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People Top 5
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- April 13, 1987
- Vol. 27
- No. 15
What's Gone Wrong with Teen Sex
An Alarming Poll Indicates Parents Often Won't Face the Facts, and That Sex Education at School and Home Has Failed
And shocking it is, albeit not in the spirit of Chong's steamy encounter with Mick Jagger in an earlier video. This clip is no MTV passion playlet: Rather, Tommy Chong's worldly daughter is narrating an intelligent, heartfelt public-service program about AIDS and all that it entails. In it, she directs some blunt, explicit admonishments to young boy/girl couples. "There are two kinds of sex that I'm talking about," she says, "intercourse and anal intercourse...that's why guys gotta wear condoms...and girls gotta make sure guys wear them...each time you have sex with someone new and you don't use a condom, you're taking a risk with your life...don't take that risk." The video has been ordered by 1,100 school systems for showing to kids as young as 14. Yes, it has come to this.
We are finding things out about teen sex faster than we ever wanted to. In 1985, prompted in part by news of a Chicago high school where a third of the female students were pregnant, the press aired some extremely unsettling facts. In America 3,000 adolescents become pregnant each day. A million a year. Four out of five are unmarried. More than half get abortions. "Babies having babies." Or killing them. Dismay turned to deep fear a bit later, with recognition of the combined possibilities of adolescent sexuality and AIDS. Suddenly, the grim ante had been raised. Now our children's promiscuity could mean more than pregnancy—it could mean death.
We looked around for villains—and found them in our popular entertainment. How could teens learn the value of abstinence while watching tails wagging lasciviously in TV commercials for tight jeans? How could we expect them to "be careful" when, by the estimate of one family planning group, there were 20,000 instances of "suggested sexual intercourse" in 1986's TV programming—without one mention of birth control or disease prevention? What was a film like Porky's telling our kids? Or even Quest for Fire, in which none other than a 21-year-old Rae Dawn Chong introduced the missionary position to 80,000 B.C.?
Lately the media, ever sensitive to controversy, edged closer to reality. A ground-breaker was an August episode of Kate & Allie in which Allie has a heart-to-heart with her daughter, who is thinking about having sex with a boyfriend. Last December on Cagney & Lacey, Mary Beth discussed condoms with her son. Celebrities undertook independent efforts. Tatiana and Johnny warbled Wait, which would have made Madonna's 'Papa Don't Preach' superfluous. On April 5 Daddy, one of the bluntest shows yet about teen pregnancy, is scheduled to air on ABC (see page 115).
Unfortunately, most of us cannot adjust our attitudes or life-styles as quickly as a writer changes Tyne Daly's script. When the shows and songs are over, we watch the news in all its bewildering urgency as politicians wrangle over teaching about condoms in class. Who could blame us for being confused?
With all this in mind, PEOPLE returns to the subjects at the center of the issue: the teens themselves. In February, working through the New York polling firm Audits and Surveys, we posed 41 questions to 1,300 students in 16 high schools around the U.S., 1,600 students in 10 colleges and 500 parents of teens in 12 cities. We did not poll the impoverished inner cities or rural areas, striving instead to discover the opinions on sex of supposedly "mainstream" adolescents.
It was not always easy. Of 148 schools we approached, 132 rejected our surveys. In Pittsburgh, an administrator noted dryly, "The average tenure of a school superintendant in this country is 2.7 years. I'd like to be here at least that long." Another principal, in an Illinois suburb, said of the likely parental reaction, "I'd have my head on a platter within two weeks of distributing that." One educator told us his school was catching flak just for mentioning AIDS in health class, let alone asking detailed questions about it. Muttered the principal of a Phoenix, Ariz. Catholic school, which refused the survey: "If the real truth about teen abortion and teen sex were known, this would be one shocked community."
Once we had tabulated the responses we asked our bureaus and college stringers in seven states to talk with teens and parents about the significant results. Here is their report.
In one of the few instances in the poll when the two generations were on the same wavelength, the parents of teens seemed accurately informed about most children's age of sexual initiation. That age hasn't changed very much in about a decade. Nor has a certain ambivalence about the event, which seems as often prompted by peer pressure and curiosity as by love and commitment. Nevertheless, the sexual experience is hardly a onetime act of experimentation and daring. Even if they started for the wrong reasons, few teens seem to have given up in dismay. In fact, a sizable minority is very active: 22 percent of the high schoolers polled claim to have sex every three weeks or more often, as do 44 percent of the college students. Even allowing for youthful exaggeration, that is surely a higher level of frequency than that of many of the same teens' parents.
One of the reasons adults wish kids weren't so sexually active is that sex brings with it responsibility, a responsibility that many teens are frightfully unwilling to accept. Family planning groups rejoice at an upswing in contraceptive use and a dip in teen pregnancies, which they maintain are related. Yet a huge proportion of teendom seems not to worry about sex leading to pregnancy. The reasons for ignoring contraception won't seem new: ignorance; some boys' insistence that a condom (still the most popular form of birth control, according to our poll) sabotages spontaneity and pleasure, and some girls' willingness to give in to boys' objections despite their better judgment. Even when knowledge seems in place and "protection" is at hand, kids fall victim to the age-old plague of youth: a false belief that it is exempt from the biological law of averages. "They have a feeling of immortality, that it can never happen to them," says one parent perplexedly. The invincibility myth is not universal, however. European teens have as much sex as ours, and yet, because of a greater openness toward sex, their pregnancy rate is dramatically lower.
Less than 15% of the teens polled would bear and raise a baby out of wedlock; only 12% of high schoolers and 18% of the college students would get married and keep the child, and only 16% of both would go to term and put the infant up for adoption. Arguments for birth control or abstinence aside, the indication is that when kids get pregnant, at least half look to the stirruped couch for their solution. Most are caught up in a welter of contradictory emotions, none are happy, and their parents seem as bewildered as they are. "When I told my mother I was pregnant," remembers a senior at a Midwestern high school, "she got real excited. She thought I'd get married. When I told her I was having an abortion, she got mad at my boyfriend because she thought he wouldn't marry me. He would have married me, but I wanted to finish high school, so I had the abortion. I wanted to have the baby a little bit, but I knew it wasn't right. I hated doing it. I just tried not to think about it."
You sure can, honey. After the media's heavy coverage of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the last 12 months, you would have a difficult time finding a student who hasn't heard of the plague or gotten the news that it isn't exclusively gay. Yet how much real knowledge there is, and whether teens are willing to act on it, are troubling questions: 38% of high school kids in our poll thought you could catch AIDS by drinking from the wrong glass.
Some lessons seem to have been learned. "Since the scare," UCLA senior Joy Jackson says, "everyone is slowing down. I've noticed a lot of people getting girlfriends and boyfriends. I use rubbers. And I don't screw around at all, at all." Yet for many, the supposed danger is a hoax. The media has blown it up out of proportion. Or AIDS happens only in California and New York. And it will all disappear soon. "How many people have AIDS?" asks Kerry Porche, a sophomore at UCLA. "About two million that they know about. And there's two hundred and something million people in the U.S. I don't think I'll catch it."
"You don't think the people you associate with would have it," says a suburban Chicago high school girl, almost primly.
"I wouldn't come out and ask if they had AIDS—it would be looked upon as a silly question," says a high school senior in Lexington, Ill., adding with unconscious irony, "The people I know are very intelligent."
Even when parents feel they have been at their most frank and informative, their kids often perceive them as timid, embarrassed and unwilling to hear the real facts. Parents, we discovered, believed they were getting straight answers when they asked sexual questions. The teens said they almost never tell the whole truth.
There seems no doubt in anyone's mind that parent-child discussions about sex are more frequent than they once were. Holly Hadfield, 36, of Squantum, Mass., mother of two teens, recalls the way her parents handled the topic 20 years ago: "I was handed a little lavender book on sperm." An Alexandria, Va. mother of three remembers that her own mother was so embarrassed back in 1956 that she hired a nurse to explain menstruation: "Here was this uniformed, capped and caped woman coming up the walk, and I was thinking, 'Who's sick?' " Others never heard word one from anybody. Today, a Virginia mother can say calmly, "Once a week some sex-related subject comes up—with three girls in the family, someone is always having a rage of hormones."
But many in the current parental generation may be a little too quick to congratulate themselves: What some parents regard as bracing sex talk, their children see as deluded pap. Debbie, a 21-year-old senior at OSU, lives with her boyfriend in a one-bedroom apartment; her parents still believe he sleeps on the couch. "I'm not even sure they know what sex is," she says. "They talk about making love and living happily ever after. And as long as they pretend that my life is part of their fairy tale, our sex talk will be so candy-coated you could serve it to babies in preschool."
"Parents," Scott Hughes, a Baylor senior, concludes impatiently, "should wake up and smell the coffee."
"My wife," a 51-year-old Houston father says apologetically, "is much better at this sort of thing."
The teens have some theories as to why many parents deceive themselves about the frequency of their exchanges. "It's such an uncomfortable subject," says Stacey Childress, a 21-year-old senior at Baylor, "that the conversation lingers with them a long time, so they think they talk about it more than they really do." Adds a sophomore at the same school: "Once they have that first talk out of the way, they think you're doing what you're supposed to—as long as you don't come to them with more questions."
If parents are sending a message of embarrassment and denial, the kids are reading it loud and clear. The conclusion of many: Give them what they want, even if it's not true. To a certain extent, a little fibbing, especially when the conversation probes the teen's own sex life, is assumed on both sides. "I'm sure he's less than completely candid in our discussions about sexual activities," says one Farming-ton Valley, Conn, dad with a 17-year-old son. "But this is his right. I can offer guidance, advice and opinions if he wants them, but he has to decide what to do with them." Often, though, the teen's dishonesty is near-total and pathetic. "I would never be honest with my parents because they are very conservative Catholics and would not be accepting of any kind of premarital sexual activity," says a UCLA sophomore woman. A high school senior female in Washington, D.C. says, "If I was honest, they'd disown me." And, sounding another refrain of many teens who choose to lie, a 17-year-old girl in L.A. says, "Kids don't want to let their parents down."
In one of the poll's most revealing results, parents, even those frank on other aspects of sex, admit that contraception is still a major conversational taboo. Some omit the topic on principle: "To me," says a Houston mother of four, "it's a little like telling terrorists how to make bombs." A more common reason is embarrassment. "I tend to put it off," says a father in New Hartford, Conn. "My daughter gets all flustered."
He might stop putting it off if he could hear UCLA junior Erica Jordan, 19. "I wish my parents would've said more to me about birth control," she says. "It's not like I'm dumb and don't know what to do, but just to show me that they really care in every single way about my life." Or Kim, a 19-year-old OSU student: "If only my parents had explained to me why and how you used condoms or birth control pills, I might not have gotten pregnant."
Given the degree to which parents and children fail to communicate, it is only logical for parents to leave teens to their own devices to get birth control. And for once in this confusing area, logic seems to prevail. "Teens are going to have sex anyway," said Anne Grau, a Baylor junior. "If their parents have to know, they're still going to have sex, but without contraceptives." The adults echoed that view, though sadly and often reluctantly. "There's something about this confidential distribution of birth control I don't like," said a Texas father of two teen girls. "But there are other things I like even less." Said a Maryland mother of three: "I would want to know. I'd feel bad that they went behind my back and couldn't talk about it, that there was something wrong maybe in the relationship. On the other hand, if they can't talk about it and they're still going to have sexual relations, at least they're protecting themselves from getting pregnant."
Fifteen years ago the social debates in America were over premarital sex, bra burning and sex education in the schools. Now the heated arguments are about birth-control clinics and the propriety of Rae Dawn Chong's discussing anal sex before young high schoolers. But there are limits. Says a 47-year-old father of 23-, 20-, and 16-year-olds in Houston: "No. I'm too old-fashioned. I wouldn't go for that at all. They may do what they do, but I won't have them pile up right in front of my nose. It has to do with respect for my own attitudes."
And there he raises a key principle. As the question of sexual conduct becomes more and more important and more and more complex, as technology and disease change the rules of the game without warning, respect for the attitudes of others may be the safest thing to hold on to. Parents, as time passes, may come to respect their children enough to tell them the truth and save them from finding out the hard way. Children may respect their parents enough to share their problems in order to get help. And young people, especially girls and boys on the cusp of a whole new world of experience—and dangers—may respect themselves and one another enough to say, "No," if they are not ready, or, when they say, "Yes," to say it responsibly. That is a lot to expect, from both young and old, but—it has come to this—it is the one expectation that carries hope.
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