Reports of a fourteen-year-old middle school girl performing oral sex on a sixteen-year-old high school boy differed only slightly from scores of similar tales making headlines across the country. The setting (a school bus) and the audience (classmates) made it especially unappealing, but really not that surprising. After all, it was not long before that news broke of a senior class scavenger hunt proffering points for proof (videos and such) of masturbation and public intercourse, and not long after that a widely publicized episode of group oral sex rocked a storied New England prep school.
Such incidents in a diverse set of institutions and communities nationwide raise important questions about early intimacy among teens and the physical, social, emotional, and legal toll it can take on young lives.
Just as important, it points to a “reality gap” between increasingly normative sexual behavior among youth and commonly held perceptions of adults. Perhaps the public nature of heretofore private tales may at last awaken the sleeping giant of awareness and communication needed to keep teens safe.
During adolescence, psychology (eagerness for independence, control, and acceptance) joins with biology (hormones) in a fuse that may lead quickly to intimacy. Still-developing adolescent brains wrestling with judgment can then provide the spark. Understandably, many teens lack the foresight, and probably the cognitive makeup, to accurately anticipate all of the possible, even predictable, results of sexual behavior. This developmental disconnect accounts for all types of destructive decisions, from driving drunk to having unprotected sex.
But all of that can explain the motivation behind teen sexual behavior for generations, so why the dramatic shift in adolescent attitudes lately? At least part of the answer rests with the social “norming” of teen sex and adult indifference or inattention.
While each of us is influenced by what we view as common and acceptable behavior, this is especially true during adolescence, when an almost innate drive to “go along to get along” can weight decision-making. After all, who doesn’t want to be “normal?” Fifteen-year-old Kevin had oral sex with a girl he hardly knew because, “I thought everyone else had done it.” And fourteen-year-old Jake rates feeling pressured to have sex as the single biggest source of stress in his life.
That pressure affects both sexes but seems particularly common among boys, leading to early sexual activity less because they want it and more because they believe it’s time they did. Blair says, “I must be the only eighteen-year-old on the planet who hasn’t had sex.” Thirteen year-old Bryan says, “I just want to do it all at once and get it over with.” And sixteen-year-old Connor, after exchanging genital touches with a girl following a dance, expresses relief: “I finally did it.”
Media images that portray sex as casual and unimportant don’t help, but only create a false sense of acceptability and urgency in the minds of those already predisposed to test limits and take risks. As one high school teen put it, “If you watch TV, you just assume everyone is having sex.” Fourteen-year-old Bridget concurs, saying that the media plays a big role in teen decision-making about sex, sending the message that “Sex is good.” Fifteen-year-old Scott adds, “Television, movies, and music add to the pressure of wanting to have sex. They portray how men should be masculine and hook up with women.” And Robert, a college senior, recalls his race to have intercourse at age eighteen: “I didn’t want to go into college being a virgin, because movies like American Pie made it clear you lost your virginity in high school.”
In short, content equals consequence. And, sadly, there’s no shortage of content. A study conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that (Kunkel 2003):
Many adults are simply unaware of the pressures and choices young people face every day when it comes to sexual behavior. For example, compared to what their parents say about them, high school teens are twice as likely to say they have had sex. Unfortunately, not knowing about the incredibly sexualized world in which teens live impairs adults’ ability to help them navigate the maze of information, influence, and decision-making.
What does that world look like? According to Teens Today research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), almost one in four sixth-graders and one in three seventh-graders have engaged in sexual behavior. More than three in four twelfth-graders report the same.
Hidden behind those numbers is an increasingly pervasive attitude that, at least short of intercourse, sex—if you even call it that—just doesn’t matter. Seventeen- year-old Taylor says he started having genital sex with girls during freshman year before moving on to oral sex with several partners. “They were hook-up buddies. You know, just hooking up for friends. We’d meet up at parties, never strictly for sex, but both of us would know it was going to happen.”
Sex with a friend, sex with a stranger, sex in private, sex in public; it all boils down to just having fun. It’s no big deal.
Or is it?
With sexual activity being reported by one quarter of middle school students and almost two thirds of high school students, related diseases and illnesses are catastrophic. Of the 12 million cases of STDs (or STIs) diagnosed annually in the United States, about 8 million are among people under the age of twenty-five.
Others argue that the psychological outfall isn’t far behind. Tellingly, many girls and boys who have been sexually active say they wish they had waited. Fifteen-year-old Stephanie explained that she began to have a physical relationship with her boyfriend, Craig, during her freshman year of high school, even though “it felt weird.” But Stephanie went along anyway, and by the beginning of sophomore year she’d agreed to have intercourse. “I had always told myself I would wait until I was in love, comfortable. But Craig kept asking. Afterwards I thought, ‘What did I just do? Am I out of my mind?’”
Steve, an eighteen-year-old senior, expressed sadness and disappointment at having been tricked into having sexual intercourse in the backseat of a car with a girl he had known for only two weeks. “I regret the whole experience with her. It wasn’t real. Something in me knew she didn’t care about me, but I tried not to listen to that, and I felt bad when I realized she was just in it for sex. In the future, I’ll have to know a lot about the person, love the person. Now I know what can happen.”
Seventeen-year-old Stacy figured she didn’t want to take the chance. “My boyfriend wanted to but I said ‘no.’ I didn’t want to regret the decision.”
Teens Today research may tell us why many young people do regret their decisions to become sexually active. The results indicate that adolescents who engage in early sexual behavior experience higher levels of stress and depression than their nonsexually-active peers do.
Of course, it’s hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg. Young people (and adults) sometimes use sexual behavior as a form of self-medication to feel better about their lives.
The Great Debate
The incidences of, rationale for, and potential consequences related to teen sex form a backdrop against which a continuing debate about the appropriateness of such behavior continues to rage.
In her book, The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls, psychiatrist Lynn Ponton makes the case that sex is a fact of life for all young adults, even if only in fantasy. Further down that path went Judith Levine in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, essentially arguing that sex is not inherently a bad thing for teens, more so the stigmatizing of it.
Although some more conservative groups issue cautionary tales, the Federal Centers for Disease Control, the National Campaign Against Teen Pregnancy, and books such as physician Meg Meeker’s Epidemic: How Teen Sex is Killing Our Kids focus on the public health issues posed by early and risky sexual behavior among adolescents.
Ideology and science aside, there is no question that teens live in a world different from the one most adults experienced just a generation ago.
Recreational vs. Relational Sex
Sure, sexual behavior among adolescents is nothing new. But what is new is the startling casualness and regularity with which the “hooking up” takes place. The metamorphosis from relationship-based (relational) sex to recreational sex has many experts wondering if some young people are jeopardizing their future ability to form significant emotional attachments and construct healthy adult relationships.
According to Teens Today, more than half of young people say their primary motivation to have intercourse or to engage in other sexual activity is to have fun (56 percent and 55 percent, respectively), while almost as many report engaging in those behaviors to feel closer to a boyfriend or girlfriend (65 percent and 61 percent, respectively).
Other changes are in the offing as well.
Adolescent sexual behavior has long been linked to gender stereotypes, such as ones that suggest boys want, and should seek, all the sex they can get and that girls are simply targets of turbocharged testosterone. Both of these stereotypes hurt teens—boys because they feel pressure to be sexually active and girls because they often cannot “safely” discuss or explore their sexuality.
But the shifting culture of teen sex may soon reshape those views, although not necessarily for the better. Justin, a fourteen-year-old eighth-grader, says, “Teachers think it’s the boys trying to get sex, but now it’s the girls.” Seventeen-year-old Neil agrees. “They’re like guys now, pointing out who they had sex with: ‘I did him, I did him, I did him.’” The “hunter-gatherer” subtext common in such analysis does little to adequately frame the complicated nature of sexual decision-making, by boys or girls.
Fortunately, decisions about sex are not made in a vacuum. Teens weigh all kinds of factors when making choices about personal behavior, including information and expectations communicated by the caring adults in their lives.
Unfortunately, that dialogue appears to be more the exception than the rule. A new Teens Today study reveals just how rare it is for adults and teens to discuss this most basic—and important—facet of growing up: just over half of middle and high school students (51 percent) say they can talk to their parents about sex and significantly fewer cite other adults with whom they can discuss the issue (34 percent).
Talking With Teens About Sex
Regardless of where one stands on the questions of if and when, why and how, it seems that indiscriminate, sometimes indiscreet, and often exploitive sexual behavior by school children, some not yet even old enough to drive, warrants discussion about what constitutes healthy human development.
In truth, young people are starting puberty sooner, are exposed to sexual stimuli more frequently, and are engaging in intimate behavior earlier than ever before. And that means that the significant adults in their lives have an important role to play in helping them navigate the murky waters between puberty and full-fledged sexual intimacy. That is a role many teens say they would welcome.
No doubt talking with teens about sex, especially someone else’s teen, poses legitimate questions about both consent and content. Nevertheless, young people want and need forums for open, honest discussion about emerging sexuality and sexual decision-making. Within an educational framework, and with parent notification and consent, trained facilitators can guide meaningful, respectful dialogue about changes and choices. Let’s face it: teens at summer camp are talking about sex anyway, so we might as well try to steer dialogue toward constructive outcomes.
Here are some simple steps to get started if you wish to offer guided teen discussion groups at your camp:
It is also important to educate all of your employees about the discussion groups so that they feel empowered to refer teens, who are engaging in provocative dialogue outside of a structured, supervised venue. Indeed, providing such forums will go a long way toward helping your staff deflect common questions from campers about personal behavior, preventing inappropriate conversations between counselors and campers.
With effort, patience, and no small amount of courage, camp professionals can help young adults to better understand risks and rewards of sexual activity, the responsibilities that come with mutually caring and respectful relationships, and still commonly held standards for acceptable behavior, both in and out of camp.
And that’s good news because, after all, hooking up may mean losing out. Editorial Note: While all accounts in this article are factually correct, privacy considerations dictated changing the names of the nonprofessionals referenced. Any perceived identification of a subject of discussion by readers, particularly their parents, is most surely mistaken.