Middle-School Sex! More! Faster!!
Mike Males (similar version printed as “A Cold Shower for the Teen Sex Beat,” Extra! January/February 2002)
Teenagers are "experimenting with a wider range of behaviors at progressively younger ages"--especially oral sex in junior high school--reported the Alan Guttmacher Institute (http://www.agi.org, 12/00). How does AGI know? "Growing evidence, although still anecdotal and amassed largely by journalists." Translation: "no evidence."
No matter; journalists sweated more to dredge up pubescent fellatees than the Pentagon has to unearth Osama. Spurring the media stampede was The New York Times (4/2/00), announcing, "The Face of Teenage Sex Grows Younger." Oral sex “is like a goodnight kiss to them," the Times quoted a Manhattan psychologist. Washington Post Magazine (7/16/00) chimed in: an "unsettling new fad" of oral sex is indulged by "about half" of suburban middle-schoolers. (Sources: unnamed "counselors" and "experts"). "The sexual revolution hits junior high," USA Today (3/14/02) headlined. (Evidence? Hackneyed shocked-grownup clichés repeated for decades). Oprah (ABC, 4/29/02) invited adult guests to palliate their own admitted promiscuities by deploring "the epidemic of oral sex in junior high;" stay tuned.
“Teens are having more sex--and getting more diseases” by “turning to sexual behaviors that were once considered taboo,” US News & World Report’s (5/27/02) cover story blared. Evidence? Nothing new--just more anecdotes and breathless quotes from perpetual alarmists such as the Centers of Disease Control’s Lloyd Kolbe and pop-psychologist Lynn Ponton. Meanwhile, the press either ignored or downplayed calming authorities such as Deborah Haffner, sexuality educator and former president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, who “dismisses the press reports of oral sex among middle-school-aged adolescents as largely media hype, saying that only a very small number of young people are probably involved" (Guttmacher 12/00).
America’s press regularly hypes “Teens and Sex.” Is today’s “crisis” any different? The real story is the ignored realities, which continue to be surprising, even shocking--but not in the way the popular media and excitable experts who perpetuate misconceptions of orgiastic eighth graders find titillating. Junior high kids don't report having much sex. Surveys indicate many more boys claim sexual achievement with many more partners than do girls (which should arouse skepticism). Even so, few than one in six students has intercourse by age 15 (Guttmacher 12/00).
Another cold shower for crisis-mongers: Among today's 10-14 year-olds, birth rates are lower than they were in 1950, while total pregnancy rates (birth, abortion, and miscarriage) are at their lowest level since statistics first were collected in 1973, Guttmacher reported ("U.S. Teenage Pregnancy Statistics" 3/01). Despite better monitoring, sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and syphilis (both transmittable by oral sex) fell to their lowest rate in 2000 among boys age 10-14 since 1958; among girls that age, the lowest since 1972 (Centers for Disease Control, "STD Surveillance 2000").
More troubling to media pantings about younger boys and girls getting it on, the few young teens who get pregnant or diseased almost always had considerably older partners (or coercers, or rapists). Birth records show junior high boys father just 8 percent of births among junior high girls; men over age 20 father four times more. HIV infection rates are nine times higher, and other sexually transmitted infection rates are six times higher, among girls age 10-14 than among boys their age, also indicating older partners. And while reporters and authorities continue to pretend sexual risk similarly affects “kids from all walks of life” (US News 5/27/02), CDC figures show HIV and sexually transmitted disease rates seven to 30 times higher among poorer than among middle-class and more affluent teens (STD and HIV/AIDS Surveillance, 2000).
Some dampening conclusions are evident. The junior high sexual revolution (like everyone else's, only much less dramatic) happened 30-40 years ago. Kids have gotten much safer since, with poverty remaining by far the worst risk. The main danger to young girls remains older men. And if junior high boys really are having lots sex of any kind with junior high girls, they must be avoiding pregnancy and chancres very responsibly (unlike older males). Perhaps the ever-frantic media and quotable authorities should be celebrating, not condemning, teenagers’ downward sexual trends.
Mike Males, senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.