Hooking up? Friends with benefits? Just what is going on, and how can parents guide kids through today’s sexually charged world?
By Deirdre Wilson
The news reports and shared stories at the bus stop are enough to make any parent shudder.
• A 15-year-old girl gives oral sex to five hockey players at a private prep school.
• Middle-schoolers watch a classmate masturbate her boyfriend on a school bus.
• Peers cheer on two teens engaged in oral sex in the back of a bus.
Then there are the surveys – well-publicized studies declaring that:
• 27 percent of teens ages 13 to 16 “have been with someone in an intimate or sexual way” (from fondling genitals to oral sex and sexual intercourse);
• 47 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 have had sexual intercourse; and
• nearly 20 percent of ninth-graders have had oral sex.
That last one, published in the journal Pediatrics, also reported that teens generally believe oral sex is less risky, less threatening to their values, and more acceptable than intercourse.
Is this the “sexual revolution” of the new millennium? Teens and tweens, as young as 12, treating sex and intimacy as a feel-good form of social recreation, something to do on a Saturday night?
Parents are understandably alarmed, even panicked, about what their own kids may be up to. Yet experts on adolescent development say we underestimate how much influence we have on our teens’ sexual values – and just how much our teens want to hear from us.
Hyping the Numbers
The statistics on teens and sex are certainly disturbing, but researchers and observers are quick to say that the news media pay more attention to the hype than the full story. Except for occasional reports on small groups of teens taking chastity pledges, the news media’s focus has been more on teens who are having sex – particularly casual sex – than on those who aren’t.
“I do not believe the majority of teens are engaging in casual sex,” says Sabrina Weill, former editor in chief at Seventeen magazine and the author of three books on adolescents. “There is some trending toward more casual hooking up. But I don’t mean the majority of teens are doing it; some teens are doing it.”
For evidence, consider one of the more widely referenced surveys on adolescents and sex, a 2003 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Even while stating that 47 percent of teens have had sexual intercourse, the report emphasizes that:
• 53 percent of high school teens have not.
• Teens are delaying having sexual intercourse during their high school years (the incidence is down 14 percent since 1991).
• Teens who are sexually active are using contraception (91 percent of boys and 83 percent of girls) much more than in the past.
Weill has had years of contact with hundreds of teens who wrote to Seventeen for advice; she’s conducted her own surveys and closely monitored other recent polls. Her newest book, The Real Truth About Teens & Sex, includes numerous teen entries about first-time sex at age 14, group oral sex parties (known as “chicken parties”) and teen observations that being sexually active is today’s way of seeming “cool” and more mature. Even so, Weill stresses that more teens are talking about sex than actually engaging in it.
“Teens are so much more comfortable talking about sex because they have more access to it,” she says. Kids are bombarded with sexual material – from the racy plots of TV dramas to the suggestive dress and lyrics of music videos, to the pornography accessible on the Internet.
“Today’s teens have a bigger vocabulary about this stuff. We think, ‘Oh my gosh, listen to what they’re saying!’ and then we think more is going on than really is,” Weill says. Noting that teens are also notorious for lying about the extent of their sexual experience, she adds, “I think a lot of it is more talk than action.”
What About Oral Sex?
Still, reports on the sexual savvy of today’s teens are jarring and probably achingly ironic to their parents – many from the tail end of a Baby Boomer generation who shocked their own parents with casual attitudes toward sex, drugs and alcohol.
Teens engaging in sexual intercourse isn’t new; it’s been an issue for generations. What is so troublesome to parents today is the incidence of casual sex, particularly oral sex, among teens and even younger tweens. Recent polls indicate that many of teens don’t even consider oral sex as “sex” at all.
Those same polls, however, still show that most teens are not engaging in it.
“I think the casual attitude about sex is fairly prevalent. I think the number of kids who actually do it are still in the minority,” says author and Washington Post writer Laura Sessions Stepp, who wrote a provocative Post article on casual and oral sex among urban adolescents and is at work on a new book about older teens and sex.
While oral sex is much less common in middle schools, Sessions Stepp says, “with high school juniors or seniors, giving a guy a blow job is not that uncommon among couples.”
News reports on teen sex have often focused on upper-middle-class adolescents in metropolitan areas, although it isn’t exclusive to that group.
“There’s always the leading-edge crowd in a high school,” says Sessions Stepp. “These are people who have everything at their fingertips – alcohol, brand-new cars, big homes where kids can get away and have a party, and even if adults are home, they don’t always see what they’re doing.”
Oral sex, she says, is the latest way these teens can “push the envelope.”
It’s also mostly girls performing oral sex on boys – not the other way around – something that usually leads to regret among the girls, Weill and Sessions Stepp say.
“Girls get swept up in the behavior, then afterwards feel bad and wonder why they’re feeling bad,” Weill says. Sessions Stepp adds that girls have told her they regret not receiving sexual pleasure themselves. “This is a huge factor – the girls are servicing the boys and they’re not getting anything themselves.”
Again, however, both Weill and Sessions Stepp believe that more teenagers talk about oral sex than actually do it. Indeed, Weill worries that all the talk creates a sense of normalcy that leaves adolescents thinking they should be engaging in it.
“Parents need to be pre-emptive,” Weill says. “We place a cultural value on having a boyfriend versus not having a boyfriend. … Girls get more attention and positive feedback from peers at school if they have a boyfriend. Then, at the same time, you’ve got boys thinking they’re allowed to say to girls, ‘If you want me to stay, you have to [engage in oral sex].’”
Weill has heard from teen boys who also regret having casual sex. “I think boys do feel pressure from their friends, sometimes even from their dads, that having sexual experience is cooler than not having experience.”
Parents’ Crucial Role
The good news in all of this is that research and surveys have also shown that parents have more influence over their teens’ decisions about sexual activity than they realize. Adolescents want and need their parents’ guidance.
Historian and demographer Neil Howe, co-author of the book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, says today’s teens are much more comfortable listening to and talking with their parents than earlier generations.
“Among families with kids, we’ve seen a growing trend toward closeness with parents,” he says. “They get along. They agree with their parents’ values.”
Sessions Stepp and Weill agree. “I think if parents knew that kids really do pay attention to what they say, they would be emboldened to say the things they want to say,” Sessions Stepp says. “I didn’t listen to my parents on almost anything. But this is a somewhat different generation.”
In The Real Truth About Teens & Sex, Weill points to several surveys that reveal the powerful influence parents have on their teens, including a 2004 finding by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy that 87 percent of teens believe it would be easier to delay sexual activity if they could talk openly with their parents about sex.
Weill says many teens have told her they would listen if their parents talked with them about handling relationships and pressure to have sex.
The trouble is, when it comes to talking about sex, no one is particularly comfortable – and parents may end up preaching instead of sharing their values in more effective ways.
Parents often view talking with their teens about sex as “a body parts question” or an ultimatum about not engaging in it, Sessions Stepp says. “We’re not talking about relationships, why sexual activity is imbedded in emotions. You cannot have sex and not feel an emotion. We should be asking teens, ‘Are you ready for that emotional attachment? Sex is so much better when you feel emotionally attached and really know that person.’ We tend to shake our finger at them and dismiss the whole emotional piece.”
• Alan Guttmacher Institute – Focuses on sexual and reproductive health research and education. Web site includes statistics on teen sex and pregnancy
• National Centers for Disease Control –The nation’s premier health research and data organization regularly surveys teens in its National Survey of Family Growth.
• The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy – This research and advocacy group’s Web site has excellent tips for talking to kids about sex, teen input on information they want from their parents and much more.
• Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, by Neil Howe and William Strauss, Vintage, 2000. Asserts that today’s teens are destined for greatness, thanks to parents who’ve given them more attention and concern than kids of earlier generations.
• Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence, by Laura Sessions Stepp, Riverhead Trade, 2001. An eye-opening glimpse into the lives of 12 kids, ages 10 to 15, as they begin adolescence
• The Real Truth About Teens & Sex, by Sabrina Weill, A Perigee Book, 2005. A compilation of teens’ feelings and experiences, statistics and excellent advice for parents from a veteran magazine editor.
• The Sex Lives of Teenagers, by Lynn Ponton, M.D., Plume, 2001. An inside look at teens coping with sexuality, pressure and expectations by a national expert on adolescents’ risky behavior.