Sexually Responsible Teens
In the 1960s, America's youth proclaimed the virtues of free love. Now, in the dawn of the 21st century, a new wave of teenagers is realizing that free love often comes with a hidden price tag. While young people may be as informed about the birds and bees as their sophisticated alter-egos on "Dawson's Creek," many real-life teens are approaching sex and relationships with far more caution, foresight and maturity than Hollywood and the popular press would have us believe.
"Most of the people I know in school are not having sex," says 19-year-old Maggie Kozicharow, a sophomore at Davidson College in North Carolina. "Of the people I know who have had sex, they aren't currently. Maybe they made the wrong choices in high school and want to change now."
Maggie's observations are borne out by a 1993 survey of Duke University students that concluded a surprising 40 percent were virgins. And when they are having sex, America's teens use birth control more successfully than their counterparts 20 years ago. Consider the following statistics from a 1999 survey of teenage sexual behavior taken by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group:
- The overall U.S. teenage pregnancy rate declined 17 percent between 1990 and 1996.
- While 20 percent of the decline in the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is attributed to decreased sexual activity, 80 percent is due to more effective contraceptive practice.
A Shift in Values
Public health campaigns and a more aggressive sex education stance in high schools most likely have contributed to teenagers' increased level of sexual responsibility. But a subtler factor may be at work. There seems to be a shift in the collective subconscious, away from the "Me Generation's" of-the-moment values. Teens are reflecting on the choices made by their parents and other adults, and many times deciding to delay sexual experience until they have the emotional and financial stability to deal with the possible outcomes.
The number of college males who are waiting for marriage to have sex surprises Maggie Kozicharow. Referring to one such friend on campus, she says:
"He's not a nerd. He's a cool guy. He wants to wait to have sex till he's married because his father fathered illegitimate children. His parents never married, led this hippie existence. He's got all these half-brothers and half-sisters. My friend has made a conscious choice not to be like his father; he thinks that's irresponsible."
Matt Jones, a 16-year-old attending Laces Magnet School in Los Angeles, exhibits a similarly "adult" outlook on male-female relationships.
"Nowadays sex can be not a big deal," Matt says. "I want it to be special."
Despite having a girlfriend currently, Matt is not convinced that she's "the one" and is choosing to keep his virginity for now. Interestingly, his girlfriend is not a virgin, but doesn't pressure Matt for sex. According to Matt, she had sex with a previous boyfriend, but felt that experience was negative.
When he does choose to have intercourse, Matt imagines he will use condoms and ask his partner to be on birth control as well. When asked the reason for this somewhat stringent practice, Matt confides:
"One of my big fears is I would have sex with a girl I didn't really like, and she would get pregnant and end up having the kid and maybe something would be wrong with it, and I wouldn't be able to take care of it."
Even in this situation, Matt says he would not be willing to give the child up for adoption. Discussing the option of terminating such an unwanted pregnancy, Matt believes that, for him, the only acceptable choice is the "morning after pill" because it stops fertilization rather than destroying a viable embryo. Matt explains that the thought of abortion has haunted him since he learned about a friend's background.
"I know this girl whose mom tried to have an abortion with her. When my friend found out, it affected her. She's a cool person, I can't imagine her not being here."
Teens and the Threat of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
In its 1999 survey, the Alan Guttmacher Institute released these sobering statistics:
- Every year, 3 million teens -- about 1 in 4 sexually experienced teens -- acquire an STD.
- In a single act of unprotected sex with an infected partner, a teenage woman has a 1 percent risk of acquiring HIV, a 30 percent risk of getting genital herpes, and a 50 percent chance of contracting gonorrhea.
Kelly, * a 10th-grader at a Catholic high school outside Washington, D.C., believes that the threat of STDs is a "pretty big factor" in teens' decision to abstain from intercourse. However, it's worth noting that Kelly's school does not discuss birth control or provide condoms due to religious beliefs. Kelly's current level of sexual activity is "up to third base." She states that she intends to use condoms when she begins having intercourse.
Sixteen-year-old Ethan,* a 10th-grader at a Maryland private boys' school, strongly believes that the fear of STDs, especially AIDS, keeps many teens from being intimate.
"I would never have sex with someone if I thought they might have AIDS or STDs," Ethan says.
Despite his concern about STDs, Ethan has chosen to be sexually active; he and his current girlfriend are sleeping together and use condoms for protection. Unlike his friends who are waiting to have intercourse, Ethan maintains that he's emotionally ready to be intimate and is comfortable with his level of activity -- although he also says he feels "pressure" from his girlfriend to have sex.
The other teens interviewed for this article unanimously concurred that the STD scare is not the major reason many young people are postponing sex.
Jade, * a 10th-grader who attends a private girls' school in the northeast, is abstaining from having sex with her boyfriend. But she says the fear of STDs hasn't influenced her decision because "they can be prevented by correct condom use." Matt Jones agrees that most teens don't worry excessively about contracting an STD. Maggie Kozicharow adds that an individual's values have a much greater role in determining whether or not that teenager has sex.
Media Messages and Peer Pressure
In the 1999 hit teen comedy "American Pie," three high school boys race to lose their virginity by graduation. On TV's "Dawson's Creek," a teenager taunts his teacher, saying, "I'm the best sex you never had." Precocious MTV darlings Fiona Apple and Alanis Morrisette croon about more past sexual experiences than many adults have in a lifetime.
With titillating messages like these, it's no wonder parents worry about the media's ability to influence teenagers' sexual behavior. However, the experiences and observations of the teenagers interviewed for this article suggest that there's a gap between real kids and their provocative Hollywood counterparts. Far from being naïve and impressionable, these flesh-and-blood teenagers possess the wisdom to choose what's right for them. None of these interview subjects said they felt pressured by the media to be sexually active.
Matt admits that he used to be influenced by racy TV and film fare in his early teens, but has since grown more secure with himself and no longer listens to Hollywood.
This same self-assurance also helps Matt resist peer pressure. Matt says he's witnessed some of his male friends egg on others to go "all the way," but thinks they leave him alone because he's recognized as someone who won't do something he doesn't believe in.
Keeping the Lines of Communication Open
Three out of the five teens in this article state that they have at least one parent with whom they are comfortable talking about sex.
"My parents were always open about sex," Maggie says. "I never felt pressured one way or another."
Maggie believes that parents ultimately don't have much impact on their kids' decisions to postpone or to have sex. However, there seems to be a connection between parents who are accessible and non-judgmental and kids who approach intimacy in a mature, realistic fashion.
Matt asserts that he appreciates his dad for being accessible and honest. In fact, a June 1999 advertising supplement in the L.A. Times health section featured this father and son's constructive dialogues about sex. Considering how thoughtful and sensitive Matt is regarding the role of sex and love in teenagers' lives, it's clear why he writes for L.A. Youth, a periodical published by and for teens, on various issues concerning young people.
Ironically, Ethan, the one teenager in this article who is currently having sex, appears to have the least open relationship with his parents.
"My parents hate sex. I can't ever talk to them about it or they kill me," Ethan says, with what seems to be classic teenage hyperbole.
Not surprisingly, Ethan states that his parents don't know he's sexually active.
The Right Time
So when is the right time for teenagers to have sex? What are these young people waiting for and how will they know for sure that they've found it?
Tenth-grader Jade says: "There's not an exact time. Teens should see if they are prepared, have taken precautions and can handle difficult outcomes of sex maturely."
Kelly echoes Jade's sentiments, but with a slightly more somber tone:
"There's not really a specific age, but when one is mature enough to handle the situation responsibly and be aware of any consequences and willing to suffer from them."
"It depends on your level of maturity," Matt adds. "How you think you can handle it, the emotional stuff that's tied to it, and if you break up with them. But if someone thought they were in love and ready in high school, I wouldn't put them down."
* This name has been changed to ensure the teenager's anonymity.