According to a 2004 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Nearly half of U.S. high school students (9th- to 12th-graders) have had sexual intercourse and over 60% report having had sex by the time they graduate.”
Tragically, the age of first sexual experimentation appears to be dropping. A study published in the Journal of School Health in April revealed a sobering fact: 12% of seventh-graders surveyed from a cluster of 10 middle schools in a public school system in a large southeastern city had already engaged in vaginal sex, while 7.9% had had oral sex and 6.5% anal sex.
The early start in sexual experimentation is particularly problematic. “Youth who initiate vaginal intercourse at age 14 or younger are more likely to have multiple lifetime sexual partners, engage in greater frequency of sex, use alcohol or drugs before sex, and have sex without a condom compared to youth who initiate sex at an older age,” said the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
As sobering as such data are, it gets worse. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the younger someone is when he first has sex, the more likely it is that he really didn’t want to have sex in the first place. One poll taken in 2002 found that 81% of sexually experienced youth age 12-14 wish they had waited longer to have sex.
The implications of such statistics are staggering. Kids are having sex at younger and younger ages – often unwanted – but that early sexual activity then leads to more sex, multiple sexual partners, and more deleterious consequences.
How can concerned adults help kids not simply delay sexual activity but – especially important from a Christian perspective – abstain until marriage?
“While parents might wish to monitor their sons or daughters 24 hours a day to prevent them from having sex, or at the very least, unprotected sex, they cannot do this,” said sociologist Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., in Sexual Risk and Protective Factor.
What they can do, suggested Kirby, is to focus on those factors that “affect the sexual decision-making of young people.”
Such issues fall into two general categories: “risk factors,” which serve to influence young people to make the wrong decisions about sex, such as using alcohol or illegal drugs; and “protective factors,” which discourage poor decisions or encourage the right choices. Examples of the latter might be abstinence education and/or virginity pledges – although the efficacy of such approaches is hotly disputed.
So, according to research, what factors are most influential? “Of all the risk and protective factors, teens’ own sexual beliefs, values, attitudes and skills are the factors most strongly related to sexual behavior,” Sexual Risk said. (Emphasis in original.)
If we consider these beliefs, values, attitudes and skills as a sort of sexual foundation, then we quickly run afoul of a potential contradiction. If a young person’s own sexual foundation is most influential in terms of making decisions regarding sex, then how are we to understand poll results that indicate that so many teens regretted their sexual initiation? One would assume that a foundational belief that teen sex was normal and moral would mean that there would be no post-coital regrets.
Of course it may simply be that, while a young person’s sexual beliefs did not preclude the idea of sexual activity per se, it was the actual sex act itself that was disappointing. Perhaps it wasn’t as much fun as anticipated, or maybe it resulted in the end of a relationship and therefore was – overall – a regret.
Or perhaps there is something else at work. It might be true that these young people have not sufficiently constructed their sexual foundations in the first place. Thus, when sexual pressure was applied, these teens had few weapons in their arsenal that enabled them to fight off temptation. The result was regret.
The right ‘script’
How do Christian parents and other concerned adults help their kids build a solid, Biblically-based sexual foundation in order to arm them to make the right choices?
Surprisingly, social research is helping provide compelling answers. One contribution to this endeavor was the 2003 report issued by the Commission on Children at Risk, titled Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities.
In addressing a wide variety of pathologies affecting the nation’s youth – including sexual promiscuity – Hardwired to Connect made the case that one root cause of the multiple crises was that our youth are experiencing “a lack of connectedness … to other people, and deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning.”
This connectedness is not optional, the authors of the study claim. It is critical for developing children because human beings are hardwired to form close attachments to other people, beginning with parents, and then expanding to include a wider group of people as the child grows up. Those attachments are necessary for the impartation of the beliefs and values that will govern the decisions kids make – including decisions about sex.
When these values are neglected or not imparted effectively it creates a moral vacuum that is quickly filled by other values from the surrounding society. A sexed-up and consumerist culture – with an emphasis on immediate gratification of every possible desire – fills in the gaps.
Earlier this year, for example, a study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that kids who listened to music with sexually aggressive and degrading lyrics were more likely to become sexually active. Among the high school students who were surveyed, 21% of students who had listened to the least sexually degrading lyrics had had sex, while 45% of those who were highly exposed had done so.
Writing in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, study author Brian Primack, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the university, said, “Lyrics describing degrading sex tend to portray sex as expected, direct and uncomplicated. Such descriptions may offer scripts that adolescents feel compelled to play out, whether they are cast in the role of either the female or the male partner.”
Of course, such study results often trigger passionate debate, and the question of causality is invariably raised – and rightly so. Do kids who listen to sexed-up music then go out and have sex, or are kids who are more interested in having sex listening to sexed-up music?
Either way, Primack’s suggestion that sexually degrading lyrics may provide a “script” for young people hits at the key issue: Who designs the “map” by which young people navigate the various contours of life’s terrain?
Built from the ground up
What kind of kids abstain from sex and why do they abstain? Is there a way to understand how these kids’ values were formed growing up?
A good test case for beginning to formulate answers is the aforementioned virginity pledge, sometimes used in conjunction with abstinence-only sex education programs. Students go through the abstinence classes and then, at the conclusion of the lessons, are invited to make a pledge that they will wait until marriage to have sex.
The effectiveness of virginity pledges is debatable. A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation indicated that such pledges are effective for some kids. That study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that of the kids who had made a virginity pledge, 34% reported having sex within the three-year follow-up period. Meanwhile, 42% of the kids who did not make a pledge – but had similar backgrounds to the pledgers – had had sex during that same time period.
Other researchers deny any positive effect from virginity pledges. In Pediatrics late last year, Harvard University’s Janet Elise Rosenbaum, Ph.D., said her study using data from the well-respected National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health showed no benefit.
“Five years after the pledge … [p]ledgers and matched nonpledgers did not differ in premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and anal and oral sex variables,” she alleged.
But that wasn’t the end of the story concerning Rosenbaum’s study, according to Dr. Bernadine Healy, health editor and columnist for U.S. News & World Report and former head of the National Institutes of Health. After analyzing Rosenbaum’s study Healy identified – among both pledgers and nonpledgers – sexually conservative teens that were less likely to make poor choices.
For example, Healy noted that these sexually conservative kids had less risky sex (such as fewer sex partners) and waited longer to start having sex (four years longer, losing their virginity at age 21 rather than 17).
In her analysis Healy had clearly latched onto something of critical importance. “In other words, the act of making a virginity pledge doesn’t appear to affect a teen’s future sexual behavior,” she said. “But the kind of teen who takes a pledge is the kind who’s already likely to be sexually restrained throughout adolescence.”
There it is: “the kind of teen” who makes the right choices about sex. Parents and other adults should be about the business of creating a certain type of teenager, building them from the ground up, who will be willing and able to withstand our culture’s sexual assault. Those are the kinds of teens, in other words, who would benefit most from these additional approaches like the virginity pledge.
Healy said it was clearly the “virginity-promoting factors in their backgrounds” that helped kids refrain from sex.
The key question, then, is what are those virginity-promoting factors?
Next month: The two primary pillars of influence in a child’s life when it comes to sexual foundations.