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Are those gosh durned kids really having as much free love as the Tv says?
July 8, 2009 12:24 PM   Subscribe

How accurate are the media portrayals of young people engaging in risky sexual behaviors?

Recently, I've noticed that a lot of media outlets seem to be sensationalizing the sexual practices of people in their teens and 20's. These sources would have you believe that these groups are always 'hooking up', they prefer oral sex to kissing, and that now engage in sexual activity first and date if the experience is positive. Things along those lines.

I'm 30, so I was a teen in the early 90's. I find it hard to believe that sexual mores have changed all that much in the last 15 years. Obviously, I don't get much action, so I can't speak from experience. Have things really become as open and free as the media would have us believe?

Are there any studies or news stories that give statistics of how prevalent sexual activity and risky sexual behaviors are in teens and twentysomethings? Anecdotes are also welcome.
posted by reenum to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
There is so much reporting bias in these studies that it's not really possible to take any of them seriously, even when they're otherwise well-done. It's not like researchers are there with a clipboard watching teenagers get it on.
posted by GuyZero at 12:28 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think this is a perennial story. "Kids these days...what is society coming to?!?!" FUD.
posted by GPF at 12:33 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine in her early 20s who went to public high school in a mid-sized city has confirmed that the reports aren't far off, based on what she saw. (It came up when I made a similar assertion, that surely things couldn't be that much different than they were when I was in high school 10 years ago.)
posted by availablelight at 12:35 PM on July 8, 2009


From observations of my nieces and nephews (who recently, age 15 and 17, were taken home by police after found "hooking up" in a car in a church parking lot) the media is NOT far off. Be it the media reflecting truth or the kids seeing the media and enacting what they see, it is happening.

That said, one of my nephews has had none of those problems due to social awkwardness.

So much like when I was a boy myself, some people are doing this, and some people aren't, and it all depends on the person. And as they get older, an increasing percentage are just due to the nature of it.

And you also asked about people in their 20s. Yeah that IS real. A lot of real. Bars, hook ups, it's party life.
posted by arniec at 12:38 PM on July 8, 2009


Without a specific example of a study, it'd be hard to give a blanket response.

That said, the media's job is to keep you interested in paying attention to the media. As information consumers, we tend to be more attracted to sensationalism, so the more sensational the research, or the easier it is to spin sensationally, the more appealing they are for publishers and consumers.

Researchers may be doing quality science, and a given media outlet may be genuinely interested in conveying accurate information, but the incentive is to give the most salacious rendition of the information possible. So, use the media as your springboard into a given study, but the onus is on you and me as information consumers to determine whether a given media assessment is accurate.
posted by Lifeson at 12:38 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think it really depends on the school and the particular group of kids. I had friends who did stuff like that and friends who didn't.
posted by emilyd22222 at 12:39 PM on July 8, 2009


The Guttmacher Institute studies suggest that there hasn't been much change over the past few decades, in the US, at least.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:39 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm 20. I've known several people to have organized dozen-person orgies (independently of one another) and some who never never hang out with the opposite-sexed without parental supervision. I think the former makes a better nightly news blurb. You tell me.
posted by phrontist at 12:42 PM on July 8, 2009 [6 favorites]


they might be having more sex, they might not. people might not remember what it was like 15-20 years ago. as an anecdotal piece of evidence - in my jr high, in band, we had to have 6 chaperons for 32 kids because of an incident where the trombone section took turns with a member of the color guard on the bus during a trip.

i do think that all the OMG THEIR IS SO MUCH SEX stuff you see on tv (from rainbow parties to sexting) is overblown. rainbow parties didn't exist until oprah talked about them and we had "sexting" in 1994, we just called it passing notes and those notes would be destroyed before we got home. they weren't any less filthy, though. and my, oh my, the chat rooms and bbs of the mid 90s were so raunchy and often filled with teenagers.
posted by nadawi at 12:47 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm 34 so I hear you on the "how can things have changed so much?", but really, they kind of have. At least from what I've seen in my years teaching high school. Overall, I would say that the overall percentage of teens having sex probably hasn't gone up all that much, but the behaviour of those kids who are having sex has definitely changed. Examples: Two grade 9 students were recently caught having sex in my current school. Yup, right in the hallway. During class time. A colleague told me a lovely story about a grade 9 girl loudly informing the entire class of the specific details of her oral sex session with her boyfriend. Another colleague (a vice principal) recently had to deal with an outraged father whose daughter had managed to get herself pregnant by having sex with her boyfriend every morning in the boys bathroom after being dropped off at school. I've heard anecdotal tales (from students) of girls giving multiple blowjobs to various guys in the bathroom, and it not being the hugest deal. Etc.

I'm not sure why the shift in behaviour. I think a lot of it stems from the easy access to all these new-fangled communication devices we never had--I think the constant contact encourages more extreme manifestations of affection. The scary part is that they're still dumb as bricks sometimes when it comes to protecting themselves from pregnancy and STD's. I had a girl ask me ("for her friend") if it was true that you couldn't get pregnant if you had sex standing up.

Anyways, I'm glad it's summer and I don't have to deal with oversexed teens right now...
posted by Go Banana at 12:48 PM on July 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm 20 and fully agree that the media is drawn to those stories that will be more entertaining. I know people that will hook up with anything that moves (a popular party once a year in this area centers around a group of girls competing to see who can kiss the most people-male or female-over the course of the night), but in my experience that's a very small proportion of the people I know...maybe 20 people total.

As far as high schools, I think it may depend on the school environment. I thought the stories of rampant sexual activities in high school were completely and totally made up...but I was in a highly rigorous program with people who, despite having active social lives, basically felt that they had better things to do than date. From hearing stories from college friends that went to different high schools (and even people that went to my school but weren't in my program) some of those reports aren't all that wrong. But even those stories could suffer from sensationalism...it's more fun and entertaining to talk about the 3 really skanky girls than the 100 other girls that weren't promiscuous in the slightest.
posted by kro at 12:52 PM on July 8, 2009


It is very accurate for some people, but not very accurate for others.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:55 PM on July 8, 2009


I'm 20. I've known several people to have organized dozen-person orgies (independently of one another) and some who never never hang out with the opposite-sexed without parental supervision.

Just as another pointless data point, I'm 17 years older than phrontist and I could have said exactly the the same thing when I was 20. However when I was that age, they were a bit more discreet and no one talked about it outside their peers. Parent's were willfully ignorant. (I mean, they had to be, right?)

I think it's simply that it's much less scandalous to consider that teenagers might be getting it on, and it's acceptable now to talk about it. In fact it's exciting to talk about.
posted by Ookseer at 12:55 PM on July 8, 2009


I'm approximately your age, and the things you mention don't sound too out of the ordinary to me, especially not for college-age or 20-something people. (There are some omg-the-kids stories that do shock me, like teens sending each other naked pics via cell phone, "technical virginity," etc.) I'm wondering what your frame of reference might be?
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:56 PM on July 8, 2009


Given teenagers' propensity to characterize behaviors as something that "everybody's doing," it is certainly almost impossible to know what everyone is actually doing. I grew up in the same time frame as you, and I definitely knew plenty of people who engaged in the same sort of conduct currently touted as new risky sexual behavior of today's youth. And tales of the 1960s and 1970s, if they are to be believed, portray those eras as more promiscuous than even the media's portrayals of current times. I suspect, based on my own experiences growing up and also based on anecdotal conversations I've had with teenagers recently, that far more kids believe that everyone is doing these things than actually are, and that survey results will vary drastically between the questions "what do you, personally do" versus "what is everyone else doing?"
posted by The World Famous at 12:57 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


A whole of things which were regarded as "eeewww gross" or perverted thirty years ago are now mainstream. I think the majority of teens are experimenting within the boundaries of what is currently regarded as mainstream sexuality but society's definition of "mainstream" has changed.

"Heavy petting" was a term in use when I was a teenager, used to refer to sexual activity which stopped short of intercourse. It definitely included oral sex, mutual masturbation, digital penetration etc and it was pretty common. The biggest change is probably more in how openly it's discussed now. Things teens would once have shared only with their best friend, they'll now talk about on their Facebook which is seen by 125 people.
posted by Lolie at 1:01 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


to go banana's stories - every single one of those happened at the schools i attended from 92-98. and everyone in school knew about it. hallways, behind the classroom door, under the bleachers...where ever they were, there was sex of some sort going on. in fact, i knew a girl who gave head during science class and one that was fingered every day during lunch in the cafeteria when teachers were walking by. there were also quite a few group sex things going on.

the naked picture thing is more prevalent because cameras are more ubiquitous, but i guarantee if we all had cameras in our pockets that didn't have to go through walmart to get developed, we'd have all taken naked pictures too.

as for technical virginity? that's be the norm in the bible belt for a long time now.
posted by nadawi at 1:01 PM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Speaking as part of your target demographic, I will conjecture that it's a combination of two things: decrease in expectation of privacy due to social networking and increase in data retention. It's a typical teen/20s desire to be heard, to be known, and it's very easy to do that by tweeting that you just had an orgy or changing your facebook status to "got laid last night!" or whatever. The same things happened before, but the data wasn't there forever, for everyone to see - it was passed around word-of-mouth or by passing notes, phone calls, and hallway gossip. Parents and journalists don't hear hallway gossip, but they can see your unprotected Twitter feed.

For anecdotal data, my groups have friends have always leaned towards the less promiscuous, socially awkward side, so from my vantage point there was no sex going on in high school. College was a little different, but it wasn't "Animal House" by any means.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:08 PM on July 8, 2009


As far as I can tell, it's the same old same old. New names, "fresh" scandals, same old shenanigans. I was in high school just prior to the popular rise of the internet (mid-90s), and I heard many stories of the exploits of the bad girls and boys, glimpsed a few things myself (e.g., sex under the staircase), dirty notes, etc. I didn't really participate in any of this, though almost everyone I know had some kind of sexual experience in their early teens.

The interesting thing here is that my mother told me many stories of what high school was like for her in the early 70s, and honestly the level of promiscuity seemed exactly the same. If you search further backward for popular accounts, it stays at about the same level through the centuries, barring troughs of puritanism (but then, puritanism really just forces it further underground). Even in ancient Greece, there were complaints along the lines of "kids these days...staying out late, being rowdy, promiscuous...something has to be done". So yes, most of it's media FUD.

As for oral sex and "expectations", it's certainly true that pornography is more easily available, but its effect may be overstated. One also has to realize that the content of pornographic video is somewhat different today than it was in the 80s. Nadawi's comment about the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras is also quite relevant.

A final thing to keep in mind is that teenagers lie a great deal in order to seem like they're fitting in. I made all kinds of shit up when people used to ask me about my sexual exploits. Teenagers are famous for this. One day in 10th grade, we all had to take a long anonymous survey about our sexual experiences and drug use, probably as part of some study. The kids (myself included) bragged to each other afterward about how much they bullshitted on it. Getting an honest picture of what "kids these days" are "up to" may not even be possible.
posted by Maximian at 1:09 PM on July 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


I first started seeing those "hooking up," "oral sex," etc. stories about 15 years ago. QED.

I'm pretty sure teen sexual activity stays relatively constant through the ages.
posted by rhizome at 1:11 PM on July 8, 2009


I guess the high school I went to was pretty staid and respectable....

Seriously, I would totally agree that the number of kids having sex is probably about the same as it ever was. I really do feel like there has been an attitude shift, however, if only a subtle one. There seems to be less shame or something. I'm also disappointed that girls who have sex are still "sluts", while boys are somehow immune to a label like that. Maybe that's the attitude shift--more than ever, girls seem to be "doing it" (whatever "it" may be) to fit in, and never seem to give a thought to their own pleasure or emotional well-being. I wish that more teen girls could take control of their own sexuality--you'd think it would be happening by now, especially since we all seem to be so much more aware of all this teen sex.
posted by Go Banana at 1:29 PM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Eh, people fuck. Young people fuck, too. So do old people. Some of them even have orgies. Some people like doing it in bathrooms. Especially for school kids under supervision, it may be the only time supervision is lax enough to permit it. Some of them are idiots and don't use rubbers. Some of them aren't on birth control, for all manner of reasons. Some of them get unpleasant diseases. Some of them get knocked up.

This has been the case for a long time.

The only thing that's changed is that people no longer hide these things. The pregnant girl is no longer shipped off to the family in the country and the kid given up for adoption. She gets big at school, she gives birth, and she drops the kid off in the school nursery before class.

We've reduced the level of societal shame for the participants in an orgy--hell, Paris Hilton is basically famous because she fucked in front of a camera. So people talk about them. You may find it decadent, but there are entire forums on the internet discussing and planning orgies. There are a slew of sex bloggers fucking all sorts of funny ways. There are swingers clubs and bars in most major US cities, and have been a long time--the individual clubs flicker in an out, but the swingers are 40-50 years old as a culture.

But hey, at least kids are doing less LSD these days.
posted by Netzapper at 1:31 PM on July 8, 2009


Not on preview:

I'm also disappointed that girls who have sex are still "sluts", while boys are somehow immune to a label like that. Maybe that's the attitude shift--more than ever, girls seem to be "doing it" (whatever "it" may be) to fit in, and never seem to give a thought to their own pleasure or emotional well-being. I wish that more teen girls could take control of their own sexuality--you'd think it would be happening by now, especially since we all seem to be so much more aware of all this teen sex.

I agree with you on the continued sexual bias in the situation. Look even at homemade porn. Invariably the girls are labeled, in the titles, "sluts" or "whores". Except, as my wife so succinctly said, "She's not a slut. She's your girlfriend, asshole."

But, I don't think girls are doing it more to fit in. Pressure to have sex (for both sexes) has always been high. In fact, I completely disagree with your premise. All the girls I know who put out, both current teenagers and folks like me who graduated around y2k, like sex. As has always been the case, for everybody, I think sometimes they have sex that is unsatisfying or more socially than sensually motivated. I was confidant to these chicks back in the day, and I always heard about how much fun they had with their boyfriend and his buddy.

If anything, I think girls growing up these days are taking a far more sex-positive approach than has been the case in the past, from what I understand. Even in the bible belt.
posted by Netzapper at 1:42 PM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


See: moral panic.

Since the end of WWII, there have always been teens that participate in "risky" behaviour.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:43 PM on July 8, 2009


Netzapper--I'm very ready to agree with you (I'm just basing my opinion on what I've seen personally), and I'd be very happy if this is the case!
posted by Go Banana at 1:46 PM on July 8, 2009


I tend to tune out the mainstream media, so I don't know what they are saying about "kids these days." However, I work with a lot of twentysomethings and to generalize, they are incredibly open about sex - who is hooking up with who in the workplace, who engaged in what behavior at the last happy hour, etc., in a way that my peers and I weren't (I'm in my early 40s). And from what I gather, it's hook up first, date later, but again, this is a generalization.
posted by chez shoes at 1:47 PM on July 8, 2009


A news program featuring stories about kids who get get good grades, do their homework, and help little old ladies cross the street probably wouldn't get very good ratings.
posted by spilon at 1:50 PM on July 8, 2009


I'm gonna agree with Go Banana here: the percentages are probably about the same, but what the "sexually active" segment of the population (remember when they were just called "promiscuous"?) does is probably a little more extravagant than was done in decades past. I do seem to recall pretty decent data suggesting that oral and anal sex has kind of spiked in the last two decades, but I get the impression that the kids who do that today were the kids that were going to be doing whatever was considered "fooling around" anyways.

Look, 12-16 year-old girls have been getting pregnant for thousands of years. Plenty of them have also not gotten pregnant. Only today, we can get it on video.

One thing I will vouch for is the pretty rampant hook-up culture among young adults. In the absence of any more regimented or even regularized way of mate selection, it's basically the only thing approximating a recognizable way of getting with someone. Plenty of people are not doing this, but they're a distinct minority. Or at least it seems that way a lot of the time, because there isn't any easily observable alternative with visible participation. Those that want to do something different are frequently hard-pressed to figure out how that's supposed to work, as our society no longer has any formalized way for young people to get married, not to mention a real lack of any significant moral impetus to do so. But rest assured, if the threads on AskMe are any indication, there's plenty of people who aren't getting any.
posted by valkyryn at 1:53 PM on July 8, 2009


The pregnant girl is no longer shipped off to the family in the country and the kid given up for adoption.

This. My daughter fell pregnant in her final years of high school. She was attending a selective high school (basically, admission is competitive and they hand-pick their students). We have a "single mother's" high school in the next suburb. When I rang my daughter's school to tell them they'd be transferring, they literally moved heaven and earth to accommodate her pregnancy (even arranging her final exams so they could be taken in hospital if necessary as her due date was during that period). Even took my grandson on stage with her during her graduation ceremony. No way on earth were they going to lose one of their students over something as "trivial" as pregnancy. That simply would not have happened thirty years ago.

She's just completed her Associate Degree in Accounting, so that change in attitudes has a very real (and in my opinion, positive) impact.
posted by Lolie at 2:03 PM on July 8, 2009


According to the Washington Post, the CDC found that sexual activity among teens dropped from 1991 to 2005 from 54% to 47%. Of course the headline is "Teen Sex Rates Stop Falling." 34% according to the same study reported having sex in the previous 3 months. This corresponds to a drop in teen pregnancy rates which peaked in the United States in 1991 as confirmed by multiple sources on Google Scholar.

I seem to recall a study posted to the blue that looked at social networks of teen sex which found that the majority of teens had only one or two sexual partners, with one cluster of about a dozen points that was a big web of non-monogamy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:26 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


social networks of teen sex

Time to trot this out again.
posted by GuyZero at 2:33 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


As an old fart I don't have much idea (I was reassured that when my teenage daughters were vaccinated recently they both reported general classroom hilarity at being asked whether they could be pregnant - as if! - but this is leafy conservative Surrey.)

What I can say though is that if you think sexual behaviour never changes much between generations, you're mistaken. It changed dramatically in my lifetime, over the course of the sixties, from a culture where you had to be ashamed of having sex outside marriage to one where you had to be ashamed of not having it (yes, an oversimplification but really I think not by much).
posted by Phanx at 2:42 PM on July 8, 2009


Not to derail the reminiscing, but here's some data from SIECUS
posted by gingerbeer at 2:49 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine in her early 20s who went to public high school in a mid-sized city has confirmed that the reports aren't far off, based on what she saw.

From observations of my nieces and nephews (who recently, age 15 and 17, were taken home by police after found "hooking up" in a car in a church parking lot) the media is NOT far off.

I had friends who did stuff like that and friends who didn't.

I've known several people to have organized dozen-person orgies (independently of one another) and some who never never hang out with the opposite-sexed without parental supervision. I think the former makes a better nightly news blurb.

in my jr high, in band, we had to have 6 chaperons for 32 kids because of an incident where the trombone section took turns with a member of the color guard on the bus during a trip.

A colleague told me a lovely story about a grade 9 girl loudly informing the entire class of the specific details of her oral sex session with her boyfriend. Another colleague (a vice principal) recently had to deal with an outraged father whose daughter had managed to get herself pregnant by having sex with her boyfriend every morning in the boys bathroom after being dropped off at school. I've heard anecdotal tales (from students) of girls giving multiple blowjobs to various guys in the bathroom, and it not being the hugest deal. Etc.

From hearing stories from college friends that went to different high schools (and even people that went to my school but weren't in my program) some of those reports aren't all that wrong.

everyone in school knew about it. hallways, behind the classroom door, under the bleachers...where ever they were, there was sex of some sort going on. in fact, i knew a girl who gave head during science class and one that was fingered every day during lunch in the cafeteria when teachers were walking by. there were also quite a few group sex things going on.

I didn't really participate in any of this, though almost everyone I know had some kind of sexual experience in their early teens.



Personally I think it's telling that we have that many second- and third-hand accounts, but from what I can see, no first-hand accounts. Third-hand accounts make it hard to see through the fabricated or exaggerated first-hand reports, and network effects where 30 people tell 30 people making the matter seem 900 times larger than it is. And I think that is more likely to happen with this sort of scandalous/titillating/nudge-nudge-wink-wink news than with more mundane news. And as GuyZero points out, even gathering first-hand data you're relying on people to self-report correctly and without exaggeration.

For sure, there's some amount of teenage sex going on, and across the entire country there will probably be a few outliers doing exotic stuff, but I don't think anecdotes (even common ones, those which are first-hand) offer much real information, and neither do surveys which rely on self-reporting.

I say have a look at teen birth and STD statistics gathered by doctors.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:59 PM on July 8, 2009 [10 favorites]


For what it's worth, I'm 20 so I'll frankly add my two cents. I read a lot of hand-wringing articles that strike me as silly. All of them are over-the-top - like the ridiculous stuff about the rainbow lipstick parties.

and that now engage in sexual activity first and date if the experience is positive.

Yeah, no one really dates first. But "sexual activity" is pretty vague. Usually two people will (a) meet at a party or (b) be friends for a long time. Then they'll hook up, usually under the influence of alcohol, and then have a real date to see if the other person is boy/girlfriend material. But it's not really like crazy one-night stands and orgies all the time, like some newspapers might lead you to think.

(When my friends and I say "hooking up" we're referring to a make out session. Kissing is as popular as ever, no worries. Probably not past 2nd base. Though it's vague enough it can mean more, I usually don't hear it that way. Not that people aren't having sex, but usually not before they're "dating".)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:02 PM on July 8, 2009


Personally I think it's telling that we have that many second- and third-hand accounts, but from what I can see, no first-hand accounts.

Very good! If AskMe had an 'anonymous' posting option, then I'm sure we'd be seeing plenty of first-hand accounts. Many of these second-hand accounts are probably first-hand accounts: "my, uh, friend lost his virginity at 13 to his English teacher. It was a wild time. I mean, uh, that's what he said." But of course, anonymous or no, there's no way to know people are self-reporting correctly, as you said.

Don't believe the hype, trust no one, etc
posted by Maximian at 3:15 PM on July 8, 2009


The "death of dating" was bemoaned on campus by elders when I was there in the mid-90s. We also used "hooked up" and "hooking up" but we were self aware enough to know that there was a huge variation of what people meant by that (either they were going to claim more experience or be purposely vague or coy about what they did).

What I think about a lot of this is that people are open about talking about it in public.
posted by mmascolino at 3:23 PM on July 8, 2009


The CDC and other actual research shows declines in teen pregnancy and number of sexual partners (including oral and anal) in recent years. Everything else is anecdote.

Like people have said above, you can always find the subgroup of troubled kids anywhere who will do the most outrageous things they can think of-- and often, this includes sex. Especially since many troubled kids have been sexually abused and sexual abuse often leads to sexual acting out of various types. The number of sexually abused kids-- despite increased awareness-- seems to have remained pretty constant.

What I'm curious about is, while there's all this about "hook up culture" and everything, is the number of people who have steady partners down? If everyone's hooking up and having casual, anonymous sex all the time, why do we still always hear about 20somethings and teens with boyfriends and girlfriends? Are fewer people falling in love and do fewer people want to fall in love-- those questions might be the best way of answering this...
posted by Maias at 3:31 PM on July 8, 2009


my anecdotes are, by and large, first hand confirmed. i agree with the lack of anonymous commenting keeping a lot of these stories as 2nd and 3rd hand.

the girl on the band bus, got pregnant and had to test all the boys for being the father. and i witnessed the science class and the cafeteria couplings.
posted by nadawi at 3:41 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Good point--whither teen/20-something monogamy? I would actually guess that it's up. But that would be entirely anecdotal.
posted by Go Banana at 3:47 PM on July 8, 2009


[they] now engage in sexual activity first and date if the experience is positive.

I'd say this is true, if you define "sexual activity" as "most often, making out and some groping". This is because, more often than not, teens and people in their early teens come crashing into each other emotionally and physically. They meet at parties. They get goofy. Their tongues get caught in other people's mouths. This happened to me a few times, but not until outside of high school (I was terrified of doing anything with a guy unless things wee spelled out explicitly in terms of how he felt about me in those days). It happened to a few of my friends in high school as well.

On the flip-side, I know a number of female and male friends who have barely kissed someone. They dd nothing through high school and college. Sadly, as a result of the "everyone's doing it/kids these days fuck around" mentality, many of these people get treated like they are toxic if they do meet someone they like and bring up, "Hey, I'm not all that experienced."

So, to answer your question, yeah, some kids are acting before deciding the status of their relationships and no, not everyone does this.
posted by piratebowling at 4:02 PM on July 8, 2009


Personally I think it's telling that we have that many second- and third-hand accounts, but from what I can see, no first-hand accounts.

In addition to the lack of anonymity and the likeyhood of self-censorship of 30yo+ people possibly unwilling to bare all, bear in mind the self-selecting community here; not many current teens on ask mefi, and I'd be willing to put money on that there's more people here who were in chess club or the like, so possibly more the watcher from the sidelines than the first-hand experiencer.

I was a geek in school same as uni, so I was a slow starter (I'm now in my 30's). I did have one good friend at school who was very sociable, and had a lot of female friends - we'd often go to a uni bar later on (drinking age is 18 in the UK) and half the girls in the place knew him. I know for a fact that he had many partners (not least because I'd sometimes make them coffee in the morning when I crashed on his sofa), and sexual encounters and sex for him was extremely regular and commonplace - and lighthearted and fun. I know I chatted up a lot more girls (usually friends of his) with him as my wingman than when I was with other friends, even if nothing much came of it.

So I think there's some truth in it; that *some* teens and 20 yo's have lots of sexual experiences, often amongst the same group of similar-minded people. Others, not so much.

The UK has the highest teenage pregency rate in western europe, and it's rising steadily, as it has been for the last couple of decades, so it's not hard to project that young people having sex here is more common than it was even in my day.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:52 PM on July 8, 2009


This may be tangential, but I DJ'd at a junior high party for a friend of mine once, and noticed that when the music was what the parents wanted to hear, i.e., Fifties dance tunes, the kids would dance and seemed to be having fairly innocent fun.

When I would put on what they wanted to hear, typically explicit rap, they would all bunch up and start dancing in what looked like a more sexualized way.

I would say they were imitating the cues they were getting from MTV and so forth, and that if those cues have gotten more sexual as time has gone on, so has their behavior, at least to some degree.
posted by atchafalaya at 5:05 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


On the anecdote train, I don't think I ever heard any of my friends in high school (10-ish years ago) or college use the phrase "hooking up." In high school, most of the people I knew weren't dating or engaging in sexual activities of any real manner. Those who were/may have been were considered as being in dating relationships. The two people who related sex stories to me were a) From a girl who definitely had looser boundaries than the rest of us, b) From a girl in a pretty serious relationship being worried about pregnancy, even though reasonable safe sex practices were being taken (this serious relationship is now a marriage). I think the main reason that I was privy to b) was that I was seen as a relatively non-judgmental person.

College I didn't hear any real stories either, but that may be because I can be somewhat socially oblivious--I tend to not really catch on to the exciting gossip. Still no hook-ups, just relationships of varying length (generally at least a couple months going on into years).

I assume that there are cliques of very sexually active people, and cliques of minimally sexually active people. And barely the twain shall meet.
posted by that girl at 6:19 PM on July 8, 2009


I was in high school in the late 1980s, and there was plenty of public, unsafe, and/or embarrassing sex going on. And (just like now), most of us weren't having any of it, even privately and safely. The CDC numbers should carry a lot more weight than the lurid anecdotes that sell papers, though the anecdotes are more fun. And I think it's wonderful how pregnant girls are no longer routinely shamed and expelled in most places.

The vocabulary has definitely changed -- much of what's called hooking up now was called making out, heavy petting, snogging, etc, then. It's a useful term, because it captures anything from some pretty chaste kissing to full-on bareback sex in the janitor's closet, without having to clarify what actually happened.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 PM on July 8, 2009


I think those of us born in the 70's were at a pendulum swing toward the conservative side of sexual behavior. We grew up in a post-AIDS world, but sex-ed and things like condom availability hadn't quite gotten traction yet. So yeah, I think things are probably a little looser now. But not anywhere near a society-ending level. Teen pregnancies are still pretty low, historically, I think.
posted by gjc at 7:08 PM on July 8, 2009


When I would put on what they wanted to hear, typically explicit rap, they would all bunch up and start dancing in what looked like a more sexualized way.

Ooh, sounds like my prom! (2008). One of my favourite memories is the look of extreme discomfort on pretty much all the supervising teachers teachers there when the party started getting interesting. Then again, I think part of this perception stems from the shitty music my generation is listening to.

Didn't help that the only rock song the DJs played that night was "You shook me all night long"
posted by shoebox at 8:13 PM on July 8, 2009


I have three definite accounts:
-8th grade male and female, handjob on a plane, not caught
-11th grade female, male unknown, pregnant
-12th grade male, 10th grade female, blowjob in school bathroom, caught

And one plausible account:
-11th grade male, female unknown, blowjob in hotel fire escape stairway

The rest is purely hearsay, and nothing too wild at all.
posted by clorox at 8:46 PM on July 8, 2009


When I would put on what they wanted to hear, typically explicit rap , they would all bunch up and start dancing in what looked like a more sexualized way.

Ooh, sounds like my prom! (2008).


Ooh, sounds like my prom! (1983).
posted by nicwolff at 9:57 PM on July 8, 2009


Here, I'll be a first-hand account.

I'm twenty-eight. When I was twenty-one, I got pregnant with my daughter, so the behaviors discussed will cover a period from the ages of approximately fifteen to twenty-one--1996 through 2002. This is in Ohio, for the record, in a fairly upper-middle-class suburb.

I had sex, lots of sex, with a lot of people. Some of them were people I was friends with, some of them were people I was dating, and some of them were people who I'd just met. I can't say that oral sex was more popular than kissing, but it certainly was common, accepted, and *expected* behavior.

In my immediate circle of friends--maybe five of us, all female--I was arguably the most sexually active, but I was far from the only person who engaged in this sort of behavior.

Off the top of my head, I had sex in the following places: church parking lots, playground parking lots, parking lot behind the coffeeshop that I frequented, bathroom of the coffeeshop that I frequented, my bedroom, the bedrooms of various partners, in one of the dressing rooms in the school auditorium, under the bleachers in the (empty) gym, in the bathroom of a fast-food establishment, in my car, in my partners' cars, in my friend's car, at a friend's house in a spare bedroom, at a friend's house in their bedroom, in a friend's living room, on a schoolbus (there were many, many handjobs on schoolbuses), in the computer lab at college, in an empty classroom in high school and college, in the woods off of a hiking trail in the Metroparks, and on a mostly-abandoned beach. That's off the top of my head.

Out of my circle of five friends, there was one girl who was sexually abstinent (moral reasons--she was/is a hardcore Catholic), me, another friend who was about as adventurous as I was, and two other friends who certainly had plenty of sex in bedrooms, bathrooms, and cars, but left out the more public locales.

None of us called it "hooking up", we were just--hanging out, or dating someone, or seeing someone, or going out (which could mean "going out exclusively on a regular basis" or "going out together tonight for the purpose of having sex").

This seemed fairly typical, and no one thought that it was a huge deal. Neither were we especially atypical kids--none of us were especially popular, and the whole group of us were in band, choir, and drama. If my school had a chess club, I probably would've been in it, and three of the five of us attended Bible study on a regular basis. (To be fair, one of those was the Catholic, but one of them was the other adventurous girl.)

The level of sexual experience in our group didn't seem that out of step with the rest of the school population, either. There were some kids who didn't have sex at all, some who did but who kept it to fairly tame locations/sex acts, and some who'd try anything once.

I don't think that it's really all that different today. The television loves a good moral panic--remember when all the kids were into Satanic cults, or when rainbow parties were the big thing? And okay, those have been almost totally discredited, but what about stuff like when allegedly all the teens nowadays were cutting? Sure, some kids were, and some kids are, but it was hardly the Terrifying Widespread Problem that the media was making it out to be. Or D&D--it was either Satanic or a gateway into drugs, an inability to separate fantasy from reality, and playing russian roulette for fun.

People have sex. Teenagers have sex. I think that we saw the pendulum of permissiveness swing pretty far into the "acceptable" territory in the late 90s, especially, and now we're seeing some backlash from that. Many of the panics above were started by a single person or group with an axe to grind, and I have to say that I don't think that this is much any different. According to the CDC, incidences of sex amongst teenagers have actually *dropped* since were were teens--but that's not going to bring in viewers. Can you imagine the promos? "Hey, your kids are probably just fine, and they're engaging in less sex and drugs than you did! Also, the crime rate's down, and they're unlikely to find needles or drugs in their Halloween candy."

Bad news is better for business than good news, so that's what we hear. It doesn't mean that it's true.
posted by MeghanC at 10:05 PM on July 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


Ooh, sounds like my prom! (2008). One of my favourite memories is the look of extreme discomfort on pretty much all the supervising teachers teachers there when the party started getting interesting. Then again, I think part of this perception stems from the shitty music my generation is listening to [link to Lollipop - Lil Wayne].

Lil Wayne is actually decent. Although that's definitely not his best work.

Our generation's music isn't any shittier than anybody else's music. There's lots of excellent, skillful, heartfelt, autotune-free hip-hop. It's just that you need to dig deeper than the Top 10--but that's never been any different, in any time or genre.

I mean, you wanna tell me classic rock is any less risque?
posted by Netzapper at 10:13 PM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


All of the examples above happened either to me or very close friends when I was in secondary school ... in the eighties. Sex, casual sex, homosexuality and bj's just weren't a big deal and I (fortunately) never heard the any of my girlfriends being called slutty for their behaviour. Group sex wasn't common but it wasn't really unheard of either. This is suburbia, Catholic and Public secondary schools, outside Toronto FWIW.

As to sex before dating - well yeah? I've never had a relationship that DIDN'T start with sex. And my husband and I have been together over a decade now so ... (does the math) that would put us in the mid-nineties when I first tried him out the night we were blindly, and unknown to me, set up.

The one change I HAVE noticed is how lesbianism seems to have been co-opted by the male gaze. Back when Sappho and I were a bit tighter it would not have occurred to me to make out with a girl at a party to turn a guy on but recently that seems more common. Or maybe my social circle has changed and I am not a part of the lesbian community that I used to be.
posted by saucysault at 12:35 AM on July 9, 2009


The mainstream media is not only popularizes sex as "the thing to do", it also affects kids' self-image. Girls feel that they need to put out, in order to be pretty/accepted/loved. Guys need more sexual conquests to be "manly", like James Bond. This has been the case for years, but there's a lot more media now for us to consume.

I heard a story about a young, married couple who were refused a hotel room because the man forgot to wear his wedding band. This supposedly happened in 1950's America where the innkeeper did no wrong. Nowadays, some moms rent hotel rooms for their daughters for prom night.
posted by jayne at 8:50 AM on July 10, 2009


Between 1998 and 2005 I dated a few women in their 30s or 40s, and found it to be the case for about half of them that "dating" was several steps beyond having regular sex with someone. I also took a stab at dating two women in their early 20s in that time frame, and both seemed to have that attitude, but that's a pretty small sample.

My sense when I was first in school back in the early '80s was more or less the same (though I wasn't really dating anyone, or having sex to speak of, at the time).

So my first- and second-person (i.e., what my friends tell me) experience is that there's not a lot of change in behavior. But that's hardly a basis for anything.
posted by lodurr at 12:33 PM on July 14, 2009


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