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More kids are having sex, and they're having it younger

Sunday, September 14, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth and Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Middle School sex.

In empty classrooms, stairwells, school buses and at home, when a parent is away, it's happening more and more often.

In May, two 13-year-olds at South Side Area Middle School in Beaver County were caught having sex on a school bus, as were youngsters in Ligonier Valley that same month. In Peters last year, a group of middle school girls, calling themselves the "Pop-Tarts," banded together to offer oral sex at parties.

The provocative new movie "Thirteen," which was released this week, graphically depicts this trend. It shows two teenagers spiraling downward into drug abuse and risky sex, behavior based on the life of one of the film's young co-stars and co-writers when she was 13.

While little scientific data exists -- few parents are willing to make their young teens available for surveys on sexual activity -- a recent national study estimated that about 20 percent of all children ages 14 and under have had sex.

Anecdotally, the evidence is stronger.

"About five out of every 20 seventh-grade students we see tell us they've had sexual intercourse," said Allison Buchalter, peer education coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, which runs self-esteem programs for middle-schoolers in six schools in Allegheny County.

Linda Snyder, director of the Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention at Pittsburgh's Family Health Council, agrees.

"We're seeing more 12-year-olds come in for services than we had in the past," Snyder said. "It certainly seems they are experimenting sexually at a much younger age."

Rough stuff for some parents and, even sometimes, for Snyder, who has heard it all.

She's visited a Brownie troop in New Castle where little girls, during a basic sex education program, wanted to know not about where babies come from but "How do you have a climax?"

"I'm in my mid-40s, and looking back at the way things were when I was a teenager, it still in one sense shocks me when ... children, age 12 and 13, [are] telling me they are going out having sex," Snyder said. "I still feel somewhere we're completely missing the boat."

Kids and their sexuality are Snyder's business. But for many parents, the sex lives of their teens are a mystery. About one-third of parents of sexually experienced 14-year-olds know that their child has had sex, according to a 2003 report by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

In dozens of interviews conducted by the Post-Gazette, teens around the region talked frankly about sexual behavior in their world -- their schools, their neighborhoods, their parties.

While trends, attitudes and even lingo differed somewhat from school to school or among age groups, common themes emerged. For one, kids probably know more about many sexual topics than their parents suspect. And they generally would welcome a little more sex education not only for themselves but also for their parents.

"Parents are easily deceived," said Alisha Charnesky, 18, a North Hills High School graduate who's now a freshman at Duquesne University. "They can be so naive. Some kids can put on a facade ... they can be the perfect straight-A student at home but may be known as the biggest slut around school."

Other teens said it's important to remember that while partying and sex are part of the teenage scene, many kids take another path.

"Is everyone doing it? You often get that feeling. But then if you have common sense like I do, you realize there's always going to be someone on your side," said Stephen Lucas, 15, a sophomore at Kiski Area High School. "Not everyone uses poor judgment."

Why do they do it?

When it comes to sex, there's big differences between a 12-year-old, a 14-year- old and a 16-year-old, teen sexuality experts say. A 12-year-old girl might look like she's 16, but she thinks very differently.

"While kids vary tremendously in maturity and cognitive skills, younger kids, ages 10 to 13, tend to be more concrete, and have a difficult time seeing themselves in the future. The idea of consequences, of waiting to do something, is sort of foreign to them," said Dr. Amy Nevin, associate medical director for the Family Health Council's Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.

Once a child gets a little older, age 13 or 14, "you see them doing this more to test the authority of the family a bit more. They feel invincible. The thought that they will become pregnant due to sexual activity is still pretty foreign to them, as opposed to older adolescents, who understand abstract concepts and how actions today can affect plans for the future."

Among younger sexually active teens, there's a feeling this is what they "ought" to be doing, based on peer pressure or what they see or read in the media, she said.

"I'll ask, 'Is this enjoyable for you?' And they'll see it as a really foreign question. It's not about having fun, it's about, to an extent, what they think they're supposed to be doing. Kids at this age generally don't understand that it's a real option to wait. It never occurs to them that they can say no."

Planned Parenthood's Alison Buchalter and Sue Steele hold "peer education" classes in six schools in Allegheny County, beginning in sixth grade. They are not sex education classes, but rather focus on helping students build skills in self-esteem, decision-making and negotiation so that they can make good decisions.

Inevitably, though, youngsters, at least by seventh grade, will raise the subject of sex.

While Buchalter and Steele always stress abstinence as the best choice, they also have the class explore the reasons behind a teen's decision to become sexually active.

"Are they doing this because they have low self-esteem and few resiliency skills to begin with, or does the sexual activity create the low self-esteem? It's a chicken-and-the-egg question, one we're always debating," Buchalter said.

"Seventh grade is the year kids become sexually active," said Lori Szala, abstinence program director for the Pregnancy Resource Center of the South Hills, who travels to schools all over the region talking to students. She first learned of the Peters "oral sex club" from a girl she counsels. "Sixth grade is the year they start to hold hands, whereas in seventh grade, they start doing other things, like oral sex and intercourse."

Why? "They're doing it to fit in, and they think everyone else is doing it," Szala said. "They see Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera who used to be role models for these kids and now come across as borderline pornographic. And our kids are so inundated with these messages, so they think they can emulate them without any consequences."

And who are these 12- and 13-year-old girls having sex with?

Not always with 12- or 13-year old boys. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy study of teen sex this year reported that for young teens, the greater the age difference, the more likely the relationship will include sexual intercourse.

"It's often males three to four years older, 18- and 19-year-olds," said Kathy Biddle, a nurse practitioner at Magee-Womens Hospital. Biddle works in the hospital's ambulatory care center's outpatient clinic, providing reproductive health services to teens. "Often, they'll meet them through a family acquaintance, a cousin's friend, a brother's friend."

The activity of choice

Parties are the usual venue for sexual activity, especially oral sex, which researchers say is increasing among young teens. Oral sex has become an activity of choice for girls, said Damion Wilson of Pittsburgh's Family Health Council, because "they can maintain their virginal status and they can't get pregnant."

Still, many younger teens are clueless about the ramifications. "They don't know they can get STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]," said Wilson, 25, a Bloomfield resident who has worked for the council since 1999. He supervises "peer educators" between the ages of 17 and 24 who visit local schools and present sex education programs.

Programs like that, some local teens said, were the first and only place they heard that oral sex can cause sexually transmitted diseases.

After learning about STDs in eighth grade at her former high school in Union City, Erin Sparks, of McCandless, said, "I was so scared to even get near my boyfriend." Now 17, she's a senior at North Catholic High School, where, she said, there is no sex education.

So most of what kids know about oral sex, they pick up from each other. And one thing they've picked up is that oral sex is something girls do for boys, and not the other way around.

Some teens reason that "you don't have to take your clothes off," said Krista Roman, 17, of Spring Hill. "You don't have to be the best-looking person, and you'd still get attention from a guy."

Among teens, oral sex "seems to have less emotional involvement," said a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. "If you break up with someone that you [had oral sex with] then it's not as harsh as breaking up with the guy you lost your virginity to."

Boys vs. girls

Talking with local teens, it's clear that girls' and boys' attitudes about sexuality often are as different as their anatomy. Younger girls, especially, often carefully plan to attract, please and keep boyfriends; boys are driven by immediate gratification and a quest to collect as many sexual encounters as possible.

"If you have a group of guys in a room and they're talking about Sara or some other girl," the Health Council's Wilson said, "you don't want to be the one who's sitting there quietly. That starts around 12 or 13."

Thirty-three percent of teen boys say they feel pressure to have sex, according to a June report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, compared with 23 percent of teen girls.

"Not having any sexual experience can build an inferiority complex in some people," said Ben Wirth, 17, a Baldwin High School senior, "and make them feel like they're less of a person or not as cool because of this inexperience."

While boys seem to spend more time thinking about how to have sex, girls think mostly about whether to have sex, and unlike boys, often wish they hadn't.

Snyder said that when girls who have had sex for the first time were asked if it was voluntary, many would answer yes. "But they regret it afterward," she said. "It's not assault, but it's just unwanted."

So why do girls have sex when they really don't want to?

Some blame it on the expectation that, based on images from the advertising and entertainment media, they're supposed to be having sex.

Even pre-teens "want to dress like little sex kittens," said Ashley Birt, 17, a Schenley High School graduate who is a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It's getting them attention, but they don't even understand what kind of attention they're getting. ... Things like sexual harassment haven't been explained to them. They have no clue," she said.

The bombardment of flesh-baring fashion in kids' favorite TV shows, movies, stores and even video games "all begins to set the image of the perfect person ... if you're not 5-foot-6 and 100 pounds, you're nothing," Wilson said.

"It also plays on the guys because they want their girls to look like that."

The alcohol factor

Local teens said that sexual activity occurs most often when there's alcohol, and to a lesser extent, drugs. And it usually occurs at someone's home when parents are away or are simply ignoring or condoning the ruckus downstairs.

In the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy study, one-third of 12-year-olds and about half of 14-year-olds said they had been at a party with no adults in the house. One in five young people say they've had unprotected sex after drinking or taking drugs, according to the Kaiser report.

"Parents go on vacation and leave their child with the house for days or weeks at a time. This is how a great majority of the parties that I've been to this summer have started," said a North Allegheny student who graduated in June.

"I think as more parties, more booze, and more drugs came to the scene, so did more sex," said Christina Conover, 18, a graduate of North Hills High School who is a freshman at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

A recent disturbing trend mentioned by several teens seems to involve kids in many schools recording sex acts with videocameras, digital cameras and cell phones with cameras.

Parents whose 14-year-old son suddenly wants a miniature camcorder might be surprised to learn that he's not going to use it for a school art project. Especially among middle-class or more affluent youngsters, cameras and recorders are omnipresent at many parties.

"In my videomaking class, a group of kids were assigned to make a film ... and they actually recorded a very sexually explicit act. Not only did they record it, but they recorded it on the school camera and then transferred it to the school computers where they could edit it," Conover said.

"Although I like to think this degree of stupidity is rare," she added, "I'm not sure I can say that with complete confidence."

Teens said many of the films and photos depict drinking, throwing up and generally drunken behavior. But some are more intense.

Personal Web sites are popular places to store such photos and films. Photos featuring topless girls and drinking at parties in Mt. Lebanon surfaced on the Internet earlier this year, prompting police to get involved. A similar incident occurred this spring with Penn-Trafford students at a post-prom party in Deep Creek, Md.

It might not immediately occur to the drunken boys and girls waving to the camera, but when those photos are put on a fellow student's Web site, they can be seen on computers around the world, possibly for the rest of their lives. Even when the Web site is taken down, there's no way to tell how many people have made and kept copies for themselves.

Matt Lippert, 15, a Seneca Valley High School sophomore from Seven Fields, recalled an incident in which a photo was taken of a nude girl at a party and then ended up on KaZaA. A popular Web site among kids to download free music from the Internet, KaZaA also allows users to post films and photos.

Growing up

The good news for parents is that, girls and boys do grow up.

Several teens talked about friends who had been sexually active but decided to become celibate, even calling themselves "virgins" again.

A virgin, said Alicia Gegick, 17, a Steel Valley High School graduate who attends Carlow College, is someone who "thinks he or she made a mistake to have sex once and vows to be abstinent."

While that may not be clinically correct, it may be a sign that young teens, if they escape without having a baby, an abortion or contracting a disease, will reconsider their views of sex and turn to a somewhat more mature behavior sexually.

That learning process, experts say, could have been accelerated if the teens had been given more sexual information when they were younger.

Thorough sex education still isn't the norm in most Western Pennsylvania schools or even around the country. It shows. In the recent Kaiser report, one in five young people said they believed that birth control pills protected them against AIDS and STDs. Seventy-five percent said they needed more information on sexual health topics.

The Family Health Council is under contract with Pittsburgh city schools but also accepts invitations to suburban schools. During the last fiscal year, the council presented a total of 700 programs to 13,000 students, according to Wilson.

While they have a list of 14 sex-related topics to discuss in classrooms, they're not always allowed to do a thorough job, he said.

"We've had high schools that say we can't show the male and female reproductive system, no demonstration of condoms," he said.

At one school, he recalled, "Last year, we couldn't show condoms, two years ago, we could." He shrugged. "I don't know why."

Snyder, his boss, said, "I definitely get the idea [from some teachers] that administrators are tying their hands." Parents complain, too.

"One parent can create enough of an uproar to stop all the programs from coming in," Snyder said.

Jane Elizabeth can be reached at or 412-263-1510. Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at or 412-263-1949.

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