The Real Truth About Teens and Sex
By Sabrina Weill
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Teens Have Secrets About Sex (and They Want Adults to Know Them)
Exclusive National Survey Results
Teens: Tell the Truth!
Do you have a secret about your sex life
that you'd never tell your parents?
1 in 11 14-year-olds say YES.
1 in 8 15-year-olds say YES.
1 in 5 16-year-olds say YES.
1 in 3 17-year-olds say YES.
"We lie to you because we don't want to disappoint you . . . or get yelled at." —Bethany, 17, New Jersey
Many parents have confessed to me that, at some point, they have experienced a nearly irrepressible urge to rifle through their teen's backpack. Or to read their teen's journal—be it an online diary or a lined book filled with loopy script that was left spread-eagle and spine-up near the family computer . . . practically emblazoned with "Read me—she'll never notice."
It's understandable that parents would want to do a little investigating. Even without any solid evidence or direct testimony, there are clues when a teen is embarking on a journey for which his or her parents did not plan the itinerary: the left-onscreen IM to a girl with an unfamiliar name that ends "i luv u!" or a thong underwear in the wash that was not a parent-endorsed purchase. Even though we know teens have a social life that frequently doesn't include adult supervision, the oft-sudden realization that they may be hiding such an important part of their lives can be a startling wake-up call.
Just as a teenager's life gets more complicated, the stakes get higher: heartbreak, STDs, and pregnancy become immediate risks. At the same time, from a developmental standpoint, teens are supposed to be pulling away from the adults in their lives. In a sense, this pulling-away is good for both parents and teens: it's one thing to be an 11-year-old's main confidante, but no parent truly wants a play-by-play of their 15-year-old's date, any more than a teen wants to know the details of his or her parent's romantic life.
But at the same time, many teens do not have the maturity, judgment, or sophistication to make possibly life-changing decisions regarding sex without the input of an older, wiser adult. So, that's the bind we find ourselves in, needing to: 1 See what's truly going on in teens' sex lives and 2 Talk to teens about sex and sexuality in a way that will empower them to confidently make intelligent, responsible decisions (even though they act like they don't want to talk to us at all, let alone about sex). On the front lines of this communication gap, many parents and other adults who care about teens have pulled me aside to ask, "What's going on with my teenager? I found this [thong underwear/love letter/condom], and I'm not sure what it means. Is my teen in love? Or in danger? Or both? Help!"
And I think I can help—because teens confide in me. Ever since I began communicating with teens more than a decade ago as the "Sex and Body" columnist for Seventeen magazine, teens have been telling me what they consider to be their deepest, darkest secrets—secrets they are too afraid or too embarrassed to reveal to their parents, their teachers, or the adult in their lives they feel closest to. Often, these are secrets teens think adults can't handle. "What would happen," I sometimes ask, "if you told your parents what's really going on with you?"
"They'd freak out."
"They'd kick me out of the house."
"They wouldn't understand."
"They don't know what it's like to be a teenager now."
Even though I generally like to take a listen-without-judging approach to teens, this is the one place where teens so often get it wrong. Most of the parents I speak to want to know more about what's going on with their teen's life, not to persecute them or put them on "lockdown," but to help them.
Teens Want to Close the Communication Gap
As I was starting research for this book, I sent an e-mail to teens saying, "Listen, I know it can be hard to talk about sex, so if you tell me your secret thoughts, feelings, and actions, I'll share your words in a book, to help adults understand where you're coming from and how best to help you."
You might think teens would say, "No thanks! I'll keep my most intimate thoughts to myself if it's all the same to you." It is, after all, the rare teen (dare I say, no teen) who wants to break the news about what they're up to sexually to their own parents. This is, in part, because of the embarrassment factor. And anecdotal as well as scientific research (and good common sense) tells us that teens, like children of all ages, are loath to disappoint their parents.
53% of 12- to 17-year-olds are "very" or "extremely" concerned
about disappointing their parents.
Another 36% report they are "concerned."
8% are "a little concerned."
Only 3% are "not concerned at all."
But they did confide in me: hundreds of teens contacted me, eager to share the most intimate details about their love and sex lives (or lack thereof) and stating quite explicitly that they wanted me to tell parents and other adults in their lives about their secret thoughts, their personal feelings, and even their most private actions. "I have to say, your book is a wonderful idea," said Melinda, 16, from Washington. "Many parents these days think they know what's going on with their kids. But they don't. So kudos to you for educating the 'rents on what's going on." So many teens express this sentiment to me in one way or another that it reinforces my belief that despite the horrified looks on their faces when we bring it up, teens want to discuss sex and sexuality with an adult they trust. They want parents know what's going on.
They just don't want to be the ones to bring it up.
What's really going on
You don't have to look too hard in your local paper, on the news, or yes, even in my e-mail inbox, to find panic-inducing stories about teens having group sex at parties or on buses or playing sex games and getting pregnant at tender ages—these rumors and trends are addressed in the next chapter. In this chapter, I want to provide the big picture: today's teen-sex landscape—what's going on with most teenagers across the country. These statistics and revelations are based on my interviews and contact with teenagers, as well as national surveys, including my nationwide Teens: Tell the Truth! survey of more than 1,000 teenagers, which I produced in consultation with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the results of which are revealed in this book for the first time.
Knowing the truth about teens and sex is the first step to helping teenagers sift through the ever-changing choices and vital decisions they will make in the coming years.
And, happily for both parents and teens, no one's diary will be read in the process.
Good news first
There is always plenty of negative news about teens behaving badly and how sexual and sexually active teens are today. But in truth, over the past 15 years some very positive trends concerning teens and sex have been evolving. For example:
• Teens are having less intercourse in high school (down 14% from 1991).
• Those teens who are having sex are using more contraception (91% of boys and 83% of girls who had sex in the 3 months prior to being surveyed used contraception.)
• Teen pregnancy is down 30% over the past decade.
And the most recent National Survey of Family Growth (a
National Center for Health Statistics study that includes responses and interview information from thousands of teens) confirms that these positive trends are continuing. So even though the bad news about teens is often the loudest, it's not the only news to pay attention to.
Nationwide, just under half of all teenagers—46.7 percent—are sexually active, and in my conversations with teens over the past decade I have definitely noticed a culture shift from many teens telling me they feel it's "totally embarrassing" to be a virgin to a growing group of teens who are virgins and proud of it.
"I don't think it's cool to have sex"
"I go to a big suburban all-boys high school. I consider myself funny, helpful, and athletic. I'm into sports and hanging out with friends, at the movies and the mall.
"I think virginity is pretty important, but I know a lot of people who have already lost their virginity when they were in 8th grade. I know many more people who have lost it this year in 9th grade. I also know that many people who have had sex at our school don't tell people about it. I don't know why, maybe because they don't want their parents to end up finding out. I don't think it's cool to have sex. It's way too early, and I don't think we should. Yes I am a virgin, I have been offered to have sex, but I don't want to. It's too early, and I just don't want to take that chance of having a baby." —Colby, 14, Missouri
The fact that more teens are choosing virginity is good news in part because the latest research about teen's brains shows that there are developmental reasons to encourage teens to delay sex. "Twelve, 13, 14 is absolutely too young," says Kristin Moore, Ph.D., who is a scholar and president of the Washington D.C.–based research organization Child Trends. "Kids are only developing formal operational thinking at 15 and 16." Teens' capacity to make smart decisions—decisions that will affect their future, including choices about contraception and STD prevention—are still forming. So it doesn't matter if parents value delaying sex until marriage, or until after high school, or until there is a committed and loving relationship in place . . . the longer a teenager delays sex, the more time she is giving her brain to catch up with her body, and the higher the chances are that she'll be able to make intelligent, careful decisions that will protect her from STDs and pregnancy when the time comes.
What do teens think about teens being virgins?
81% of teens do not think teenagers should be sexually active.
–The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCTPTP), 2004
The rest of the picture
A good many teenagers are still having sex while in high school, and there is a sense among teens and the health educators I spoke to that more teens are holding off on having sex, but those who are sexually active are fooling around with more partners. And although there has been a decline in sexual activity among teens under 15, nearly one-third of ninth graders are still having sex.
At what age are teens losing their virginity?
32.8% of 9th graders have had sex.
44.1% of 10th graders have had sex.
53.2% of 11th graders have had sex.
61.6% of 12th graders have had sex.
Sexually active teens (much like sexually active adults) tend to fall into one of three camps: 1) Those who have sex once and then wait a long time—sometimes years—before they do it again. 2) Those who are in relationships and have sex either on occasion or frequently with their partner. 3) The smallest subset of all: teens who have sex frequently with multiple partners.
How often are sexually active teens having sex?
Of sexually active boys ages 15 to 17:
86% had engaged in intercourse in the past year.
47% had engaged in intercourse in the past month.
36% had engaged in intercourse 10 or more times in the past
—Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2002
Though it's a minority, 14.4 percent of high school students have had sex with 4 or more partners—20.3 percent of 12th graders have done so. For obvious reasons, this statistic in particular gives pause to many people who dedicate their lives to helping teens avoid unplanned pregnancy and STDs.
"I've noticed a lot of hooking up"
"As a senior I've noticed a lot of people hooking up. Not just hooking up, but getting out of control with hooking up. They don't even feel one should have romance together to have sex with somebody. And the guys enjoy it. Nobody gets a bad reputation from it either. Word gets around quickly in my school about who's dating who and who's sleeping with you. There are groups of kids at my school who like to sleep around. Others, such as myself, believe there should be feelings, romance, and more between the couple to have sex."
—Josey, 17, New Jersey
When teenagers say "hooking up," it can mean anything from meeting at the mall to fooling around or having sexual intercourse, it's all in the context. Likewise, teenagers have a somewhat expanded definition of what it means to lose one's virginity:
Is someone who doesn't have sexual intercourse
but does do "everything but" still considered a virgin?
47% of 12 to 17-year-olds say YES
29% say NO
24% say they don't know
It's interesting that nearly a quarter of teenagers seem unsure about what qualifies as virginity loss—this used to be a rather cut-and-dried issue. It speaks to the new and shifting boundaries and new ways of talking and thinking about sex that this is no longer the case. I will add, though, that in my experience when teens are talking about themselves (i.e.: "When I lost my virginity"), the term "virginity" does tend to mean sexual intercourse.
How do teens define "sex"?
91% of teenagers age 13 to 16 agree that sexual intercourse
77% agree that oral sex is sex
45% agree that touching someone's genitals or
private parts is sex
The above statistics are in line with what I generally hear from teenagers. When they use the phrase "having sex," either in reference to themselves or others, they are often referring to sexual intercourse but they may also be talking about other sexual acts. But these definitions, like so many in the Teen Lexicon, are fluid—it's worth asking teenagers questions to confirm exactly what they're talking about. (Interestingly, sometimes the discovery is that the teenager himself is not sure.)
When and where are teens having sex?
It is often commonly assumed that teens are having sex between 3 and 6 p.m., those unsupervised hours between school ending and parents coming home from work. But recent studies show that sex between teens generally takes place in the evening (after 6 p.m.) and that teens are usually having sex at home—two-thirds of teens in a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth reported having had sex at their own home, a partner's home, or a friend's home. Knowing this, I wondered how many parents were actually at home while these teens were fooling around. So I included that question in the Truth survey:
Do you know a teen who has had sex at home
while their parents were in the house?
24% of 14-year-olds say YES.
42% of 15-year-olds say YES.
42% of 16-year-olds say YES.
60% of 17-year-olds say YES.
How can parents tell if their teen is having sex?
Sure, these statistics are all very interesting—and right now parents may be rethinking that "open-door" policy that used to seem so restrictive but now suddenly sounds like a good idea. The number one question I get from parents is, "How can I tell if my teen is having sex?" Well, one way is to ask, but she may not tell you the truth (at the end of this chapter is real-world advice about not making it easy for teens to lie to you). Unless the parents and teen are extraordinarily close or the teen has sex for the first time when she's in her late teens, the parents probably won't get to know for sure exactly when it happens. Loss of virginity is just not something teens are necessarily motivated to share with their parents—they know this is news that will, in all likelihood, not be met with enthusiasm.
"If you want to know . . ."
"I'd love to let parents know that sex is everywhere, but that does not mean that your teenager has sex. If you want to know if your teenager is having sex, ask them; it's the only way to know. If we lie to you and give you the answer you want, it's because we don't want to disappoint you or. . . get yelled at.
"Teenagers are not all stupid, but all of us need help. I won't lie, sex is fun. We like to be sexy and have sex. So many teenagers are sexually active, but that does not mean they are ready for it. Don't hold back from 'the talk' or sharing information hoping that it will protect your children, because it only hurts them when they get the wrong information. Sex is everywhere, and we can't change that—we can only learn from it." —Bethany, 17, New Jersey
Many of those teens who lie to their parents tell me they are doing so to protect their parents. Some say they don't want their parents to worry, while others say they just know their parents (especially the fathers of girls) would be really sad to know they are fooling around.
28% of 12- to 17-year-olds agree that it's "always" or "sometimes" okay to lie to your parents about your sex life.
Still other teens tell me that while they wouldn't lie to their parents if asked outright, they're not offering up the information, either.
w Exclusive National Survey Results w
Teens: Tell the Truth!
Are you keeping a secret from your parents
about whether you're sexually active?
1 in 13 15-year-olds say YES.
1 in 8 16-year-olds say YES.
1 in 5 17-year-olds say YES.
Hard as it may be for some parents to digest, from the standpoint of protecting teens, it doesn't matter if parents know exactly when they start having sex. What matters is that teens have the information they need to be protected physically and emotionally so they don't make dangerous choices based on faulty logic. There is advice on how to do this in the "real-world advice" section of each chapter. However, I can't recommend strongly enough that parents not corner their teenager and try to extract a confession. Making a teen feel like he can't talk about sex without being judged or attacked will make it far less likely that he'll ever bring up the topic again, even when he really needs help or advice.
Compelling as it may seem, sifting through a teen's e-mails or reading her diary are measures that should be used only in cases of true emergency. It's such a major invasion that if a parent gets caught (which is likely—teens have safeguards in place to fiercely guard their privacy), it can take a long time to rebuild that trust and credibility again—both of which are crucial to parents who want to guide their teens' choices.
Teens are exploring dangerous territory, without a map
Many teens tell me that they expect to sort through the questions, decisions, and issues concerning sex and sexuality alone. Some feel like they don't want to worry their parents. Others feel their parents have full plates and shouldn't be burdened with too much information. Still others don't want to disappoint their parents, don't want to invite too much inquiry into their personal lives, or simply assume their parents don't care to know.
Teens often tell me their belief that "what a parent doesn't know won't hurt them" is fostered by their parents' reaction whenever the teen does try to bring up a sensitive topic, especially sex. They tell me about parents who get angry or seem embarrassed or otherwise act in a way that makes the teen conclude this topic is off-limits. Something to note here is that teens will ascribe feelings to the adults in their lives that the adults themselves may not necessarily hold, based on things that are not said, tone of voice, or body language alone. So even if a parent is comfortable talking about sex with his or her teen but hasn't brought it up out of respect for the teen's privacy, the teen may assume that the parent doesn't want to talk about it, or that his parent would be angry or uncomfortable if the teen brought it up. And so the communication gap widens . . .
"I've always made a comparison between the way we treat driving and the way we treat sex," says Frank Furstenberg, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. What he means is: teens practice driving, often right in their parents' driveways. They get driving lessons. We know they want to drive, and we, in fact, expect they will drive, even though driving is a very dangerous activity—perhaps the most dangerous activity they will engage in while living with us. So we prepare them to drive, and we do everything we can to help them manage the risks associated with driving. On the contrary, says Furstenberg, parents expect sex not to happen ("knowing full well that it usually does") and distance themselves from the process of preparing teens to be sexually responsible.
When parents take an "I'd rather not know" approach, the result is not teens abstaining from sex. Teens won't wait while parents carefully construct the perfect thing to say or until it feels like it's just the right moment to talk. Instead, they forge ahead with their lives, which seem to have thousands of personal interactions an hour. Teens are exploring their sex and love lives on their own, without a map. And because many teens have gotten the message that their parents will be disappointed in them if they have sex or fool around, they are motivated to do what a person who doesn't want to disappoint someone they love does: they lie about it.
"Our parents think we won't lie to them"
"Things are never like parents see it at home. At home we are good, we don't cuss, and we do our chores like we're told. And in school, we listen to our teachers and walk with friends, like our parents think we do. But at school, we also cuss and ditch classes, and our parents don't even know about it until grades or reports go out. Then we lie and say they miscounted or something.
"Our parents think we won't lie to them to stay out of trouble. But we will. I've said I was at a girlfriend's house when I was really at the movies with a group of guy friends. Our parents grew up in the times that sex was for the people who were rebels. But now, I walk around school and see four or five girls who are pregnant. And we have a class where girls learn about being a mom.
"Although I choose to stay abstinent until after I'm married, like some others around here, we do wonder . . . and we have questions. Questions I'd get grounded for asking at home. And our questions are never answered. That's why I think a lot of teens go off and have sex. Because they are driven crazy about all the things in their heads, that they have to know."
- Francesca, 15, Arizona
So when parents bring up the topic of sex or fooling around, the teen looks away and mutters something about how they're not doing that kind of stuff—sure, other kids are doing it but they're not, so "Don't worry about it, Mom." To some parents, this is good news, not least because it so nicely fits into the parent's mind-set before this quickie conversation: "Phew. Not my kid."
"Not My Kid"
This brings me to the "not my kid" phenomenon. I considered calling this book Not My Kid, because time and time again I talk to parents who say that sure, they've heard about students who have sex at their teen's school and yes, they've heard about teens fooling around at parties but, thankfully, they were certain their teenager wasn't involved. Because I have teens in my life who I'm close to, and I'll admit it pains me to think about them fooling around, I understand where this desire to be in a little denial comes from. (See the introduction for my personal story about this.)
Denial that one's teenager is having sex is actually something of an epidemic in America. When a national study recently asked 14-year-olds "Are you having sex?" and then asked those same teens' parents "Is your child having sex?" only one-third of the parents whose teens were sexually active thought they were. The other two-thirds wrongly assumed their teens were virgins.
Still, less than half of high school students are sexually active, so taking a strictly odds perspective, it's more likely than not that the teen you care most about is a virgin. And even if that teen is sexually active, your feelings may range from "I guess it's okay as long as he is taking measures to protect against STDs and unwanted pregnancy and he's mature enough to handle a sexual relationship . . ." to "Well, this is worst-case scenario, but there's not much I can do about it." Either way, it's so hard to think about a child we love growing up in any way, and to think about them becoming sexually active may be the hardest change to grow accustomed to....
Reprinted from "The Real Truth About Teens and Sex" by Sabrina Weill by
arrangement with Perigee Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
Copyright © 2005 by Sabrina Weill.