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Culture

Fast, Easy, and Unfulfilling Teen Sex

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October 7th, 2009

 

Conyers, Georgia was a quiet, affluent, seemingly normal Atlanta suburb until a 1996 syphilis outbreak infected 17 residents and forced another 250 to get medical treatment. More shocking was the fact that the outbreak showed itself among teens—even kids as young as 12.

Some of these youths reportedly had as many as 100 sexual partners, and others say they regularly attended sex parties where they’d pair off or gather in groups for quick liaisons—sometimes watching the Playboy channel on cable TV and mimicking the behaviors they saw.

Residents of Conyers might have preferred that the disturbing events of 1996 be forgotten, but the whole troublesome episode was revisited in last October when PBS aired the shocking documentary about the situation, “The Lost Children of Rockdale County,” as part of its Frontline investigative-journalism series.

In the documentary—one of the most powerful depictions of contemporary teenage angst ever produced—boys talk openly about their sexual conquests, girls discuss honestly their disappointment about their erotic activities, and parents look straight at the camera and say they had no idea their children were doing these things—adding that they wouldn’t have known what they could have done, even if they’d known.

Meanwhile, things weren’t going much better in Arlington, Virginia—another wealthy suburb—this one near the Washington, D.C. beltway, where officials at Williamsburg Middle School invited parents to a meeting about teens regularly engaging in oral sex.

Eager to avoid pregnancy, a number of young people were opting for oral sex instead of intercourse. Most of the teens seemed to believe that oral sex was less “intimate” or significant than intercourse, and many seemed to think nonintercourse promiscuity was a way to preserve their virginity.

“It’s now the expected behavior,” said one school district health official, according to Washington Post writer Laura Sessions Stepp, who documented the incidents in a July 8, 1999, front-page story.

Most often, according to Stepp, kids would engage in oral sex at parties or in parks. There were also reportedly much more “public” incidents—including one in a crowded eighth-grade study hall and another on a school bus on its way back from a seventh-grade student field trip. One enterprising Reston, Virginia, boy even attempted to make money by helping classmates connect—that is, until he was convicted of solicitation and shipped off to a juvenile detention center.

But most of the Virginia teens engaged in oral sex as a way of trying to find pleasure, fulfillment, or a sense of affection that they didn’t receive from their parents, Stepp wrote. Unfortunately though, these sexual liaisons seldom produced the desired results.

One young girl, who hoped sexual activity would help her snare a desired boyfriend, was disappointed. “I realized pretty soon that it didn’t make him like me,” she told Stepp.

The Challenge
There’s a widespread desire among many parents, youth workers, and concerned observers to dismiss episodes like these as isolated and unusual cases, but reality may not be so comforting.

On the bright side, teen pregnancy rates are thankfully going down, but that largely may be due to the fact that most teens have ready access to birth control.

At the same time, surveys indicate that more than a third of ninth graders say they have had intercourse, and about half of high school students report engaging in oral sex. And a recent Gallup survey shows that while a solid majority of older Americans believe that sex outside of marriage is immoral or sinful, only a quarter of young people aged 18 to 29 feel similarly.

Donna Barton—youth director for Buechel Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and a popular speaker on the struggles teenage girls face—says youths nationwide are experiencing a collective blurring of distinctions between moral and immoral behavior. The reasons for this change are complex and troubling.

For one thing, young people’s bodies are becoming sexually mature at earlier ages. “Girls typically start their periods in the fourth or fifth grades now,” says Barton, who knows of an eight-year-old girl who’s already going through the early stages of puberty.

“At the same time, their sophistication about sexual matters is developing at a rate that’s way beyond their emotional maturity level,” she says.

These problems are compounded by cultural trends that make it more difficult for young people to resist the lure of sex. For one thing, pop culture is saturated with sexual messages in music, movies, advertising, and on TV and the Internet.

In addition, teens are increasingly cut off from adults who might guide them toward better lifestyle choices.

“Just by being teenagers, young people are separated from adults. That’s just part of being an adolescent. But I think part of the reason so many are acting out sexually is because they don’t have the boundaries that used to be created by parents, schools, and churches. They don’t get the guidelines they need, even though they really crave them. Meanwhile our culture allows them to grow increasingly separated from families and other places where they can receive care and protection.”

Three Key Things
There’s no sure-fire, simple answer to the sexual woes of today’s teens, but Barton—who conducted a seminar on “Helping Teenage Girls Heal” at the National Youth Workers Convention in Cincinnati last November—believes three things are key to helping young people—girls in particular—stand up to the growing pressure of sex:

1. Hope.“I try to give girls hope through Bible stories of women, many of whom aren’t typically focused on at our churches, where we often focus on big stories about men. But the Bible is full of stories about wonderful women like Ruth, Esther, Deborah, the woman at the well, the hemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus’ robe, the Proverbs 31 woman, and the Virgin Mary—stories of courage, commitment and hope.”

2. Self-Esteem.“I try to build girls’ self-esteem through their involvement in leadership. I ask them to lead the group in prayer, and to teach, for example. Typically it’s men or boys who’re called on for these things, but I like to call on the girls as well.”

3. Affirmation. “We need to take a look at the ways we affirm girls. Too often, I think we complement them on having cute skirts, pretty hair, or nice behavior. But we don’t affirm their insights or their activities as often as we should, whether it’s sports, academic achievement, or other gifts they may have.” While addressing these areas won’t necessarily solve everything, Barton believes that giving hope, self-esteem, and affirmation to girls—and yes, boys, too—may “help them stand up to the cultural pressures they are experiencing.”

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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