Teens are having more sex--and getting more diseases. But is telling them to wait the answer?
Kate, Lara, and Lynn place their orders at a Princeton, N.J., pizza parlor (plain slices, Diet Cokes all around), share a tiny pot of strawberry lip balm, and settle in for an afternoon chat.
"Now that we've had sex, my boyfriend says I'm being a tease if I'm too tired and just want to kiss," says Kate, a pert blond in a hooded Abercrombie sweatshirt.
"Yessss!" they all chime in. "I was just having that exact conversation with my boyfriend. Once you have sex, every time you hook up, you have sex," adds Lara, who also wonders whether "it's normal, the way he talks to me. He does have a temper and stuff."
These are high school sophomores, 15 years old.
Oral sex? "When I was younger"--a fifth grader, Kate clarifies--"it was kind of a slutty thing to do. But now, it's like everyone's at least having oral sex," she says. Having taken the morning-after pill twice, Kate is the expert among her girlfriends. "Freshmen might wait up to a year, sophomores wait, at most, a couple of months."
"It's like an added base," explains Lara. (All three girls asked that their names be changed.)
"Like shortstop or something," says Lynn, who is a virgin. She seeks out her housekeeper to talk about sex because "I asked both of my parents, and they wouldn't answer my questions."
And yet, these are questions that are becoming ever more urgent. Kids from all walks of life are having sex at younger and younger ages--nearly 1 in 10 reports losing his or her virginity before the age of 13, a 15 percent increase since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 16 percent of high school sophomores have had four or more sexual partners. One in four sexually active teens will contract a sexually transmitted disease, or STD, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. And despite a solid 20 percent decrease in the teen birthrate between 1991 and 1999, 20 percent of sexually active girls 15 to 19 get pregnant each year, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
So what can be done to stem the tide? The Bush administration is putting its hopes in an initiative that provides for hefty increases in funds for community-based sex ed programs that teach only abstinence. The proposal would bolster past abstinence-only allocations by 33 percent while nearly doubling funds for the most restrictive of the programs. Among the requirements: that teens be told "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects" and that contraceptives not be discussed at all, except to highlight their failure rates.
The debate is likely to be intense, not only because of the money involved ($135 million next year alone) but also because the White House is driving home a controversial message: Don't teach kids how to have sex. Teach them how not to have sex until they're married. Health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, as well as some moderate Republicans and Democrats, counter that there's no proof that these abstinence-only programs work. Instead, they back sex education that teaches both abstinence and the use of contraceptives.