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When the University of Chicago released a comprehensive sex survey last fall offering unprecedented detail about what Americans are doing in private, one bedroom door remained firmly shut: the one at the end of the hall with the Pearl Jam poster and the “Keep Out” sign.
It’s public knowledge that federal funding for the sex survey (which looked at Americans age 18 to 59) had been scratched in 1991 by the Bush administration, and that private foundations ended up footing the bill. What’s gone unreported, however, is that the original plan also provided for a comprehensive study of adolescent sexual behavior which was not revived after the federal funding cut.
The adolescent survey was even more politically unpalatable than its adult counterpart. Dr. Richard Udrey, a social scientist at the University of North Carolina, is one of the researchers who planned the five-year, 24,000 subject survey. He recalls that Louis Sullivan, then-secretary of Health and Human Services, “said the study might give the wrong message to adolescents, when the official policy of the administration was to encourage abstinence.” The researchers talked to a few foundations but concluded that they would not be able to raise enough money to do the study properly.
The final nail in the American Teenage Survey’s coffin came when the Senate approved a Jesse Helms-sponsored bill and subsequent amendment: the first transferred the original funding for both the adult and adolescent surveys to the abstinence-only Adolescent Family Life program, and the second prohibited the government from ever funding either study in the future. Helms argued that the Senate faced “a clear choice–between support for sexual restraint among our young people, or, on the other hand, support for homosexuality and sexual decadence.”
The death of the American Teenage Survey is right in line with the country’s unofficial policy on teen sex, which might be described as “Don’t Ask, Tell.” As panic over teen pregnancy and AIDS escalates, adults have defined their role as dispensing warnings and imperatives, rather than examining the complexities of young people’s lives.
Teen sex, like teen violence, has come to be seen as a national crisis, both symptom and symbol of a “generation out of control.” But even as it reaches a near-hysterical pitch, the national dialogue on adolescent sexuality remains painfully abstract. Sex is to the ’90s what drugs were to the ’80s: the locus of adult anxiety over what the kids are doing when we’re not around (which is more and more of the time); something we want desperately to stop but not necessarily to understand.
Efforts to manage the “crisis” of adolescent sexual activity consistently focus on consequences rather than motivations, and are driven in great part by political enmities. The left accuses the right of imposing its own repressive mores on defenseless teens, of driving young girls to back-alley abortions and lives of shame. The right charges the left with fostering legions of junior Murphy Browns, who drain the public coffers with their babies and diseases. This ideological battle is reflected back to teenagers in lectures about “values” and “choices”–sex education buzzwords that are also, not coincidentally, the rallying cries of political movements.
As the chasm between the rhetoric of their elders and the word on the street widens, young people are left alone with their deepest questions about relationships, pleasure, and risk. In North Carolina, educators are training junior high school girls to counsel friends whose boyfriends assault them, having found that most battered girls do not discuss it with an adult. A recent showed that half of all 15-year-old girls have never discussed birth control or STDs with a parent, and one-third have never discussed how pregnancy occurs.
Another study indicates that growing numbers of teenagers are having sex at home in the afternoon, while their parents are out of the house–a far cry from the era of back seats and drive-ins, of sneaking out from under the watchful parental eye. And what are we offering those kids left all by themselves in the downstairs bedroom? A “True Love Waits” button, or a condom and a map of their genitals–neither of which addresses the underlying loneliness of a generation raised in empty houses.
Most of the research that has been done on adolescent sexual behavior focuses on declining virginity rates and growing social costs. We know, for example, that more than half of American women and three-quarters of American men have had intercourse by their 18th birthday, compared to a quarter of women in the mid-1950s (they didn’t count men then). We know that three million teens acquire a sexually transmitted disease each year, and that one million become pregnant, a third of whom have abortions. And although the number of reported AIDS cases among teenagers is still very small, we know that 20 percent of AIDS cases are among people in their 20s, many of whom probably contracted HIV as teenagers.
What we don’t know is why young people do what they do, and how it makes them feel. “There’s a tremendous amount of information about a truly small number of questions,” says Mindy Thompson Fullilove, associate professor of clinical psychology and public health at Columbia University. “Anything that is not about contraception is missing. We tend to be very obsessed with counting things. We don’t value asking, ‘What do you mean?'”
While teen sexual activity is increasing, condom use among teenagers is also on the rise: among urban adolescent males, it nearly doubled between 1979 and 1988. Teenage girls are no more likely than older unmarried women to have multiple partners, and are actually less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy. But if advocates across the political spectrum agree on one thing, it’s that teen sex is fraught with danger–and they tailor their messages accordingly. “It’s always ‘Don’t get AIDS,'” points out Lynn Ponton, a psychiatry professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco, “never ‘Have a good time.'”
A study of state guidelines for sexuality education done last year by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States found that HIV and other STDs were among the most widely covered topics; “shared sexual behavior” and “human sexual response,” were among the least. In other words, young people are learning in school that sex can hurt or kill them without learning that it can bring them pleasure, or connect them with another person.
“Fear messages never persuade anybody to do anything except for a very short period of time,” says John Gagnon, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and co-author of the Chicago sex study. He points out that adults lose credibility when they feed young people oversimplified warnings instead of trusting them to understand ambiguous realities. “It’s absolutely irresponsible not to give kids sex ed, including information on condoms, and the possibility of not having sex. But it’s also irresponsible not to mention that many people find sex a great source of pleasure.”
Also lost in the “Just Say No” frenzy are ways for young people to say yes–not just to sex, but to love, family, each other. All around them, adults are rewriting the social script: bearing children out-of-wedlock; introducing their kids to stepfathers, ex-wives, casual girlfriends, and other “options”; publicly venting fury at each other in vicious divorce and custody battles. We are offering fewer and fewer coherent models for conducting and sustaining intimate relationships. Lifelong marriage, whether or not the desirable norm for sexual relationships, at least had the advantage of being imitable.
With our relentless focus on disease and pregnancy, we leave our children without much explicit guidance when it comes to high-risk activities of the heart. We talk to young people as if their genitals are a matter of public concern, but their souls are none of our business. “People say ‘Use a condom,'” says Stephanie Brown, who directs the teen clinic at a Planned Parenthood in Northern California, “but not ‘Why are you having sex with this person?'”
Those who do ask that question say they often hear surprisingly sentimental answers. “The degree to which adolescents believe in being in love is absolutely extraordinary,” says Gagnon. Surveys show that the vast majority of young people want to marry and raise children with a spouse. Unlike children of the sixties–for whom the fear of ending up like one’s parents manifested itself as a terror of being old, married, and bored–today’s teens fear ending up old and alone.
One of the better-kept secrets about teen pregnancy is that many of the babies born to adolescents are anything but “unwanted.” Ask a 15-year-old why she got pregnant and she’s less likely to tell you that she didn’t know how to use a condom than that she wanted company. One pregnant 18-year-old I know–a girl who spent last Christmas alone in her apartment, while her mother and stepfather went on vacation together–told me she’d always planned to have a baby right after high school, to make a person all her own, who would love her and not leave. Like most of her friends, she had no illusions that the young man she made the baby with–or any man–would fill that role. “Do you think I’m selfish?” she wanted to know.
With responsible adults focusing mainly on the pitfalls of sexual activity, the task of showing young people what sex and love have to offer is left to that trusted family friend, television. And television–along with movies, music and advertising–offers up a sexual universe that has little room for either “values” or “choices.” In this universe sex is everything, and the beautiful people, the glamorous people, the people who matter, are having it all the time.
“Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder,” promise advocates. Meanwhile the media map out a very different route to love and fulfillment, hammering home the message that–as Woody Allen put it when called upon to explain his own sexual involvement with a teenager–“the heart wants what it wants.”
Perhaps most dangerously for teenagers, points out Sexuality Information Information and Education Council of the United States Director Debra Haffner, the media reinforce the idea that good sex means being swept away: “It just happens. There’s almost no sexual negotiation, no portrayal of sexual communication, no limit setting, very little condom and contraceptive use. What we see on TV is that people kiss and then they have intercourse.”
The Chicago study painted a picture of sex in America that was much more moderate and restrained. But when Baltimore-based sex educator and consultant Deborah Roffman asked her students what they thought the study would find, she says, “They predicted the image of sexual behavior that is presented in the media–that there was a lot of intercourse, that married people were less happy with their sex lives than single people, that Americans are sex bunnies.” The effect of the dissonance between the official teachings on sex and what the media dish up, says Roffman, is clear: “Any teacher knows that when students get mixed messages from adults, they test.”
Gagnon is even more explicit about the adult role in convincing young people that they are “ready” for sex. “The ‘raging hormones’ argument is nonsense,” he says. “Society elicits sexual behavior in kids.” But–as with so many problems that plague our children–we rarely acknowledge our own complicity. We prefer to define adolescent sexuality as a crisis of self-control that we, the responsible (but not culpable) adults, must find ways to manage.
Bombarded with messages telling them both that sex is the ticket to love, glamour, and adulthood, and that it is bad and will kill them, adolescents in American are ultimately left with little guidance or example in the area where they need it most: human relationships. Busy with their battles over propaganda and prophylactics, adults aren’t addressing young people’s yearning for intimacy, for contact, for connections that prove they matter. “Adults are so evasive, so unwilling to confront the reality of young people’s lives,” says Gagnon. “It’s a maelstrom. And we’ve abandoned kids to it.”
Nell Bernstein is the editor of YO! (Youth Outlook), a Bay Area newspaper produced by Pacific News Service. She writes frequently on youth issues.