Young Teens & Sex
updated 01/31/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/31/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
For parents, stories like Kimberly's are enough to spark a run on bedroom-door locks—and force a terrifying thought to the surface: Could my still-childlike teen actually be having sex? Despite falling teen-pregnancy rates, much in the media and popular culture suggests that the answer is a blinking-red "yes." Local newspapers run stories about middle-schoolers caught having oral sex on the school bus. Pediatricians report seeing kids as young as 10 with chlamydia. Kids themselves talk with a sophistication unknown in previous generations. And then there is the startling new teen-sex lexicon: "friends with benefits" (all the sex, none of the commitment) and "rainbow parties" (where girls wearing different-colored lipsticks perform oral sex on boys). Oral sex, in particular, has generated breathless headlines, with even Oprah Winfrey declaring an oral sex "epidemic" among teens.
So beyond the hype, the rumors, The O.C., what is the real story? To find out, PEOPLE, in conjunction with NBC News, conducted a groundbreaking poll of 1,000 teens ages 13 to 16, coupled with interviews of more than 200 teens, parents and experts across the country (see box, page 89). The big news: 27 percent of the young teens polled by PEOPLE and NBC have had intimate physical contact, but only 13 percent have had sexual intercourse. What's more, just 1 in 10 teens say they have had oral sex—hardly a figure of epidemic proportions. And 68 percent of young teens think it's important to be in love before having intercourse. As might be expected, 13-and 14-year-olds know less about sex and are less likely to be sexually active than 15-and 16-year-olds. Girls are just as likely to be sexually active as boys. And parents think they are talking much more to their kids about sex than kids, apparently, are taking in. There's also a disconnect between what parents think their children are doing and the reality of what their kids admit to.
But if there hasn't been an explosion of sex among teens, then what's fueling the new anxiety? The PEOPLE/NBC poll and interviews point to a couple of key factors: First, for teens who are having sex or oral sex, casual hookups are more common than parents might like to imagine. Among sexually active teens, nearly half of those polled say they have been involved in a casual sexual relationship, and in interviews many express a surprising willingness to get physical before getting emotional. Molly, a 16-year-old junior, says that when she began her current relationship at 15, the arrangement was strictly "friends with benefits"—the benefits, in this case, being oral sex. "I wasn't even attracted to him. The friends-with-benefits thing was kind of in his mind, and I went along with it because I was trying to get over my other boyfriend," she says.
Whether teens are having sex or not, there's no doubt the romantic landscape has changed, at least for some. Jake, a 16-year-old sophomore from suburban Denver, says that at parties some couples break off for spontaneous sexual hookups. "It happens every weekend," he says, "at every party I go to."
Active or not, young teens today seem more candid than their predecessors. "I'm seeing more sexually suggestive notes and drawings, and particularly a lot of suggestive IM exchanges," says the principal of a middle school in northern Virginia. This kind of open sexuality "pervades the lives of middle schoolers in ways it didn't 12 years ago," says Linda Perlstein, who spent a year in a Maryland middle school to research the bestseller Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers.
And it is often sexuality untethered to anything personal—which, according to Perlstein, can be emotionally damaging. "Despite what we hear about 'girl power' and feminism, girls are still modeling behavior based on what they think boys want from them," she says. "That doesn't seem to me like some great development." The emotional consequences became all too clear to Jane, 16, who lost her virginity at 13 to a boy she'd been dating for four months. "I became really attached and he wasn't," she says. "We broke up two weeks after. I was devastated because I was in love with him, but the sex made it much more emotional."
As Perlstein points out and as the poll shows, the overwhelming majority of middle-school teens are not having sex: "The world of the middle-school crush has not gone away," says Perlstein. "There are still all the drama and romance and horror, but it is overlain with this very inappropriate sexuality." Because teens are so well-versed—and casual—in talking about sex, the line gets blurred. Consider, for example, this exchange between a group of 13-and 14-year-old friends in a suburb of Chicago when asked whether oral sex was a "big deal" for most teens.
All: Yeah, it's not. It's not.
Alana: I hear about that a lot.
Kelly: Oh, people at our school are doing it.
All: Oh yeah.
Megan: I've heard of people doing stuff in the sixth grade.
Lindsay: But not, like, the fifth grade. It's sixth grade and up.
Sandy: It could be just a rumor.... But everyone's saying the same thing.
Or this, from Clementine, 15, of Beverly Hills, a virgin who nonetheless bluntly articulates one of the more commonly held teen-sex bylaws: "Oral sex is better than intercourse because it can't ruin your life," she says. Furthermore, she notes, "it's fine to hook up, but don't do it randomly or everyone will know and talk about you."
Of course, in some circles that can be a good thing. "There's a lot of guys I know who say they've had sex but they haven't," says Josh Jacobs-Herrera, 14, of Santa Fe. They lie "just to make themselves look good or more grownup," notes his friend A. J. Moya, 15. And it's not just boys doing the boasting. "If you count everybody in the seventh, eighth grades, most are virgins and they just know how to make a good story up to fit in," says Samantha, 13, of Portland. "I admit, when I was in seventh grade I was around that stuff, and I would say, I did this and this, but it wasn't true!" For kids who are gay, the pressure to fit in maybe even greater. "I lied. I said I was hooking up with girls," recalls Jason, 17, now a senior in L.A. and openly gay. "If I was hooking up with guys I'd make them into girls when I talked to my friends. But all the guys were lying."
Despite the bravado, for many younger teens sex remains an abstraction. In some cases, simply defining oral sex is a challenge. Only 6 in 10 13-and 14-year-olds polled by PEOPLE and NBC said they know what oral sex is (compared with 82 percent of 15-and 16-year-olds). "I went to a middle school once and was talking to them about STDs," says Damion Wilson, an educator with the Family Health Council in Pittsburgh. "One girl raised her hand and said, 'You can get STDs through oral sex?' I said, 'Yes, you can.' She said, 'How can you get STDs by talking on the phone?'"
Still, there is no doubt that sex infuses the pop culture like never before: 51 percent of the teens polled report getting information about sex from TV and movies. "You see it on TV; you see it everywhere—HBO, the late-night movies," says Jake of suburban Denver. "Jay-Z—a lot of his videos show him partying with a lot of girls all over him and stuff." Adds Steven Webb, 12, of Jacksonville, Fla.: "A song by Petey Pablo, it talks about all the positions and stuff. My pastor was talking about that, and he said we shouldn't be listening to it. Some of the words are good, though." Several teens interviewed by PEOPLE also cited Jessica Simpson, who publicly declared her prewedding abstinence (see story, page 94), as a role model: "She stayed a virgin until she was married," says Kelly Atsye, 14, of Albuquerque. "I think she's awesome." Then there is FOX's wildly popular teen drama The O.C., a show that has embraced current teenage sexual mores (see box, page 89).
What makes some kids turn all that talk into action? Despite the number of sexually active teens who admit to casual sex, a sizable majority (62 percent) say meeting the right person was the reason they had intercourse for the very first time. Curiosity (36 percent) and sexual desire (34 percent) also came into it. When it comes to oral sex, pressure, love, lust and pragmatics—namely, avoiding pregnancy—all factor in. "I had a boyfriend in the eighth grade for a year and I had oral sex with him because I didn't want to have real sex," says Josie, 16, a junior in California. "I actually remember thinking I wanted to please him and I thought it was cool." The next year she had intercourse with a different boyfriend, "but I was really, really comfortable," she says. Looking back on both experiences, "I don't regret having sex when I was a freshman, but I do think when I was in the eighth grade it was disgusting. Eighth grade is way too young."
The PEOPLE/NBC poll found that of sexually active teens, 4 in 10 say that, like Josie, they have had oral sex to avoid having sexual intercourse at least once. Among all teens—sexually active or not-54 percent say that those who engage in oral sex are still virgins.
For Susanna, a 17-year-old senior in Michigan, oral sex at 15 was something "I was not ready for it at all—not at all." But a guy pressured her into it, she says. "I wasn't feeling as attractive as my friends. I think I wanted to prove that I could get a guy." It's a common logic. "You get to the point where you think there is no such thing as a real relationship anymore—that it's just something our moms and dads had," she says. "Now to have any attention, you have to have little flings or friends with benefits. All the guys love the fact that they can get the pleasure and not have a commitment. And the girls are very willing to give them that."
The bases may have changed, but the gender rules remain very much the same. "A guy likes to be known as a player—there's such a double standard," says Alexandra Ketchoyian, 14, of Salt Lake City. "If a girl has sex, she's a slut, but a guy is a pimp. He's considered cool." According to the poll, sexually active girls (22 percent) are more likely than boys (5 percent) to say that their partner never performs oral sex on them. And boys are more likely than girls to have had sex the first time to satisfy a sexual desire (49 percent vs. 15 percent). "The girls are truly out there to win boys' hearts," says Cindy Burke, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Fredericksburg, Va. "For the boy it's just an orgasm."
Where do parents fit in with all of this? In the PEOPLE/NBC poll, a large majority of parents—91 percent—said they think it is a big concern for teens to know how to deal with sexual relationships. But are they helping? While 15 percent of parents think their young teen has engaged in sexual activity beyond kissing, 27 percent of teens admit they've gone that far. Both parents and teens report talking to each other often about sex and relationships, but parents feel that occurs at a significantly higher rate than teens do (85 percent vs. 41 percent).
When talk does happen, it's often not what Mom and Dad had planned. In Pittsburgh, Ellen, 39, recalls an incident two years ago when her then-seventh-grade son "came home from school one day and said, 'Mom, there is a girl that keeps asking to give me oral sex.'" He turned her down, but the next day she and her girlfriend gave him another chance. He said no again. "He has his values in place," she says. "We are parents who make a point of being in our kid's face." Still, the incident left her at a loss. "I wanted to cry—in fact I did cry," she says. "This sex stuff makes kids lose that childhood innocence. But I could only question my son so far. He didn't want to sit there and have a powwow."
Talking has helped Julie, 42, of suburban Denver, to at least feel as if she knows her 16-year-old son is safe. Last May Julie found a "stocking cap full of condoms" in his room, and the two now talk regularly about his experiences. "I try to tell him every day how much I love him and what he means to me, and how his life and his body are important to me," she says. "I really feel that's all I can do."
But if parents can't exactly rest easy, they can take heart in this: The idea that today's teens are all about hookups is only a small part of the picture. Ben Yu, 14, of Fulton, Md., and his best friend, Zach Peoples, 13, have both had girlfriends but have not been sexually active, despite the pressures from other kids. "A lot of my friends haven't made out with a girl yet, but they feel the pressure to do it," says Zach. "They want to be like everyone else. Now [the pressure] is starting to be about" oral sex. Both boys take their girlfriends to the movies and buy them teddy bears. Asked to recall one of his most romantic moments, Ben says, "We were lying on the snow, looking at the pond and making snow angels."
Some teens wistfully wish to reclaim that innocence. Back in suburban Illinois, Kimberly recalls getting dumped last fall by a guy who was planning to take her to the homecoming dance. "It was the lamest reason—because his stepmom found out I wasn't a virgin," she says. "My heart broke." Now "I want to be 3 again," she says with a laugh. "I embrace being older, but I wish I was still little. It was so much easier."
ABSTINENCE: CAN SEX WAIT?
Funded by big federal dollars, abstinence-only programs encourage teens to hold off. Do they work?
It would be the perfect setting for a make-out party, but instead of having sex, the 10 teenagers gathered in Abby Kun's basement rec room are talking about it. Alisa Baroffio, 15, tells of a classmate at their suburban Pittsburgh high school who casually discussed performing oral sex on a boy. "That's kind of disgusting," says another girl. "Why would you do that?" Alisa concurs, "I don't think those boys are cool," she says, turning to one of the boys in the group. "Dave, you are cool."
What's so cool about Dave Thomas? The 15-year-old freshman at Bethel Park High School wears a silver band on his left hand, signifying his pledge not to have sex until he is married. Raised in a Presbyterian household, Dave made the vow of chastity in October after attending a performance by the Silver Ring Thing, a Pittsburgh-based Christian group that travels the country promoting abstinence among teens with weekend sound-and-light shows. Since signing a pledge to remain chaste, Thomas has received semi-weekly e-mails reminding him of his commitment. "I think sex is something special," he says, "that should be saved for marriage."
As wholesome as that message seems, not everyone agrees with how it's being dispensed. Abstinence—only education programs—which teach millions of American teens to wait but give no information on contraception—are receiving $168 million in federal funding this fiscal year (more than twice the amount spent four years ago). "It's a 'Just Say No' message, an empowering message," says Wade Horn, who heads the federal program to promote abstinence. Critics like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) say preaching abstinence without also teaching teens the basics of sexual health may do little to stem teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted disease. "I have no objection to people being taught abstinence," says Waxman, "and then to suggest to those who might not be abstinent that there are other strategies."
But Denny Pattyn, 52, a youth pastor who founded Silver Ring Thing in 1996 to combat then-rampant teen pregnancy, says that sends a dangerously mixed signal. "The message is too watered down," he says. "The information in teens' heads from health class has a small shelf life when they are in the backseat of a car." Some 27,000 teens wear Pattyn's silver rings, and there are dozens of other programs around the country that promote similar values with T-shirts and pledge cards. Dave Thomas says that glancing at the ring he wears "reminds me what I have to stay true to throughout the day."
That makes his dating life somewhat tame. During a three-month romance with Abby Kun that ended earlier this year, the pair abided by their parents' ban on solo dates, instead socializing with groups of friends who went to movies or watched DVDs at each other's homes. Kissing, hugging and holding hands were okay, but fondling was off-limits. Following Silver Ring Thing's advice, Dave has his buddy Wyatt Brady, 14, a friend since childhood, act as a watchdog, reminding him not to stray. Abby has her own close friend, Alisa Baroffio, to play the role of chastity cop, scolding any girlfriends who wear revealing shirts ("Whoa, put it back in!" she'll say) or are being too flirtatious. "I'll say, 'You're always around the guys!'" jokes Alisa. When Dave and Abby broke up on New Year's eve, he was glad they hadn't even considered having sex. "It would probably be a lot more awkward," he says.
Not every teen—even those who want to avoid sex—feels the need for a formal commitment. "I don't need a ring to show other people," says Angela Torchia, 15, a freshman at Bethel Park, where traditional sex ed is dispensed in health class. While she respects her ring-wearing classmates, "I think it's more of a private issue," says Angela.
Yet the public debate only gets louder. A 2004 congressional report found that more than two-thirds of the 100 U.S.-funded abstinence-only programs evaluated have scientific inaccuracies and blur religion and science. And a 2004 Columbia University study found that, while many participants in such programs delay sex 18 months, 88 percent still had sex before marriage and had STD rates similar to others their age. For many parents, though, anything that helps put off sex is a plus. "At best it will help them wait until marriage," says Abby's mother, Sandy, 45. "At least the rings will buy them some time."
TALKING TO YOUR TEEN
Some Advice from Experts
Experts agree that having frequent and honest discussions about sexuality is the key to preparing children for the choices they will inevitably face. People asked UCLA pediatrician Mark Schuster, M.D., coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask), and a group of young counselors from Cincinnati's Postponing Sexual Involvement, a school program that promotes abstinence, for help answering questions parents—and teens—ask most often.
When should I start talking to my child about sex?
Before kids reach their teenage years. Parents need to establish a pattern when kids are young so that they come to their parents, and will continue to come to their parents, when they have questions. Otherwise kids go underground and get their answers elsewhere. Certainly, as your children enter puberty, you need to tell them about the changes in their bodies.
—UCLA's Mark Schuster
Suppose my child doesn't want to talk about it?
I think parents think it's just common sense—like, you already know you shouldn't be having sex—but they definitely need to explain that in depth.
—Garrett Mason, 17, Cincinnati PSI
Kids might feel more comfortable talking to another adult, like a favorite aunt. The important thing is for them to have a responsible adult to talk to.
I'm concerned my child may already be sexually active. What should I do?
I like to say, "Be responsible, because consequences will happen no matter what."
If you know your child is having sex, you want to make sure he's not being manipulated or forced, and that he's not forcing his partner. Does he understand the responsibilities that come with sex? And is he taking steps to reduce the chances of getting someone pregnant or contracting STDs?
How do I help my child deal with peer pressure?
Encourage your kids to think in advance about what they would want to do in specific situations. You want them to build confidence in making decisions and believing in themselves.
Tell your child to say "no" and keep repeating it. And remember the O.N.E. Rule: Offer No Excuses.
—Amber Shelton, 17, Cincinnati PSI
My child wants to know if oral sex counts as sex.
That's a question kids ask because they want rules. They want to follow the rules they're getting from parents and yet still engage in sexual activity. If they are concerned about whether they're ready, one question is, "Are you ready to handle the emotions that go with intimate activity?"
What reasons can I give my child to wait?
I tell kids their family looks forward to them being a shining star.
—Nyema Ivey, 17, Cincinnati PSI
Ask your child if she would want to wait and why. She'll usually come up with most of the reasons you would have thought of. You can share your own feelings when she's done.
*"Note: Many teens in this story are identified with first names only. These names have been changed to protect the teens' privacy. All full names used are real.