So, what is the truth about tweens and sex? The hope is that the majority of middle schoolers are not engaging in sexual activity. The problem of course is how one can accurately assess the situation. In truth the research out there varies. Recent studies reflecting data from the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS, 2011) may have parents patting themselves on the backs and rejoicing in the streets. A review of the 2005 data from the Middle School report however, may have parents locking their tweens away in ivory towers and throwing away the keys. The 2011 Middle School YRBS does not offer national data, instead participating states and regions can be analyzed individually.
Depending on where you choose to get your data there are stats suggesting that sexual activity for the 13 and under set ranges from less than 2% on average to 20%. The Kinsey Institute reports that by age 15 about a quarter of all individuals have had sex. Sex is defined as vaginal, oral or anal intercourse.
How has exposure to a more sexualized culture affected tween behavior?
While the majority of tweens may not be doing “it” they are definitely aware of the sexual messages that surround them. Walk into a tween targeted clothing store and you may just be embarrassed by what you see hanging on the racks. Midriff tops, low slung jeans, short-shorts and even sweats with suggestive words strategically placed on the rear-end, not to mention, t-shirts emblazoned with sexualized messages that are supposed to be cute but are far from funny.
Have you listened to the lyrics of tween heartthrobs such as Justin Bieber or One Direction lately? Sex is everywhere and quite frankly, as marketers have already proven it surely sells.
Even tween targeted television shows offered by channels such as Nickelodeon and Disney are rife with sexual innuendo. In truth, our tweens can’t avoid sexual messages. Of course the question then becomes do they really understand what is being slung at them? When they talk or post sexualized content are they merely parroting back what they are hearing and seeing? When for example, a 10 year old boy on a favorite show goes on and on about his ‘hot’ next-door neighbor and insinuates that he would like to ‘do stuff with her’ do most tweens really understand the underlying suggestion?
As would be expected developmental age plays a large hand in comprehension. Older tweens are certainly more aware of the meanings. As tweens enter puberty they begin to become more aware of their own bodies especially when they note the growth of secondary sex characteristics such as breast development and pubic hair. Emotionally tweens feel the effects of the hormonal changes going on inside.
According to the research out there tweens living in more urban areas are savvier about sex than their rural counter-parts. These tweens seem to be engaging in more sexual activity than other tweens. There are of course other factors to consider. Urban areas are more populated. As such the numbers of impoverished and/or high risk youth are higher. Less parental supervision and fewer opportunities for structured aged appropriate activities may leave many of these tweens to fend for themselves. It is no secret that teen pregnancy rates are highest in lower income areas.
Let’s be clear however, tweens in middle to upper income areas are also engaging in sexual activity as the statistics reflected cannot all be accounted for by impoverished tweens. Research indicates that the earlier one engages in sexual activity, the higher risk one is at for other concerning behaviors such as multiple sexual partners, drug and alcohol use, contraction of an STD, or becoming pregnant.
In the end education is the answer. While sex-ed curriculum commonly begins for many tweens by fifth or sixth grade, a focus on content is warranted. Education of course starts at home. While it may seem scary or uncomfortable for a parent of a tween to begin talking to their child about sex at such a young age, we know that parental guidance is a key factor in prevention.
Better a child get the truth about sex from a parent than from a friend on the school bus. Of course sex is not a topic to be covered in one conversation. When parents present as open and willing to talk with their tweens about sex, they provide a caring and supportive forum for their children to get the information they need to make informed and appropriate decisions.
Parental monitoring of media is also a must. Research consistently reflects a link between increased exposure to sexually explicit media and more permissive sexual behavior.
So, what is the truth about tweens and sex? The truth is that today’s tweens live in a world in which they are surrounded by sexual messages. Access to sexual content is as easy as a couple of clicks on a keyboard or taps on a tablet. In reality parents are best served focusing on educating their own tweens to ensure that their children are appropriately informed about sex. As with most important topics, the key to responsible decision making starts at home.