Secret Sex Lives of Kids
A Troubling Trend
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."