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Thirteen-year-old Ashley Robinson* began dating in fourth grade. At first, "it was movies, malls and making out," says the eighth-grader from Pleasantville, New York. These days, "About half of the people in my class are sexually experienced. Some have lost their virginity, but most have oral sex. It's popular because you can't get pregnant." Last July, she decided to try oral sex with a boy she'd been seeing for a month. "We did it to each other; it was fun. Now we do it at his house, my house, everywhere. Oral sex rules!"
Robinson and her friends are part of a horrifying trend. Increasingly, children barely past puberty are sexually active, says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP), in Washington, D.C. By the time kids turn fifteen, according to research from the National Center for Health Statistics, one third of girls have had sex (compared with less than 5 percent in 1970), as have 45 percent of boys (up from 20 percent in 1972).
But even those kids who remain virgins aren't necessarily innocent. In a recent survey by Seventeen magazine, 55 percent of teens, aged thirteen to nineteen, admitted to engaging in oral sex. Half of them felt it wasn't as big a deal as intercourse -- a view Sarah Brown often hears from kids. "It didn't help that we had a president who said oral sex isn't sex," she says. Adds Robin Goodman, Web site director of New York University's Child Study Center, in New York City, "Oral sex is like the latest sport, an activity kids egg each other on to try. Parents may say, 'That's not my child,' but nearly half of them are wrong."
Recent scandals highlight the extent of the problem. In 1998, parents of as many as fifteen eighth-graders at Williamsburg Middle School, in Arlington, Virginia, were aghast when school officials informed them that their kids were having oral sex at parties and in local parks. (Apparently, a child had confided in a school counselor.) Also that year, a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy were arrested for allegedly organizing an oral-sex-for-hire ring at Langston Hughes Middle School, in upper-middle-class Reston, Maryland. The boy was convicted and sent to a juvenile-detention center, and the girl was placed under house arrest. And in suburban Rockland County, Georgia, more than two hundred children -- some as young as twelve -- were exposed to syphilis through group sex in 1996. Local health officials were appalled by reports of 14-year-olds with as many as fifty sex partners, and girls who engaged in sexual activities with three boys at once.
Deborah Roffman, author of Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex (Perseus Publishing, 2001) and a sex educator, has heard similar stories. "There have always been some middle-school students who talk about oral sex, but now there's a surge in kids who actually do it," she says.
Meanwhile, schools are hearing from parents who worry that their kids aren't being taught enough about sexuality. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey, more than three quarters of parents of kids in seventh to twelfth grades said they wanted schools to offer more detailed information in sex-education classes. They want their kids to learn how to obtain and use birth control and deal with the pressure to have intercourse.The price of preteen intimacy
Not surprisingly, children often regret having sex too soon. In a recent NCPTP survey, 73 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds who had lost their virginity said they wished they'd waited. That sentiment is shared by 58 percent of sexually experienced 15- to 17-year-olds. When Ladies' Home Journal conducted a survey of kids on the NCPTP Web site last June, many described their first sexual experience the way 15-year-old Jennifer Jacobson* does: "It was the stupidest mistake I ever made." At age 12, "I snuck out of my house to have sex with a 15-year-old guy I'd known for only about a week," she says. "Now I'm going to have to spend the rest of my life trying to forgive myself."
Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D., host of a call-in radio show for teens and author of Generation Sex: America's Hottest Sex Therapist Answers the Hottest Questions About Sex (HarperCollins, 1995), sees even more serious repercussions. "Often, a lack of self-esteem makes kids experiment with sex," she says. "Frequently, the result is guilt and shame. As adults, they may punish themselves for their past by not letting themselves enjoy sex. Or they may have trouble establishing meaningful relationships because they've disconnected sex and love."
Girls are especially at risk. Tara Thrutchley, 18, a volunteer peer educator for AID Gwinnett, a nonprofit HIV awareness group in Lawrenceville, Georgia, has noticed that girls tend to give oral sex more than they receive it. "A lot of eighth-grade girls engage in this activity with high-school boys," she says. "They see it as a way to please a guy without losing their virginity."
The consequences can be dire. "Girls may become vulnerable to exploitative relationships, especially when they're involved with older boys," says Michael Resnick, PhD, professor of pediatrics and director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "They expect emotional intimacy but don't necessarily get it. That can lead to emotional distress, as well as substance abuse."
What's behind this alarming trend? Virginia Navarro, PhD, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, says our sex-saturated culture pushes kids to grow up too fast. "Children's stores and catalogs sell junior versions of sexy styles," she explains. "You see silky bras and panties for 5-year-olds and skintight Lycra tops and slit skirts that make prepubescent girls look provocative."
Adding fuel to the fire are racy TV shows like Dawson's Creek and Popular, which depict teen sex as exciting and normal. More than half of all TV shows include sexual content, with the average prime-time program featuring five or more sexual references per hour, according to a recent study by KFF. Only 9 percent of these widely watched shows ever mention responsible behavior, such as abstinence or using contraception.
The Internet is also swarming with sex. In a recent survey of fifteen hundred kids by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Virginia, one quarter reported having accidentally stumbled upon pornography while Web surfing or opening e-mails.
But the media is only half the problem, says Resnick. "The majority of parents are squeamish about discussing contraception and doubly squeamish about oral sex," he says. "So, at puberty, young people with natural curiosity about sex encounter uncomfortable silence from their parents instead of guidance."
Megan Ruggiero,* 13, an eighth-grader from Armonk, New York, and Kim Abrams,* 16, of New York City, say sex and its risks were never discussed in their homes. In Ruggiero's case, suggestive material on the Internet and sex scenes on Dawson's Creek "made me think about doing it." Curious, she performed oral sex on her date at a New Year's Eve party last year, an act she says she regrets.
Abrams engaged in oral sex -- an activity she now calls disgusting -- two years ago, then intercourse, which was also unpleasant. "I started doing things I shouldn't have been doing," she says.
Beth Risacher, a program coordinator at a state agency, in Indianapolis, understands parents' reluctance to discuss sex with their children. "Kids at this age are so sensitive that if you don't take the right approach, they don't listen or they think you're accusing them of something," she says. She waited until her daughter, Elizabeth, was 14 before discussing AIDS, contraception and sex. Soon afterward, Elizabeth asked for birth control pills, says Risacher. "That's when I found out she'd been having sex since she was only 13."
Fifteen-year-old Adam Dennison,* of Brooklyn, New York, says his parents would be shocked if they knew that he started having oral sex two years ago. About 75 percent of his friends also do it, he estimates, adding "I learned most of what I know from my older brother and Sex and the City."
While some parents buy into the myth that talking about sex encourages experimentation, the opposite is true, says Debra Haffner, author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children (Newmarket Press, 2000) and past president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., in New York City. "The research is clear: Giving preteens accurate information and sharing your values makes them more likely to abstain."
Leaving children in the dark can promote risky behavior, says Resnick. "Most kids think oral sex is safe because they aren't told that it can lead to sexually transmitted diseases [STDs]," such as gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, HIV, human papilloma virus and possibly hepatitis C, he explains. Nearly all of the kids with whom Ladies' Home Journal spoke believed the practice posed little danger. Meanwhile, four million teens contract an STD each year; some from oral sex.Sex ed: Too little, too late?
Although the U.S. has among the highest rates of STDs and teen pregnancy of any modern country, 7 percent of schools offer no sex education at all and 35 percent limit teachers from discussing contraception and safe sex. "Abstinence until marriage" courses have become common since the government launched a $250 million program in 1996 to pay for them. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows that only 17 percent of teachers inform junior-high students about the proper use of condoms and just 37 percent do so in senior high.
This trend alarms Susan N. Wilson, executive coordinator of Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University's School of Social Work, in Piscataway, New Jersey. "It's dangerous in a world where STDs kill young people," she says. A recent study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, in New York City, shows that nearly three out of ten teachers nationwide work in schools that don't offer sex-ed classes to fifth- and sixth-grade students. Among schools that do, subjects tend to be limited to puberty, the transmission of HIV and abstinence.
Wilson believes that schools should introduce sex ed at the beginning of middle school and expand the range of topics covered. "Our silence is creating dangerous myths," she says. "There should be a wake-up call-withholding crucial information about sexual risk doesn't make our kids safer. Telling them the truth does."-- Lisa Collier Cool
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.