It’s no surprise that the older our children get, the more likely it is that they are sexually active. Which sexual behaviors are considered appropriate at what ages varies from person to person, family to family. What most agree on, however, is that our children live in an increasingly sexualized world where initiation into intimate relationships may be happening earlier than ever before.
According to Teens Today research from SADD, while older teens are more likely to report being sexually active than are younger teens, nearly one quarter (24 percent) of 6th graders reported some type of sexual activity other than kissing. Tellingly, SADD’s data also points to a significant spike in such behavior between the 10th and 11th grades.
In her book, “You’re Teaching My Child What?,” psychiatrist Miriam Grossman states that 34 percent of girls are sexually active by age 15, and by 9th grade, 20 percent of teens have had oral sex.
The topic of sex, in all its forms, is hard to escape—even for young people. All that exposure may create a sense of pressure to become sexually active before they want to be. And early sexual behavior means more partners and more risk.
Just last year, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that among U.S. high school students (surveyed in 2009):
• Almost half (46 percent) had had sexual intercourse;
• More than one in seven (14 percent) reported already having had sex with four or more partners.
The result? Staggering rates of STDs/STIs and pregnancies.
And then there’s this: new data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association points to an estimated 7 percent of American teens (as young as 14) and adults carrying the human papilloma virus (HPV) in their mouths, most commonly traced to oral sex.
While many psychological and biological factors play into such statistics, many young people seem to begin their sexual journeys with little regard for safety—social, emotional or physical. And although boys have traditionally been thought to outpace girls on the sexual activity scale, that may be changing.
Recent research conducted by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, in partnership with SADD, revealed that of the 35 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds surveyed who reported ever having engaged in intimate sexual behavior (other than intercourse), the girls outpaced the boys 40 percent to 29 percent. Of those reporting having ever had intercourse, girls still led the way, 31 percent versus 22 percent.
One proven-effective method of reducing teen sexual behavior and its unwanted outcomes begins with parents who are willing to tackle this (still) most difficult of subjects. SADD’s research points to the efficacy of such dialogue: more than half of teens whose parents provide a strong level of guidance say they avoid sexual activity (52 percent), compared with those whose parents do not (27 percent).
Because early intimate sexual behavior among teens has been linked to unwanted pregnancies and increasingly high rates of disease—not to mention anxiety, depression and loss of self-esteem—parents have an important role to play by talking with their teens about pressure to have sex, opening dialogue, answering questions and conveying expectations.
So it’s time to get those conversations started. After all, they’re just 15 for a moment.
Stephen Wallace, associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. For more information about CARE, visit www.CARESU.org
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