TEEN SEX: Earlier Experimentation Alarms Health Experts
As the "age at which sexual experimentation begins is speeding up," mental health professionals, care providers and school officials have become more "concerned about the health and emotional ramifications for young teenagers," the New York Times reports. Dr. Robert Blum, director of the University of Minnesota's division of general pediatrics and adolescent health, said, "There are significant numbers of youngsters who are engaging in sexual activity at earlier ages." Psychologist Marsha Levy-Warren added, "I can't tell you how many girls come in who are bereft about having had sex too soon." While there are "no in-depth studies" of sexual activity among middle school students ages 10-13, Blum's study from 1997 showed 17% of seventh and eighth graders nationally had intercourse. At the same time, some older teenagers "may be extending their years of virginity," as evidenced by the drop in teen birth rates and a CDC study that showed the number of high school students who had sex declined from 53% in 1995 to 48.4% in 1997. Dr. Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center, explained: "You can get 16- to 18-year-olds who will be very conservative sexually. And then you can get right below them a group of 14- to 16-year-olds who say those older students are too conservative."
What's Going On?
While experts point to the rising divorce rate, inattentive parents, the availability of condoms and earlier onset of puberty as causes of earlier sexual encounters, the "most frequent explanation is that today's culture sends a very mixed message to its young." Teenagers are "bombarded by warnings about AIDS and STDs," and at one-third of the nation's public schools, abstinence is the sole contraceptive method taught, according to a recent Alan Guttmacher Institute study. At the same time, "teenagers are confronted daily with a culture that has become a very sexy place indeed in which to live." Psychiatrist Allen Waltzman said, "Sex is everywhere, and it's absolutely explicit," adding, "Kids always push to the limit of what's permitted in a society." Researchers have found that younger teens are having oral sex, in part because teens consider it safer than intercourse. Dr. Wayne Warren said, "I see girls, seventh and eighth graders, even sixth graders, who tell me they're virgins, and they're going to wait to have intercourse until they meet the man they'll marry. But then they've had oral sex 50 or 60 times" (Jarrell, New York Times, 4/2).