The good news is that more teens are waiting to have sex, and teen birth rates in California have dropped by 40 percent since the early ’90s. Plus, believe it or not, some teens still think sex is kind of “gross.” The bad news? Oral sex doesn't count, being "friends" doesn't always mean what we think it does, and the media continues exposing kids to more and more sexual images. We talk to area teens about their sex lives and question experts about what parents should be doing to keep their kids safe.
Denise Mascari, mother of 14-year-old Chelsea, moved from the Bay Area to Grass Valley, into a gated community, she says, because she was worried about what her daughter was being exposed to.
Chelsea now attends Bear Valley High School in Auburn. When the topic of sex, teen sex specifically, comes up, the tomboyish blonde—wearing no makeup, and dressed in sporting sneakers and loose-fitting pants—seems, well, kind of bored by it.
She says that most of her good friends aren’t doing much of anything sexual, or even thinking about sex.
And she admits she has a boyfriend; as in, a boy who’s a friend. They hang out a lot, but when anything sexual comes up on television, they watch from time to time. “We just say to each other, ‘That’s gross.’”
Still, Chelsea says she wouldn’t be surprised if some girls in her class were doing “stuff,” specifically oral sex.
“Really? Who?” Mom wants to know.
Chelsea names a girl.
“Oh, yeah, maybe her,” Mom agrees.
Chelsea says she’s not having sex anytime soon. “I’m not even interested,” she says. Chelsea is interested in things such as sports and school and says that even dating is a long way off. Right now, she says she plans to wait to have sex until she’s married.
“You do?” Her mother looks at her, sounding very surprised. Chelsea nods nonchalantly.
Does her mother believe her daughter will actually wait that long? “I’m skeptical,” Mascari admits. “When it happens [for her], I can only hope that I have given her the right tools to make the right decisions, to have it with the right person, to know if it’s the right time.”
Mascari started being frank about sex—what’s appropriate touching and what’s not—when her daughter was 7 years old. (“In this day and age, I had to be,” Mascari insists. "For her protection. There are crazy people out there.") She continues to push these subjects into as many conversations with her daughter as she can. She doesn’t always wait for the right moment, for a comfortable and appropriate setting.
”There’s just no time to wait, “ she says.
When Chelsea does decide to have sex, Mascari says, she hopes her daughter will discuss it with her first. “But I have to be realistic,” Mascari says. “She probably won’t. So we discuss it now, when I know for sure it’s not too late.”
It’s a very real crossroads for parents are at these: In order to protect their children from the incessant marketing of sexy clothes, music and role models to the preteen and pre-preteen set—not to mention the possibilities of online stalking, pedophiles and inappropriate relationships with teachers, religious leaders and peers—parents may feel the need to educate kids about sexual boundaries at an early age.
But at the same time, parents nationwide—and in Sacramento—seem to share this collective anxiety, a desperate sense of helplessness and insignificance, when it comes to preparing their children for sex. Two years after Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe "malfunction" at the Super Bowl halftime show and seven years after the Clinton/Lewinsky affair made oral sex the leading story on the 5 o'clock news, parents are still freaking out about what their kids are exposed to in the media. And now they have a reason to worry about what their kids are actually doing.
In her NBC report: “The 411: Kids and Sex,” which aired this past January, Katie Couric alarmed everyone (certainly anyone with a teenage son or daughter, that is) by broadcasting the views of 20 U.S. teenagers regarding sex. The report detailed, among many other aspects of teen sex, boys receiving oral sex from their female classmates in school bathroom stalls and what has replaced the dating scene we knew as teenagers: the emergence of the “friend with benefits” relationship (teens who are not dating but are having sex with each other).
Parents and health care educators who work with teens actually had been enjoying what they thought was good news regarding teen sexual habits: According to Planned Parenthood, teen birth rates are down (in California, they’re down 40 percent) and studies have shown that teens are waiting longer to have sex. Add to that the new abstinence movement, in which a significant number of teens have taken “abstinence pledges” (vowing publically, often with a ring ceremony, to wait until marriage to have sex).
But Couric reported that these numbers, while welcome, do not reflect what they appear to. It turns out kids are defining sex differently—oral and anal sex don’t count, and kids' attitudes toward these activities are, as one parent put it in the report, shockingly “casual.”
After Couric’s report aired, Ed Bradley presented his look at the state of teen sex. “Taking the Pledge,” a segment aired on “60 Minutes” on May 22, called into question the effectiveness of what is known as abstinence-only education. Abstinence-only is the program of choice put forth by the current presidential administration in Washington, D.C., and the reason behind this past year’s reversal on federal support of condom availability and education. Although California does not teach abstinence-only sex education exclusively—the state’s public sex education promotes abstinence while providing information about birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted disease—many local schools invite ab-only speakers to address their students.
Bradley’s report, like Couric’s, argued that while some of the latest numbers on teen sex are encouraging, they may cloud other troubling realities: Many of our teenagers are sexually active, in ways that parents and educators may not be addressing. What are teenagers doing, and are they endangering their emotional and physical health?
“Girls are pressured to have boyfriends, and guys are pressured to have sex. Girls have sex to get a boyfriend, and guys will act like a boyfriend to get sex.”—Robert, 16
“In our group of friends, I’m one of two virgins. I get teased, but not in a mean way. In a funny way. I don’t feel pressure to have sex from them, and I don’t look down on my friends who have had sex. If they ask my opinion, I give it. Some girls have too much sex and, in fact, even the other girls who have had sex agree that some of us have too much sex with the wrong people. We all make our own decisions and respect the decisions our friends make, though.”—Elena, 18
“My little sister comes home with tales of what some of her classmates are doing sexually. I tell my sister to take it with a grain of salt. I think maybe some stuff is getting stretched, made up, even. Kids do that. I’m pushing her to wait like I did. Not until she gets married, because that’s not practical. But I tell her, virginity, it’s great! Stay a virgin, at least for now! Focus on other stuff.”—Megan, 19
Abstinence-Only Sex Education
A) Has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.
B) Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside the marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children.
C) Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and other associated health problems.
D) Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.
E) Teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.
F) Teaches that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society.
G) Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how drug and alcohol use increases vulnerability to sexual advances.
H) Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.
Source: Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States
California is the only state that does not receive federal funding for sex education because it refuses to adopt the abstinence-only program supported by the federal government. To receive this money, California would need to implement the eight-point "A through H" criteria in its entirety. Influenced by a 2004 report released by Henry Waxman, D-Calif., which questioned the accuracy and effectiveness of abstinence-only programs, California lawmakers have determined that public schools should continue teaching comprehensive sex education, which covers abstinence, effectiveness and safety of birth control, protection from sexually transmitted diseases, and decision-making.
But abstinence is the healthiest choice, says Kristie Hayes, director of government relations for the Abstinence Clearinghouse. It’s the only way to be 100 percent safe from STDs, pregnancy and other risks that go hand-in-hand with sexual behavior, she insists. Planned Parenthood gives credit to this movement by saying the same thing on its informational website, which lists abstinence as one form of birth control.
But critics of ab-only ed, which include Planned Parenthood and, most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics, recently denounced the program, calling it ineffective in combatting the specific health issues presented by teen sex, namely pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
According to Planned Parenthood and the Waxman report, in ab-only sex ed, kids are often told by guest speakers that teens who have sex don’t value themselves, have no self-control and will be labeled as sluts by their peers. They are told that condoms do not always protect against pregnancy and STDs; that if they have sex before marriage, they will suffer devastating emotional, physical, psychological and social consequences; that the only safe sex is abstinence until marriage.
While some may be critical of the ab-only approach, it's hard to argue that the safest sex is no sex at all. Yet the ab-only message doesn't appear work long term. Recent statistics show that while teen pregnancy is way down and more teens are waiting to have first-time sex until an older age, teen STDS are way up (incidence of chlamydia, for example, is up 17 percent in teens). How can this be, if fewer teens are having sex? Researchers studied abstinence programs, following virginity pledge-takers for nearly a decade, and discovered that the answer lies in how teenagers these days define abstinence, or for that matter, sex.
In a study of youths ages 12 to 17 (Family Planning Perspective, 2000) who had abstinence-only education, young people’s definition of abstinence included engaging in many sexual behaviors, such as oral and anal sex, while avoiding only one: vaginal intercourse.
As for virginity pledges, a Columbia University study (the one Ed Bradley’s “60 Minutes” report focused on) that followed 20,000 pledge-takers throughout a four-year period revealed that, in early and middle adolescence, pledgers delayed vaginal intercourse for an average of 18 months. And when they did break that pledge, they were four times more likely to have unprotected first sex, thus less likely to use protection (abstinence only discourages the use of contraception, and some programs teach that condoms are ineffective at preventing HIV transmission. Researchers concluded that pledge-takers are also less likely to be tested for STDs. Among virgins, boys who pledged abstinence were four times more likely to have anal sex, and overall, pledge takers were six times more likely to have oral sex than teens who remained abstinent but not as part of a pledge.
Another concern of ab-only critics: Under the program’s rigid definitions, heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. (Pledgers promise to wait to have sex until they're married, yet homosexuals can’t legally marry.) The program does not consider homosexual sex practices safe, does not advocate these behaviors and homosexuality is regarded as deviant—an attitude that greatly contributes to this youth group’s rate of attempted suicide and violence victimization, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, HIV-associated risk behaviors and STDs, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance” in 2002.
Critics also point out that ab-only education is not an option for the increasing numbers of young people who are waiting or who plan to wait until they are established in their careers before marrying, until their late 20s or early 30s. Are they expected to wait to have sex even as adults? Hayes responds, “We teach kids to wait until marriage to have sex. It’s about raising the bar to that standard. It can be done. What’s healthiest for a 16-year-old is also healthiest for a 25-year-old and a 35-year-old.”
Sarah Alessi, 17, is a bright young woman who represents ab-only teens on the National Youth Council for Abstinence. Alessi, who lives in New York, recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to address the U.S. Senate regarding more funding for ab-only education. “For me, morally, I think it’s right to wait until marriage," Alessi says. "I think girls who have sex before marriage have no self-respect. There really is no such thing as safe sex. Except to not have sex.”
Other quotes to be used as callouts throughout this story, or to run in a box nearby titled Teens Talk: No Sex
"We are taught that abstinence is the best choice, that you should wait 'til marriage, but here's what you need to do, and know, if you do have sex. Getting all the information makes you think about it more beforehand. It makes sex a bigger deal when you hear about the consequences."—Liz, 16
“If you are telling young people that they have to be married to have sex, what are these people telling young people who think they might be or are certain that they are gay? I know guys who are and think they might be gay. In high school. Are these people telling kids who think they are gay or are gay not to ever have sex? That’s pretty messed up. Who’s gonna listen to that? Teens are smarter than that.”—Alexander, 16
“For awhile, [abstinence] was the cool thing to do. Our generation has been raised on the media. There’s a lot of pressure to be something, to take some kind of stand and be public about it. There were these people who were not religious at all and, all of a sudden, they’re announcing that they’re going to church all the time and ‘We’re born-again virgins.’ As if it mattered to those of us who kept our decisions a little more private. We just laughed at them. Yeah, whatever, you’re a virgin, you’re not a virgin, no one cares.”—Keli, 19
In the United States, the typical age of first sexual intercourse is 17.2. Some 45.6 percent of high school students and 79.5 percent of college students have had sex. The median age at first marriage is 28.6 for men and 26.6 for woman. Population Development Review, 2001
What’s a Parent To Do?
“Teens don’t know enough as it is. And parents think they know what their teens are doing. People think that all these rich kids, the kids who get grades and come from religious families, aren’t having sex. We know more about what your kid is doing than you do. I guarantee it.”—Michelle, 18
As a generation that was introduced to AIDS in the early ’80s, today's parents of teenagers are keenly aware of how dangerous irresponsible sex can be. What’s scarier is that despite the deaths from AIDs and the rise in STDs ever since, in 2005, we’re surrounded by sex like never before.
Television ads are more risque, sexual acts are casually referred to in the lyrics of popular songs, teen idols such as Britney Spears are sex symbols—prancing about pigtailed, bare-midriffed, in hiked-up school girl skirts. On the top-rated Fox television drama, “The OC,” teens are hopping in and out of bed with each other, and with their classmates’ stepmothers.
All of the teenagers interviewed for this story range in age from 14 to 19, attend or have attended public and private area high schools, and have been exposed to sex education that promotes abstinence as the first choice, but provides information about safe sex, including education about condom use, birth control options and the risks of all sexual behaviors. They unanimously agree that the best sex ed presents all the facts, but add that most of their detailed sex education came from discussing sex with their friends and siblings, not in these classes and not in discussions with their parents.
“The biggest mistake parents make is not treating sexual education as a health and safety issue,” says Dr. Michelle Famula, director of the Cowell Student Health Center at UC Davis. “Parents need to get over this idea that sex is a social issue. It’s a social health issue. You can get very sick having unprotected sex with the wrong person. Forget about getting pregnant. You can get assaulted. You can get a deadly disease. The more factual information they receive, the more responsibly they behave.”
Her colleague, Stephanie Lake, a coordinator for UC Davis' Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Training Program, adds that students come to college unprepared for the kinds of sexually compromising situations they inevitably find themselves in. “The students are doing a lot of drinking and partying, for the first time there’s no curfew and no controls, and these students are not prepared for the lack of judgment they suffer as a result of drinking too much. We see kids having unintended, unprotected sex all the time as a result of alcohol abuse.”
Lake and Famula believe parents should talk to their departing high school seniors about their sexual behavior, addressing it not so much as a moral or emotional issue but as a safety issue—the way one would talk to a child about not running alone at night or not getting in a car with someone you don’t know.
“Teenagers want to be able to talk to their parents about sex more than they do. And they believe that parents can provide information that would be of great use to them,” says Katharyn McLearan, a health educator for Sacramento’s Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. But, she is quick to add, Planned Parenthood research shows that one-third of 15-year-old girls said that neither of their parents told them how pregnancy occurs and about half said they had received no information on STDs or birth control from their parents. Only 16 percent of young women and 10 percent of young men cite their parents as their primary source of knowledge about sexuality. “And information that is wrong, too little or too late can have long-term and life-threatening consequences,” McLearan warns.
McLearan says that high school and college students come in for treatment and advice because they don’t always feel as though the lines of communication with their parents are open. The majority of PP patients are girls requesting a pregnancy test, diagnosis and treatment of an STD, or birth control services. Boys who come in do so commonly for treatment of an STD. “Most of our patients come in alone seeking confidential medical services,” she says. “Teens that have not told their parents of their medical condition cite they do not want to disappoint their parents.”
Too often, she says, parents hesitate to speak directly with their children about sexuality. Some mistakenly believe you can tell children too much too soon, and therefore harm them. “The fact is you can’t harm a child by giving him accurate information; you can’t tell a child too much too soon. Silence and evasiveness give the child the message that they should not come to parents about sexuality.”
Successful parent-teenager communication includes the following qualities, according to health educators at Planned Parenthood:
•Parental comfort with the issues [of sexuality, et al.]
•Beginning discussions at an early age
•Closeness between parent and child
•Absence of stress
•Satisfying levels of intimacy
If parents do not feel their relationships with their teenage children meet these criteria, they should get a third party involved—someone with whom the teenager can discuss sexual behavior: a family physician or another trusted adult, such as an older sibling, other relatives, a counselor or psychologist, or a resource center such as Planned Parenthood.
Other quotes from kids that could be used as callouts in this section or that could run in a box nearby titled Teens Talk:
“My mom is very much ‘Wait ’til you get married.’ So is my older sister. I guess you could say that out of my family, I’m the wild one. My older sister, I don’t know if she waited until she got married or not; I guess I assume she did. She’s always saying things to me like, ‘Don’t go out and sleep with just anyone. And don’t fall for some guy telling you he loves you and sleeping with him because of that.’ And I’m like, of course not. . . . Do girls really still fall for that anymore?”—Tereza, 20
“Me, I think it’s supposed to be this sacred act, your first big adult decision, and you should keep it between the two of you and that’s it. It’s not something you should feel the need to have to run home and tell your mom about. If you do, maybe you’re not ready to make such an adult decision.”—Keli, 19
The College Scene
“I waited until I was out of high school to have sex. I’m glad I did. It allowed me to put that off and concentrate on other things. I decided I was going to wait until college, and I didn’t worry about it after that.
When I did it, it was planned for, and we used protection. We had been dating seriously, and I was in love with him. I’m not still with him, but I don’t regret it. It was perfect.”—Megan A., 19
Many of the teenagers interviewed in this story have not had vaginal sex, and most anticipate they’ll probably have sex “sometime in college.”
“Believe it or not, we actually do see a lot of 22-year-olds coming in who have never had sex, and are preparing to have it for the first time,” says Dr. Michelle Famula, director of the Cowell Student Health Center at UC Davis.
“They usually say to us, something like, ‘You probably don’t see a lot of this,’ and we usually say to them, ‘You know, we see more of it than you might think.’”
Famula says these kids come in for birth control and answers to their questions about what else they need to know and do in order to protect themselves and their partners.
“College students tend to be a lot smarter about having sex [than younger students], and the young men tend to be just as concerned about health issues as the women,” Famula says, noting that just as many young men come in for birth control/STD protection and the emergency birth control pill as do women. “Once they come in, they are eager to be responsible about their sexual choices.”
Teen Sex by the Numbers
According to Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit research foundation in Washington, D.C.:
In 2003, 53 percent of U.S. high school students reported never having had sexual intercourse, up from 46 percent in 1991. Abstinence rates also increased between 1991 and 2003 by gender and by race/ethnicity.
In 1991, 49 percent of high school teenage girls said they never had had sex, compared to 55 percent in 2003; among males, the numbers were 43 and 52 percent, respectively.
In the U.S., 20 percent of teenage girls (ages 14–17) reported using no contraceptive method during their most recent sexual intercourse, as opposed to 12 percent of French teenage girls and 1 percent of German teenage girls.
In the most recent Youth Behavior Risk Surveillance, students in the ninth and 10th grades were significantly less likely to report having had intercourse than those in the 11th and 12th grades (34.4, 40.8, 51.9 and 60.5 percent respectively). Male students (48.5 percent) overall were more likely to report having had sexual intercourse than female students (42.9 percent).
Pregnant at 16
Elise Diliberto was a sophomore at McClatchy High School when she got pregnant.
“He was this popular guy who everyone in school knew. Not popular in a good way, like a jock or someone who got good grades, but the bad-boy type that everybody knows about,” says Elise, who dated Jared for six months before she got pregnant. “I was on the pill, but missing days, not taking it the way you’re supposed to,” she recalls. They weren’t using condoms for additional protection (against STDs as well as pregnancy).
Elise’s friends, most of whom had not had sex yet, tried to convince her to dump her new boyfriend.
“Especially after I told them about how abusive he was, first verbally and then physically.” Jared was doing drugs, and he would take the money Elise was earning at her after-school job to buy them. “When they found out I was pregnant, they tried to convince me not to have the baby,” she says. “They told me I should have an abortion. But I always believed abortion was wrong, that it was something I couldn’t do. And I didn’t think I could give the baby up for adoption. I didn't know if I would have much of a say in who would be able to adopt him. What if he went to a bad home?”
Elise also worried about what would happen if she were to decide to give the baby up, get a couple’s hopes up, then change her mind after giving birth. “That’s something I can totally see myself doing, looking back. Anyone who’s given birth to a baby can understand.”
She was still debating what to do when her father found out she was seeing an obstetrician. “[My dad] called me at my friend’s house and asked what was going on,” says Elise. “I had to tell him.”
Elise gave birth to a boy, Joshua, in October 2003. Throughout her pregnancy and ever since, she managed to work, finish school and graduate from McClatchy High School in 2004 with the rest of her friends.
Elise thought for a time that Jared might change once his son was born, once he became a father. “But if anything, he got worse,” Elise admits. Today, Joshua’s father is “out of the picture.”
“I did it with my dad’s help, and I still live with him,” says Elise, whose parents split up when she was a year old. “It’s hard, because, since I depend on him, I can’t raise Joshua the way I want. My dad smokes and when I tell him not to smoke around Joshua, he says, ‘It’s my house, I can do what I want.’ I can’t really argue with that.”
Elise says while she will never say she regrets having Joshua, she regrets having him when she did. “I saw myself finishing school, having a career, getting married and having children with my husband.” She still hopes she’ll get married someday, in her mid to late 20s. Right now, her dad is helping her raise her son.
“I didn’t anticipate how expensive it would be. You think to yourself, you need diapers and formula and gear, but it’s so expensive. There’s no way I could have done it without my dad’s help. Both of us are on my dad’s health insurance until we’re 24,” she says, but she’s not sure what she’ll do after she turns 25, and she’s also not sure what would happen, say, if her father were to lose his job or get a new job that doesn’t offer the same policy.
“My dad was strict when I was growing up. My mom was a partyer, and that’s why they divorced. She wanted to party and my dad was always the one who worked hard and did most of the real parenting. He still is,” Elise says. “There was nothing he could have told me that would have prevented me from getting pregnant. I’m sure he said it all. People always tell you to wait to have sex ‘until you’re in love,’ but that’s not very good advice. I was in love, and it messes with your head. You need facts; you need to know the truth.” And, Elise adds, you need to hear it from someone you’ll believe. “I just thought my dad was being a dad. Dads are supposed to tell you not to have sex.”