "that this column was created in the time of the Sexual Revolution. At the time, society became much more open-minded and that, of course, is still the case today."

That's not to say that Bravo is a cheap skin mag -- nor does the weekly seek to become the Teutonic version of the Kama Sutra. Rather, the nude photos are intended to provide reassuring images to adolescents suddenly confronted with serious physical and psychological pyrotechnics. And surely even sexual neophytes should be aware of the 69 position -- as a recent photo on the magazine's Web site adequately illustrates (under the headline, "Sex Position 69: A Question of Taste.")

But both societal attitudes and the legal situation pertaining to youth and sex are radically more permissive in Germany than they are, say, in North America. The age of consent in Germany is 14 for willing partners between the ages of 14 and 21. From age 16, a teen is permitted to engage in sexual intercourse with a person of any age. But if the older person is over 20 and the partner under 16, the person could get into legal trouble. Generally, however, parents have an open mind about their children's sex lives. A study recently conducted by Bravo found that two-thirds of all mothers acknowledged and accepted the fact that their teenage children were doin' it. Most German youth, the study found, have sex for the first time between the ages of 15 and 17.

"Dear Dr. Sommer"

A combination of "Dr. Ruth," Teen People and "Savage Love," each week the staff of Dr. Sommer answer letters from teens seeking advice about health, sex, changing bodies, love and relationships. Hundreds of questions pour in each week in the form of written letters, telephone calls and postings to the popular Bravo Web site. The questions are those one would expect from uncertain youth trying to figure out what the heck is happening to their bodies, urges and emotions: How do I meet my first mate? How do I flirt? Why is my body changing? Will I ever recover from this heartbreak? Do I need contraception? Can I get AIDS from kissing? What is safe sex? Will boys still like me if I am flat-chested?

More than 600,000 teens buy Bravo in Germany each week, and many more go to the magazine's Web site, where the Dr. Sommer section is one of the most popular, contributing significantly to the site's massive readership. In April, Bravo.de chalked up nearly 39 million page views.

The Dr. Sommer team provides straight answers to just about any question. Yet however progressive and influential the Dr. Sommer column may be, German teens aren't nearly as enlightened about sex as one might expect. Bravo's recent study found that, despite more than three decades of publishing Dr. Sommer, German teens still know too little important information about sex. "We found that there are huge gaps when it comes to knowledge about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, protecting oneself from AIDS and sexuality and contraception in general," said von Arx.

The downside of a sexualized society

Ironically, von Arx blames the change on the sexualization of society that has occurred since the 1960s. Every day teens are bombarded with sexy images: music videos filled with mostly naked stars, ads for skimpy clothing and also a youth slang that has become highly sexualized. "Forty years ago," she says, "people thought kids knew nothing and that everything had to be explained to them. But today the opposite is true. Our kids are growing up in a society where there are almost no remaining taboos when it comes to sex, and people assume they already know far more about sex than they actually do. They do have access to a lot more information today, but it often lacks context or is contradictory."

In other words, the need for a column like "Dr. Sommer" is as pressing as ever. Given its mass readership, the column also bears a considerable social responsibility. So does von Arx worry that Bravo is assuming a role that has traditionally belonged to parents? "There are a lot of things kids just don't want to talk to their parents about," she says. "When they become teenagers, their friends, other adult figures, school and outreach programs like Dr. Sommer and others become much more important. It's extremely important to have offerings like this that complement what parents and schools are teaching kids."

Though the sexual revolution seems to have pushed Germany ahead of many other countries in its attitudes towards sex, much has changed for teens since Bravo began publishing Dr. Sommer in 1969. For one, teens back then didn't have to think about problems like HIV and AIDS. And with a struggling economy and mass unemployment, von Arx and her team have discovered a troubling new phenomenon among youth: fear about their future livelihoods.

"Nowadays, we are getting letters from teenagers who are worried that lovesickness or troubled relationships might keep them from getting into universities or from securing the apprenticeship programs they will later need to get a job." There's a great German term for this new fear -- Existenzangst -- and it's something that von Arx has never seen in teens before.

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