Teens are having more sex--and getting more diseases. But is telling them to wait the answer?
Are the teens right? "The short answer is that the jury's still out," says Douglas Kirby, the author of Emerging Answers, a report for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. He found that "the few rigorous studies of abstinence-only curricula . . . to date do not show any overall effect on sexual behavior or contraceptive use." Meanwhile, another major report released last year, from the office of the surgeon general, concluded that the abstinence-only curriculum has yet to be proved effective.
"Youth are exposed to a tremendous amount of sexuality all the time," says Kirby. "Programs just don't do enough to rise above frank discussions of sex." A federally funded evaluation of abstinence-only programs is now in progress. The evaluators' interim report, released last month, found scant evidence that abstinence-only programs work. "Most studies of abstinence education programs have methodological flaws," the report said, "that prevent them from generating reliable estimates of program impacts." A final report is due in early 2003.
In the meantime, psychologists are trying hard to discover what makes kids more likely to have sex. A study in the journal Pediatrics, published last month, found that self-esteem and early sex were linked but had opposite effects on boys and girls. Girls with high self-esteem were more likely to abstain, while boys with high self-esteem were more likely to engage in sex. "I think it highlights the traditional double standard," says Gregory Zimet, a clinical psychologist at the University of Indiana and coauthor of the study. "Boys with high self-esteem are doing, at some level, what society expects: sowing their wild oats," he says. "Whereas with girls, it's really seen as a sign of bad character."
While the Princeton girls clearly crave some parental input, only Lynn brings up the topic with her folks. "They let me be alone with my boyfriend in my room all of the time," Kate says, in a tone that sounds more puzzled than pleased. "Most of the times we've had sex was when they were home. I'd be like, `I can't believe they don't know,' " she says. Pausing, she considers. "I guess what I'm thinking is that I just never understood how they couldn't know."
The teens also want relationship advice, but many are forced to go it alone. When Kate had a pregnancy scare last year, she sought support from her boyfriend. "I was like, `I missed my period,' " she recalls. "He totally freaked out, saying, `My mom's going to kill me.' " They started to discuss options. "He totally tries to be religious and swears he is so against abortion. Then he told me, `But if you get an abortion, then it's not really me sinning.' " Kate shakes her head. "So the whole responsibility of sex is on me, but the good part of sex is all him. I have to take all of it."
Toward the end of their meal at the pizza parlor, Lynn turns to Kate.
"Are you sorry you had sex?"