Breaking the Scare Factor

The blog posts written about adolescent sexual activity are overwhelming designed to scare, scare, scare parents. I can’t imagine any other reason why someone would write something as littered with misleading information and terror inducing generalizations as Growing Up Fast: What’s Causing Girls To Have Rough Sex At Just 12-Year-Old?.

Before I dive into the issues in the text and provide some (hopefully) grounding statistics and information, let’s just start with the title. How is it possible that 12-year-olds are doing something earlier than they used to do it? Does the author mean that children who are twelve-years-and-two-months-old are now doing something that children who were twelve-years-and-ten-months-old used to do? No, of course not. The author included the age 12-years-old piece in the title in order to be scary, scary, scary, especially when linguistically paired with rough sex. It is not fact based. It’s scare based. Nothing else.
Also before we get down and dirty, let’s recognize that this piece was written about Australia. I know dramatically less about Australian adolescent sexual trends, so I can’t speak to them. What I can speak to are adolescent sexual trends in the United States, where too many adults are taking this article as relevant to them and the teenagers in their lives.

Diving into this wretched mess of information. Let’s take a few of their claims piece by piece.

All teenagers hate pubic hair: Finding one girl, somewhere, to say that everyone hates pubic hair? While not difficult, she’s clearly out of the loop, because she’s about five years too late. Pubic hair is having a comeback, my friends. Like it or not, pubic hair comes and goes across times and cultures, and it’s currently experiencing a resurgence. Read up on the history of pubic hair (with, you know, sources and stuff rather than unsourced quotes) here.

Age of first sexual intercourse: This article bizarrely claims that the age of first intercourse has dropped from 19 to 16 in the last 60 years. Let’s count backwards and look that data up, shall we? Sixty years ago was 1955. I’ve searched high and low for information about sexual activity for unmarried teenagers in the 1950’s and I’ve come up empty handed. The cultural milieu of the 1950’s was such that asking teenagers about sexual initiation in a systematic way that we currently identify as statistically legitimate wasn’t possible and so the statistics don’t exist. The only approximately useful statistics are about the average age of first marriage, which has drifted from the early-20’s to the late-20’s since the early 1960s. But sex during marriage isn’t really the threat that the authors of the the Growing Up Fast article really wanted to talk about.

So without rock-solid data from the author, I’m feeling pretty dismissive of their claims about increased rates of sexual initiation. What I am not dismissive of, not at all dismissive of, are the Key Statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth regarding teenagers. What good news you’ll find there is that only 27 – 28% of 15 – 17 year olds had engaged in sexual intercourse. And that’s down from 38 – 42% in 1995! Other really fantastic information on that page? Pregnancies, live births, induced abortions, and fetal losses have also ALL declined among females ages 15 – 19 since 1990! Pregnancies by close to half and induced abortions by more than half! Why are we no singing this as the good news that it is? Continuing to terrify ourselves and our children and our friends and families by sexually scary rhetoric is unhelpful. Real information can help combat these issues.

How much to trust those sneaky statistics: Of course, statistics are tricky things. Play around with the information from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, for example, and you’ll find these (obviously competing) bits of information:

  • Six percent of all U.S. high school students had sexual intercourse before age 13.
  • Based on an average of reports from 10 states and 6 large local school districts, 19.8 percent of middle schoolers have ever had sexual intercourse.

So what does that mean? It means you need to take statistics with a grain of salt. It means that you need to think through who is being asked these questions, why they might give the answers they give, and how that relates to the teenagers in your own life.
I could keep going. I could peek into the statistics behind each of the outrageous statistics presented here, but I’m not going to. It’s exhausting work, and I’m not in academia anymore. If you decide to go read the muck that is that article in an attempt to suss out the inaccuracies, I wish you fortitude and strength, and I hope you’ll come back and let us know what real information you found. As you re-read it (or read it for the first time), be sure to question each time that someone is quoted without a source pointing to research to back up their claim (and that’s every single time in that article). If it’s about historic trends or current percentages, and it’s not sourced, don’t trust it. Even if it IS sourced, look up the source yourself and see what the numbers actually say.

Teenagers are one of the most maligned groups in our culture. Horror stories are spread about them, needlessly causing terror among parents and other adults. Try and fight the trend, the impulse, to be whipped into a cultural frenzy about what those crazy kids are doing these days. For the most part, they’re doing pretty well. Far better, by almost all accounts, than teenagers were doing when I was a teenager.

**Want to know more about how to talk with teenagers about sex? Take a look at my new book, Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking with Teenagers about Sex!