Why the pervasive myth that teens are more sexually active than ever?

The most recent National Youth Risk Behavior survey reported that more than half of all high school students (52.2 percent) have not had sex. That number of virgins is significantly up from 1991, when the survey reported only 45.9 percent had not engaged in sex. I shared these statistics with suburban basketball mom Jade Swenson who has two teenagers, and her response was, "Yeah, I doubt it." She is not the only skeptic.

If the data are accurate, why the pervasive myth that teens are more sexually active than ever? Are adolescent orgies really lurking around every corner?

* One possible cause for doubt is that teenage pregnancy rates are up. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen pregnancy increased 3 percent in 2006, the first increase in 15 years. But this trend alone does not support a "teens gone wild" bias. Sociologist Maria Kefalas writes in her book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, "This creeping up of teen pregnancy is not because so many more kids are having sex, but most likely because more kids aren't using contraception."

* Another factor perpetuating the myth is the belief our country is in a downward spiral. Many are reluctant to believe kids are behaving more conservatively today. As Jade indicates "I just don't want to be nave and believe more kids are waiting." For those who feel our country is in rapid moral decline, there remains a resistance to accept data suggesting otherwise.

* A third reason for the perception teens are out of control is the media. Sex still sells, and when Oprah broke her "teen oral sex party" story in 2003, record numbers tuned in escalating television coverage of the subject. Rumors of teen promiscuity are difficult to quell as consumers are deluged daily with Axe body spray commercials portraying young girls as raunchy predators poised to jump on anything smelling musky.

* The attitudes of many teens today may also reinforce the myth. Clearly, many high school students engage in sexually provocative texting and online behavior. According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 39 percent of teens have "sexted," and one in five teens has sent an explicit nude or semi-nude photo of themselves. However, these teens may not actually be hooking up or engaging in sexual behavior offline. The MySpace-YouTube Generation has a relatively solid reputation for acting crazy and uninhibited online while remaining subdued and less kooky in real life

Debunking the myth of teen promiscuity is a challenge for educators such as Dr. Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus who writes, "hooking up more often than not, does not include intercourse." She has encouraging words for parents who fret about teen promiscuity. The research indicates parents may play a greater role than they might imagine in the rising number of teens who are choosing to wait.

Michele Ranard is a professional counselor, academic tutor, and freelancer.

Who is waiting?

Dr. Kefalas writes, "For teens, sex requires time and lack of supervision." Many health advocates believe more attention should be paid to what we can learn from teenagers NOT having sex. The young people most likely to delay sex share the following three characteristics:

1. They are doing well in school.
2. They come from two-parent households.
3. They have more parental supervision.

Resources:
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/pdf/yrbss07_mmwr.pdf

The National Campaign for Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy & Cosmogirl.com
http://TheNationalCampaign.org/sextech

Bogle, Kathleen. Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus. New York University Press. 2008.

Kefalas, Maria & Edin, Kathryn. Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. University of California Press. 2007.