She was 17, coasting through her senior year in a Texas high school, when the breakup came.Her boyfriend, who had pledged his love forever, decided forever had arrived. She spent hours in her room in inconsolable grief. She picked at her food. She fell behind in her schoolwork. On a scale of one to ten, the pain was 100.
Her mother was familiar with the amplified emotions of youth. Still, she couldn’t fathom her daughter’s heartbreak. Timidly she began asking leading questions: Why was this guy so special? Had they been … intimate? One day, the girl blurted, “Yes, Mom, I had sex with him.” The two, it turned out, had been having intercourse for more than a year, finding opportunity at his empty house after school. Her mother couldn’t bring herself to tell the girl’s father.
“Parents are like ostriches sometimes,” says Claire Brindis, an adolescent health expert at the University of California, San Francisco. “They bury their heads in the ground and say, If I don’t recognize it, it won’t happen.”
But happen it does. In December, 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, popular with young fans of Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101, revealed she was pregnant. That news closely followed the announcement by CDC officials that in 2006 teen pregnancy rates rose for the first time in 15 years. Add the box office success of the movie Juno, a PG-13 tale about a pregnant high school student, and parents have plenty of fresh reasons to make sex a topic of household conversation.
When children shroud their behavior in secrecy, they lose open, caring connections to adults who can help them make thoughtful decisions. These connections are especially important in matters of sex, since the stakes are high and sex seems ubiquitous in the popular culture.
Gone are the days when it was racy for Barbara Eden to bare her midriff on I Dream of Jeannie. Today, almost eight in ten prime-time shows contain sexual content, with an average of nearly six sex-related scenes per hour. One Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found that — at a time when provocative styles blur the lines between child, adolescent and adult — most of what’s in popular teen magazines aimed at girls focuses on appearance, fashion and dating.
Says Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “Teenagers are under a lot of pressure to be sexually active.” Nationwide polling by the group has found most boys believe sexual activity is expected of them as teens, and most girls believe attracting boys and looking sexy are among the most important things they can do.
This cultural ideal is potent, says Natasha Ramsey, an 18-year-old editor at Sex, Etc., a teen-produced magazine and website based at Rutgers University. If teens become convinced that sex among their peers is more common or glamorous than it really is, she says, they may have sex “just so they can feel normal.”
That’s how it was for one New York City girl who says she was drawn to sex at 15, largely to prove her relationship with her first boyfriend (he was older and sexually experienced) was more than a juvenile crush: “I felt I truly did love him.”
Like her, most teenagers don’t view sex lightly. About half of boys and about four in five girls say they have their first sexual encounter while in a steady relationship, according to a 2006 report from research group Child Trends. About one in four has sex once with the first partner.
Yannick LeJacq, 18, another Sex, Etc. staffer, says one concern among high schoolers is “thinking about how they don’t want to be virgins when they go to college.” Torn between external forces pushing them toward sex, and internal forces pulling them back, many end up worried about doing it and not doing it.
That ambivalence may help explain why about two-thirds of teens who’ve had sex say they wish they’d waited. “You really can’t fully understand it,” the New York girl says, “until you make the same mistake.”
Adults can play a major part in resolving this inner struggle. Brown’s anti-teen-pregnancy campaign has found that kids, asked about the most influential voices in their decisions to have sex, rate parents much higher than their peers or the media. Asked the same question, parents underestimate their importance.
Reality Check: 88% of teens say talking with parents helps delay sex.