What Your Kids Know About Sex
Is oral sex real sex? How young is too young for intercourse? At a time when more Delaware teens than ever are having sex, their answers are important and surprising.
Photograph by Dominic Episcopo
Hair and Makeup by Dawn Troccoli
Andrea is typing a text message to her boyfriend, John. “CU2NITE,” the cell phone reads.
The white couple, from Middletown, are planning to do the same thing they’ve done every Friday night since they got together six months ago: smoke pot and drink “the Captain” (as they call Captain Morgan Spiced Rum) while lying naked in bed. “At the very least,” Andrea says. “I’ll give [John] a hand job.”
The hand job will be followed by fellatio. (John has not returned the favor.) Andrea isn’t sure if the acts will lead to intercourse. “But,” she says, “my boyfriend says, when I’m drunk, I do stuff I wouldn’t normally do.”
Andrea is 14. She’s in middle school.
John, 15, is a high school freshman.
Neither Andrea nor her friends consider hand jobs or oral sex to be sex. “Oral sex is just something we do,” says Andrea’s friend, Maria, a Hispanic 14-year-old. “It’s really just touching and like, using your mouth, but blow jobs are not sex.”
This is what teens do today. And that is what they feel about it. And if you think kids in Delaware are like kids elsewhere across the country, think again. On average, teens are having more sex in Delaware than teens in any other state in America.
“It’s not like we’re doing bad stuff,” says John, an athletic, B student. “I respect my girlfriend. And if she wants to wait a whole year to have sex, I’ll wait, I guess.” Andrea and John usually hang out with John’s friends—all guys. When the boys leave, the couple retreats to John’s bedroom. His parents are usually home.
“I don’t think they really know what we’re doing, but I guess they think we’re kissing and stuff,” John says. “What’s the big deal?”
The big deal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2005 Youth Risk Survey, is that at least 55 percent of the state’s teenagers are having intercourse, approximately 10 percent before the age of 13. Conservatively, 21 percent (males and females) drink alcohol or use drugs during sex, and most have been intimate with at least four partners.
The survey, completed anonymously by 3,000 students in 32 Delaware public high schools, indicates that about 37 percent of boys and girls have either given or received oral sex by ninth grade. By senior year, oral sex is standard fare for about 70 percent of boys and girls.
When the time becomes right for intercourse, John plans to use a condom. He’ll likely model Aaron, an African-American senior from Wilmington, who wouldn’t have sex without one. Aaron and his girlfriend of one year agreed on the right time to have intercourse, when he was 17 and she was 16. The difference between John and Aaron is that Aaron’s parents know their son is having sex.
“I don’t get into detail with my folks,” Aaron says, “but I don’t hide stuff from them either. They were cool about it and they asked if I was using a condom.” The couple also has sex at his home. Their parents are often, as Aaron says, “in the building.”
Andrea says her parents “don’t have a clue” about her activities with John. “They know I have a boyfriend, but that’s it,” she says. “When I have sex, I’ll run to my sister. She’ll put me right on the pill and she won’t get mad at me. Anyway, it’s none of my parents’ business.”
That’s not the way Mary, a white senior who attends a private school in Wilmington, feels. When she had sex for the first time at 15, she wanted to tell her parents, but was afraid of how they might react. Now that her father has been laid off from his job, tension at home is overwhelming. “I wouldn’t even think about talking to my mom about sex,” Mary says. “She’s very demanding and she doesn’t know I’m not a virgin.”
Mary’s dad is “oblivious to everything,” she says. “He thinks I have at least 10 years before I should even think about sex.” She expresses some regret about having sex early, but finds comfort in talking with friends. She worries that her younger sister could get into trouble.
Andrea’s friend, Tori, a 14-year-old Hispanic middle school student from Odessa and a self-proclaimed “vodka and OJ girl,” says her parents “maybe have a clue about what I’m doing, but they can’t really keep up with all our technology, like cells and iPods and email.” Tori won’t tell her parents that she’s already performed oral sex several times on a “totally hot” senior high boy. “If I told my mom that he fingers me and stuff, she’d go crazy.”
Like all kids, Andrea and her friends are naturally curious. Their bodies are changing. They are exploring their sexuality and testing their limits. The difference between now and, say, two decades ago, is that kids are starting to have sex earlier and girls are more aggressive than they used to be—or at least more candid.
But take the CDC Youth Risk Survey with a grain of salt. The numbers don’t represent every teenager in Delaware because private and religious schools do not accumulate such information. Archmere Academy nurse Rita Lee says no surveys regarding teen sexual behavior exist, but she and health teachers hope to start collecting data, an idea that religious leadership once snubbed. “It’s very important for us to discuss sexual matters. If we know what kids are doing, we know what to teach.”
Joan, the mother of a former student of a Christian school in Newark, says she’s seen students get expelled for sexual activity at the Christian school. Nevertheless, she hopes that the moral training provided a foundation for her 15-year-old daughter, Allie, who recently transferred to a public high school.
“Transferring raised some eyebrows at our church,” Joan says. “To hear people talk, you’d think walking down the hallway in public school, you’d see kids smoking pot, having sex and drinking beer. And admittedly, most of that [misconception] comes from our so-called Christian parents.”
Allie, an honor student, wears a promise ring that, she says, “signifies what the Bible says, that God designed sex for marriage and it isn’t something you casually give.” Four of Allie’s friends also wear promise rings. “I get teased a lot,” Allie says. “My family supports me. I can tell my mom anything. And if I’m made fun of throughout high school, then so be it.”
Like Allie, Rita, an Asian senior from Wilmington, is among the 45 percent of kids who don’t have sex. “I don’t consider myself unusual,” she says, though most of her friends are sexually active. “I consider myself independent. Their goal in life is to get a prom date. I’m more interested in why frogs have eight legs and why the environment is polluted.”
Instructors teach abstinence, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS through health class in school. “But most kids don’t pay any attention in health class,” says Claire, an African-American junior from Laurel.
Last year, Judith Herrman, assistant director of the School of Nursing at the University of Delaware and the chair of the Teen Pregnancy Advisory Board at the Delaware Division of Public Health, conducted 17 focus groups over six weeks. She interviewed white, African-American, Hispanic, East Indian and Native American teens, gathering them from wellness centers, churches and teen support programs.
“Teens that are sexually active or considering becoming so want so much to talk openly about it with their parents,” says Herrman. “Certainly there are very complex issues surrounding teen sex, but in a nutshell, that’s all they really want.”
But Herrman knows that parents are up against a heavy force: the media. Teens are targeted with blatantly sexual images from clothing catalogues and Internet chat rooms to prime time television shows. Most entertainment shows, which air between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. every night, detail the lives of young, sex-starved icons. (The American Psychological Association estimates that teens are exposed to 14,000 sexual references and innuendos a year, and that’s just TV.)
In one week, for instance, Paris Hilton sent out naked invitations of herself for her Las Vegas birthday bash while Britney Spears shocked partiers at a New York club by stripping down to her underwear and humping a female dancer. A week later, Spears, a mother of two young children, revealed her naked crotch via a micro-mini. (That was the week’s No. 1 forum discussion topic on MySpace.com.)
Andrea, and teens across the state, downplays megastars as role models. “I mean, a lot of kids we know look up to Britney Spears.” Her friends love VH1’s “Surreal Life,” a reality show that features has-been stars living and often sleeping together in the same house for several months. (Ex-porn star Ron Jeremy was a cast member.) “Watching girls on TV just influences us in terms of fashion,” Andrea says. “We like the clothes.”
Professionals believe the emotional damage of media imaging is subliminal. “The way that sex and sexual images are portrayed has become an accepted and normal part of society,” says Katie Daly, extension educator at Delaware 4-H Youth Development. “Developmentally, teens and youth are able to manage and interpret some of the images on TV and videos they are witnessing, but not necessarily all of them.”
Dr. Robin Sesan, a psychologist from Wilmington, says we’re sending mixed messages to kids. “They read magazines like Cosmopolitan and Seventeen. The sex messages go out to 7-year-olds. And you can’t watch a TV commercial without having sex thrown in your face,” Sesan says. “Then kids go to sex-ed class, and we tell them not to have sex. What are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to feel?”
For real answers, go to any mall. Pat and Denise, two 16-year-olds from Claymont who are hanging at the Concord Mall on a school holiday, agree that adults “go nuts about what we watch on TV.” “Give us some credit,” Denise says. “We like the way Paris Hilton dresses, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to videotape our sex on the Internet like she does.”
Yet when Denise passes the Aéropostale store and stares at the super-sized advertisement—a gorgeous teen couple kissing—she pushes up her bra and wriggles around in tight low-cut jeans. (The look is intentional. It’s called camel toe, which means a girl wears tight pants to reveal the indent between her labia.) The female in the photo looks to be a size 2 or 0. The male is a ripped Hollywood stud.