Part I: Understanding What We Know
“Everybody’s doing it.”
It is one of the most often used phrases when it comes to the topic of youth and sexuality, especially in adolescence. But the reality lands far from what this phrase indicates. There is little doubt that significant changes have occurred in the sexual landscape over the past few decades. Youth are generally engaging in sexual activity at an earlier age; their older counterparts are engaging in sexual activity longer than before. Meanwhile, though, evidence suggests that the overall frequency of sexual encounters has declined across all men and women.
However, sexual “hookups” are on the rise, especially among adolescents and young adults. Hookups are defined as “brief, uncommitted sexual encounters” with no romantic or dating intent. Data suggests that 60-80% of college students in North America have had some type of “hookup” experience, although what this means is not often well-defined. 70% of sexually active 12-21 year-olds reported having uncommitted intercourse in the last year.
Among high school students surveyed in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30% reported sexual intercourse in the past three months and 41% reported having ever had intercourse. 21% said they drank alcohol or used drugs prior to the last time they had sexual intercourse. 14% did not use any method to prevent pregnancy. 22% of all new HIV diagnoses were young people ages 13-24, 80% of which were males who identified as being gay or bisexual. Of the approximately 20 million new cases of sexually-transmitted diseases (STD’s) every year, about half were diagnosed in individuals ages 15-24. Almost a quarter of a million babies were born to teen girls ages 15-19 in 2014. In 2012, 20-24 year-old women accounted for the highest percentage (32.8%) of the roughly 699,000 documented abortions. Teens and youth (ages 19 and younger) accounted for 12.6%.
Adolescents are especially prone to STD’s or STI’s (sexually-transmitted infections) for many reasons, including physiological ones related to their developing bodies. A 2005 Pediatrics Review found that in 2002, gonorrhea rates for females were highest in 15-19 year-olds; 20-24 year-olds had the highest rate for males. Chlamydia is the most prevalent STI in the U.S.; adolescents have the highest prevalence of all ages. Of all sexually active females, adolescent females had a six times greater prevalence of chlamydia than the average population. Recent statistics indicate that STD’s are on the rise in the U.S. Since 2013, there has been a 15.1% increase in syphilis, 5.1% increase in gonorrhea, and a 2.8% increase in chlamydia. As noted before, young people, gay, and bisexual men are at the highest risk. Short-term symptoms of STD/I’s include various types of pain, bleeding, discharge, itching, and swelling. Long-term symptoms can include pregnancy problems, infertility, cancer, eye inflammation, arthritis, heart disease, and death.
In addition to STI/D and pregnancy risks, sexually active teens experience more psychological issues than their abstinent peers. Alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use is higher in this group. Sexually active teens have increased rates of depression and suicide. Many reasons exist why sexually active adolescents are at a higher risk for a variety of physical and psychological conditions. Although this discussion is beyond the scope of this article, a good resource for parents on this topic is the book Unprotected by Miriam Grossman.
Many factors increase the likelihood of sexual activity in adolescence, including parental, familial, and community factors. Research suggests that girls without fathers in the home typically experience puberty earlier and are at higher risk for sexual promiscuity. Various adverse life events that create added stress, including abuse, separation of parents, and other factors of instability, can increase the likelihood that teens will engage in sexual activity. Media exposure of various kinds has a significant impact on youth sexual behaviors. A review in Adolescent Health found that adolescents who were exposed to sexually-explicit websites were more likely to have more than one sexual partner in the last three months, to have multiple sexual partners, to have engaged in anal sex, and to exhibit more sexually permissive attitudes.
Over the past few decades, there has been much debate about the effectiveness of abstinence and safe sex programs. I will leave this dispute for others to have. But the CDC notes on its website that “abstinence from vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse is the only 100% effective way to prevent HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy. The correct and consistent use of male latex condoms can reduce the risk of STD transmission, including HIV infection. However, no protective method is 100% effective, and condom use cannot guarantee absolute protection against any STD or pregnancy.”
Despite differences of opinion regarding just how we should approach adolescents regarding sexual activity, I have yet to meet a parent who thinks it is “good” for his or her adolescent to have sexual intercourse. By good, I mean safe, healthy, and formative. I have met parents who are resigned it will happen. I know parents who don’t think it is a huge deal. I know parents who feel it is a significant concern, and that sexuality should be delayed until they are adults, or married. But no matter where parents are in this discussion, it seems that almost all agree that the risks of adolescent sexual activity outweigh the benefits in the short and long-term. And the scientific evidence supports this in a major way. If you happen to disagree with this, then the rest of the series will not be of interest. But if you concur, then the upcoming three parts will focus on specific ways to work together, with our adolescents, to save the beauty and promise of sex for a “better” time.
Part II: Striving Towards Best Practice
As I mentioned in Part I, I believe that most parents don’t feel that it is good for their adolescents (and even young adults) to engage in sexual intercourse of any kind. The CDC agrees as indicated by the advice on their website. So does the American Medical Association. And the American Psychological Association. And most religious denominations. When it comes down to it, almost everyone, of a secular or religious nature, feels the same way that most parents do. Interestingly, evidence suggests that many teens feel the same way, even for those who have not received formal abstinence education. Sexual intercourse is a wonderful, beautiful part of life if done in the right context, but an ill-advised one if not.
So before jumping to controversial banter around practices related to teen sexuality (such as providing birth control for adolescents) that try to account for less than ideal behaviors, it seems we should make sure we are working together as effectively as possible to encourage best practice, just as we do with issues such as smoking, eating, exercise, sleep, driving habits, and other behaviors. In the interest of sparking further discussion in this area, I offer the following ideas as starters:
Start early…in teaching the values of self-control and empathy: While I do not feel that young kids need (or even should, except in certain circumstances) to be engaged in discussions of sexuality, there is no doubt that every child of any age of reason (yes, that includes toddlers) should be engaged early and often in the teachings of self-control and empathy. Self-control from an early age is one of the best, most malleable predictors (see November 2012) of every important outcome that exists for human beings. Unlike certain entities, such as intelligence, its lessons can be taught and retained decades after initial instruction. Empathy is likely the most important quality a person can possess in encouraging healthy relationships (along with self-control). Together, these two qualities form a framework of mutual relationships founded on principled behavior and reasoned actions. The less they are present, the more likely early sexual behaviors occur; the more they become ingrained, the more likely teens and young adults will make healthy, chaste decisions.
Understand what factors promote and deter chastity: Although teens can ultimately find ways to make unhealthy decisions regardless of any barrier, it is important to be clear that sexual intercourse is rarely (well, never, speaking literally) a behavior someone just “falls into”. There are factors that serve to predict early sexual activity, some of which are more changeable than others. Such factors include low self-esteem, increased television viewing, poor parental relationships, externalizing behaviors (such as ADHD), advanced pubertal development, and poor academic performance. In addition, studies indicate that higher levels of supervision are associated with lower rates of sexual activity. The longer teens are left alone, the more likely temptations are acted upon. For these and other factors, it is critical to address areas of deficit before early sexual activity becomes a reality.
Have better insight into how teens make decisions around sex: When it comes to teens engaging (or not engaging) in sexual activity, research has found that adolescents do consider a number of factors. Although beyond the scope of this brief review, it is clear that aspects such as contextual circumstances, relationships, reputation, evaluation of risks/benefits, setting of boundaries, and evaluation of previous sexual encounters among other issues play a significant role in determining the likelihood of various types of sexual encounters. We as parents and professionals need to understand what drives these decisions more so that we can engage with adolescents around pertinent topics.
Media matters: See Part I and many other media articles on my column. What our youth see on a screen (even subtle, suggestive material) matters in regards to their sexual decisions more than even the research can illuminate. All youth are likely to see some of what they probably shouldn’t. The question is really just how much, how intense, and to what degree do we sanction it (implicitly or explicitly) in our own homes.
Invest in resources that clarify and teach your values: For many parents (including myself), sexuality and youth isn’t exactly a topic that “rolls off the tongue.” It spurs thoughts of awkward conversations of years past and uncertain, nervous interactions to come. Many a good intent by a parent has been derailed by moments of silence and an increased heart rate. So, before you go forward in having these discussions, I encourage everyone to read and write more about what you want to say. Many good resources exist, but a great one is the Chastity Project, founded by Jason and Crystalina Evert. They and their staff speak to youth and adults across the world, in secular and religious settings, about the value of chastity no matter what decisions have been previously made. I was fortunate to sit down with Jason this past year while he was in town for a talk, and quickly recognized the passion, genuineness, and transparency he brings to this challenging area. He and Crystalina have written a number of great books and have a very active website no matter where you or your teen is in this discussion. I encourage all to take some time to check out their resources.
It is never too late to make a better decision: As Crystalina Evert has written about, she and many others have found great hope and promise with secondary virginity, which occurs when someone decides to refrain from intercourse even after they have engaged in it before. So often I think that when sexually-active teens hear talks regarding abstinence, they have one of two responses. They either cringe in embarrassment or scoff at the advice given. But no matter the lifestyle, it is never too late to make a decision that honors self and others. Even after a birth. Or an abortion. Or a victimization. These decisions are rarely easy. But they are possible, and they have the opportunity to change the course of someone’s life especially if others support them in this endeavor.
Teach chastity as life gained, not fun lost: Too often, abstinence is seen or promoted as something that a teen is supposed to do out of moral or religious obligation. I am not saying this isn’t a huge component of chastity as it is critical for so many that not being abstinent can carry logical and spiritual consequences. In fact, I think that we should be careful about enabling teen sexuality by not allowing for natural consequences to take place. But it also seems that teens need to understand that in delaying intercourse, they aren’t inherently giving up something that the “fun” and “popular” people are doing; instead, they are making a choice to invest and gain in other areas with the “peace of mind” to know that outcomes of sexual promiscuity won’t deter or provide significant challenges to their health and life calls.
Years ago, Billy Joel published the song “Only the Good Die Young” as a satirical commentary on the Catholic view of sexuality, yet it really speaks to almost all of our beliefs as noted prior. Some of the lines include “You Catholic girls start much too late…but they never told you the price that you pay…for things that you might have done…The sinners are much more fun…Only the good die young.”
It’s a catchy tune, but the more you read the lyrics, the more you realize just how dead wrong Joel got it. When it comes to living a long life, it ironically happens to be the celibate Catholic nuns that lead this charge. When it comes to paying a price (including that of a shortened life), it’s hard pressed to find consequences that trump unintended pregnancy, outcomes of STD, abortion, depression, suicide, substance abuse, and the like. And when it comes to having fun and getting things done, well, I and others can attest that there is a PLENTY of both to be had with taking a “better” route. Some teens are going to have sex no matter what we do. The bigger question is just how relevant and possible we make chastity for all both for immediate reasons and those that take a lifetime to understand.
Part III: Hey Young Guys: You Are Much More Than What They Say
To all the young guys out there, the headlines haven’t been too kind as of late. Check out the way you (and even older men) are being depicted on TV and on the internet. Too often, you look like bumbling, sex-crazed goofballs who will do anything to sleep with a girl. The books and statistics haven’t been much better even beyond reports that many STD rates are rising. They say that the average boy first sees online pornography well before adolescence and views it fifty times a week by his early 20’s. Many young men say they use it as a stress reliever almost as much as anything else. Meanwhile, they say that boys are becoming more awkward than ever with females, that they don’t understand what it means to have a real relationship, and would prefer the shallow sexual world of “hookups” glamorized on the internet and on film. Even worse, studies say that many young men acknowledge that they would take advantage of a woman if they knew they wouldn’t get caught.
I have a 5th grade boy, and four more boys younger than him. I don’t know about you, but when I read the headlines and look at the research, it depresses me. It is as though our male species is turning into rabbits that are incapable of controlling our impulses and treating and honoring women like they deserve. It is as if we can’t be happy unless we get who we want when we want them.
As a middle school and high school boy once, I understand that it is hard to know what to do when we are attracted to someone. It can make us feel awkward. It can dominate our mind. And when we are finally with someone who is attracted to us, too, it can feel like you want to take that attraction as far as you can go. It’s normal. In some ways, it’s great. But if being overtaken by this feeling means we as men can’t think through what happens next, I simply don’t buy it. And I don’t think you should either.
See, we are blessed with a few things that no rabbit possesses beyond even our power to think, reason, and plan for the future decades down the road. First, we are blessed to understand that just because an action sounds great right now, doesn’t mean that we don’t realize that just a few minutes later, it might leave us freaking out. Ask any teenage guy who has had sex. It is the few minutes, hours, and even days later that are often full of worry (which by the way, almost never makes it on screen). What if she gets pregnant? What if she has been with someone else, and I get an STD? What if she tells other people I didn’t “perform” well? What if our parents find out? The truth is that as good as sexual intercourse can be (and it can be fantastic), it isn’t worth the fear and anxiety, and the actual results that may come, if you are doing it long before you can vote, drink, and even say “I do.”
Second, I think that the bumbling guys in the shows and the statistics I mentioned are not only selling guys short, but also selling women and our relationships with them short, too. Don’t get me wrong. Relationships can be hard, confusing, upsetting, and make guys feel real vulnerable at times. Guys do get burned. It sucks to get dumped, especially for another guy. But there is something way worse than all of this. It is expecting less, and getting even less than we expect. For all that random and/or frequent sexual activity supposedly promises, it falls way short of coming to feel that she not only is attracted to you, but that she really, really cares about you in so many ways. The high from sex leaves pretty quickly, especially if worries and bad results kick in. But the feeling of being loved, respected, and valued for being a good, honorable guy stays with you for as long as you remain. Think about it for a second. What men do you admire the most? Do you admire them for doing things, and people, that are easy? If so, it sounds more like envy or jealousy for their superficial gains and popularity. I am talking about true admiration—for being a real man, a man of integrity and a man that many people see as trustworthy, courageous, and authentic.
But in my book, and I believe in many others’, you don’t become this kind of man unless you treat all people, women included, with an authentic kind of respect. I realize that many famous people (and not famous people) seem to get away with not doing this and still make headlines and a bunch of money. It’s sad, really, because in the process, many come to see them as a laughing stock and a despised dope while others are falsely led to believe this is the standard for which we are to aim. And while they are using others for what they want, so many people, posing as their friends, are using them for what they want, too.
Yet when it comes to my boys, who will be men someday, I will measure them not by their bankroll or their bravado, but by the decisions they make and how they treat the people they meet. I realize that they risk getting razzed for being too proper or too weak. It’s not that I don’t want them to show their physical affection and satisfy natural urges they may have. It’s just that I want them to be more than the sum of their impulses or the derivatives of their desires. I want them to be real men. But in order for them to be real men, I need them to start by being real boys, who give thanks for the amazing, beautiful girls and women in their lives—who realize that the passion of the moment need not give way to the promise of the movement that will come when they treat women right, and invest their time and energy in many other endeavors.
So, I ask you young guys just like I did your female counterparts, will you consider joining us in this movement? Please think hard about it because dads like me need role models like you. I am not asking you to be perfect. I am not asking you to be a prude. I am just asking you to embrace the idea that waiting until later might turn out to be the best decision you could make. And if your friends give you a hard time or call you a wuss, just let them know how well you slept last night and how good you feel this morning because you had little to worry about. Girls are great. They are beautiful. And the girls you really want are watching, and they are looking for a few good men. Have a little patience. She will come.
Part IV: Calling All Teen Girls: Please Don’t Settle for the Guys
Adolescence can be both a tough and exciting time—a time for a lot of learning about relationships, life goals, and just who we are. All of us who are fortunate to have made it to adulthood have been through it. Each of us had our own experiences; different in some ways, but probably more similar than we realize.
But now as a father of a daughter in 5th grade, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the plight of teenage girls for a few reasons. One, as the Center for Disease Control recently reported, 23% of females indicate that they had been “raped, physically violated, or stalked” between the ages of 11 and 17. Ten percent of adolescents indicated that they had been sexually victimized in the year before the survey. Meanwhile, “hookups” seem to be the trend. As I noted prior, statistics indicate that 70% of those sexually active between the ages of 12 to 21 have reported a hookup in the past year. Estimates are that 60-80% of North American college students have had hookups.
Much of the evidence suggests two serious concerns: lack of respect for the worth and integrity of another person, and a settling of standards regarding sexuality for teens themselves. Without a doubt, many complex factors contribute to the statistics that are reported. Certainly, there are situations where a victimization occurs without prior warning that something was amiss, as may happen when a woman is raped by a stranger looming nearby or a teen is sexually assaulted after meeting a group at a friend’s house.
But so often, the sexual realities noted occur with individuals who are known, and are fraught with “signs” and “behaviors” that a circumstance or a relationship will not turn out well. Whether it is a controlling jealousy that emerges really early in dating, repeated attempts to put someone in an uncompromising situation, or guilty, threatening comments that emerge when a breakup is discussed, often many signs exist to suggest that trouble is on the horizon.
It is here why I come back to you teen girls as my daughter closes in on these years. For all you reading, I hope you will consider this. From my work and personal experience with many teens and their parents, I have come to believe one thing: you will never have more ability to set the terms of your relationship than you do now. Seriously. It is not that dating or married adults don’t have influence on their partners, but let’s be honest. The further a relationship progresses, the less likely it will end even if serious problems arise. But when you are just starting to see guys in a romantic way, and entering into the world of dating, you have more power for good than you realize. You have an ability to demand respect and decency and higher standards for one big reason:
Many teenage boys really want to date and/or have a girlfriend, and they are attracted to you in ways that can give you leverage to set the terms.
I was a teenage boy once. Although I think that the portrayal regarding male teenage hormones is overblown and heavily media influenced, I do believe that teen boys experience an attraction at a level not seen in previous years. It is what often makes them so bumbling and incoherent when they are around you, and why those that aren’t this way seem especially savvy and debonair. There is a tendency (not justification) for many to want to go further than they know they should, and to cross boundaries that should not be crossed.
It is why what you do is so important. You are not responsible for the guys’ behaviors. But you are responsible for yours. You shouldn’t settle for anything less than you believe you deserve. This isn’t a feminist or political or hopelessly idealistic pitch. It is a very personal one.
Because remember, when you settle, it puts the pressure on your female peers to do the same. If most or all of the girls you were friends with demanded a certain degree of respect, then it would sure make it easier to demand this from guys as a whole. And guess what. Although I am not naïve to believe that all guys would give in to your terms, I firmly believe that many or most would. Teen guys are not as shallow as the world might think. Yes, there is a certain degree of physical attraction that drives what they do. But most of them are willing to compromise the full expression of their physical urges for the affection and attention of the girl they want.
So consider this as a personal plea and one for the common good. And consider it as one for my daughter. I don’t believe that most girls or young women truly want to hookup even if the desire arises because of what it might briefly provide (e.g., feels good, draws positive attention from a guy). No one wants to be victimized. But I do think that all of us like the feeling of being loved and admired by others. But in order for this truly to occur, there has to be a level of respect and honesty that exists beneath. Otherwise, physical affection and attention are as hollow as the straw that the goofy guy sitting across from you in the cafeteria used to get your attention. And if you are just starting to date, please remember. You have the ability to set the standards; not just for you, but your fellow females. Please take this seriously and don’t just settle because you are afraid you will be harassed or end up alone. You may never have the opportunity in the same way, one that could change the course of your entire life—not just your teen years—for the better. A greater sense of self-respect may emerge, and unexpected prospects may follow even if the teasing continues. And if the cute guy you like doesn’t honor it, consider that one guy lost may be a better one gained, even if it takes a while. Finally, don’t forget that there are young girls just years behind you—like my daughter—who are watching what you do, and listening to what you say. So consider yourselves a mentor for the next generation. And don’t forget to follow the advice you would give them.