January 11, 2013

Sex Life Of Teenagers Is Subject Of Study

Every so often the popular media takes hold of a topic that, in my opinion, is meant more to titillate than to inform. Whether it was Oprah Winfrey pronouncing from her afternoon altar in a startling tone, “Parents, brace yourselves,” back in 2006 when she reported on an epidemic of oral sex that was sweeping the nation, or the article in The Atlantic Monthly whose author professed, “The moms in my set are convinced—they’re certain; they know for a fact—that all over the city, in the very best schools, in the nicest families, in the leafiest neighborhoods, 12- and 13-year-old girls are performing oral sex on as many boys as they can,” a certain hysteria takes hold of parents who seem to be at once both overprotective and, at the same time, woefully absent from their children’s lives.

But is this hysteria warranted? Are the children of America really all engaged in sex games that involve 80’s style Madonna-esque plastic wristbands, the colors of which determine which act someone performs on whom? The evidence out there says no.

In an August 2012 New York Times article, data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that the idea that our children, determining they weren’t ready for full intercourse and would engage in multiple oral sex acts instead, appears to be bunk. The product of some form of repressive paranoia engaged in by parents who, not too long ago, were children themselves. We craft this imaginary notion that our children are growing up faster and faster. And, in many regards, they are. But biology and its drives tend to move slower than a single generational gap.

This is not to say that children, henceforth referred to as adolescents, are not having sex. Figures show that slightly under half of 15-19 year olds have engaged in vaginal sex. But remember, 18 is, in the US, considered an adult. So it would appear these numbers just by the huge leap in development between 15 and 19 years of age, might be improperly skewed.

Leslie Kantor, vice president for education of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America stated, “There’s been a perception for many years that there’s some kind of epidemic of oral sex among teens. If nothing else, this [CDC] data provides a realistic sense of the numbers.”

The truth, according to the numbers, is that both oral sex and intercourse have actually been dropping for the past decade. Whereas, in 2002, approximately 55 percent of 15-19 year olds had reported engaging in sex, by the years between 2006 and 2010, that percentage had dropped to 48 percent of boys and 46 percent of girls self-reporting their entrance into having become sexual beings.

And their voyage into the sexual landscape seems to be routed in the seemingly most innocent of motivations. According to Dr. John  Santelli, professor of clinical population and family health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, “I think what kids do is get involved in a relationship,” he said, “then at some point decide they’re ready to initiate vaginal sex, then probably engage in a whole repertoire of behaviors with that same partner.”

But, of course, when data comes out to destroy one popular myth, new reports arise to scare the hell out of parents. Only recently, a University of Southern California (USC) research study put the willies into (I promise, there is absolutely no pun intended) parents again. Smartphone use, according to their study, increases the overall likelihood of being solicited for sex on the internet. That same smartphone will drive your teen to have sex with an internet-met partner.

I want to go further into the research, but it really seems very much like another titillating example of appealing to our most prurient of emotions. Parents are filling their imaginations with the fearful non-reality of their teens illicit sex lives in the age of technology even when the facts are pointing to another reality altogether.

One interesting bit of information that did come out of the USC study pointed to how we might best use technology to aid in educating our youth about the pitfalls of sex in the technological age. The researchers advised that the production of smartphone apps could represent a prime venue for adolescent-targeted sexual health programs.

Technology is not going to slow down. This is an immutable fact. But rather than relax into a fear that you, as a parent, are losing the battle to outside forces in your teens lives, the more prudent and positive action must be that you engage your children in an honest conversation on sex: its mechanics, its purpose, and the time and conditions under which it is acceptable.

Biology is a strong driver. Mother Nature is going to continue working within all of us to maintain our drive to propagate the human species. Engaging your teen in a tone of respect can be your best defense against sitting idly back, reading studies and articles, and watching news reports and talk shows whose only motivation is to point out the seemingly darkest of possibilities to you about your own child.

Hailey Winetrobe, MPH, CHES, and a researcher at USC and an APHA Annual Meeting presenter offers the most salient advice for how to proceed as technology continues to evolve. Winetrobe states, “Parents and school health professionals should talk to their teens about being safe in meeting people online and in using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.”

Image Credit: Photos.com

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