Secret Sex Lives of Kids

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Surrounded by Sex

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.

 

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