Will "Teen Mom" die on the cable vine? According to a new study of 5,865 Americans, the most responsible lovers in this country are kids.
Despite its frumpy title, the "National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior" has been steaming up the news blogs since Monday when it was released. Conducted by researchers at Indiana University, home of the Kinsey Institute, it's one of the largest, heftiest studies on sex ever, and the results take up the entire issue of The Journal of Sexual Medicine with nine research articles and four commentaries (inquiring minds can download it here.)
One of the most surprising findings is that, far from tossing their virginity like Big Mac wrappers, only about one out of five teenagers is having intercourse. And among those who do, condom protection is now the norm. A whopping 80 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds boys and 69 percent of the girls those ages said they'd used one during their last encounter. Dennis Fortenberry, MD, who led the adolescent research, compares condoms to driving-something young people just figure they've got to master. And when it comes to safer sex, these kids are burning rubber, so to speak, leaving adults in the dust. Among thirty-somethings, researchers found, condom use is 33 percent for men, and 22 percent for women. Get into the forties, and the numbers dip lower.*
Still one in four teenage girls now has at least one sexually transmitted infection. And teen pregancy is in the rise. What should we make of this?
* (It's worth noting that the study was funded by Church & Dwight, the makers of Trojan condoms. "Skepticism is appropriate," says Fortenberry, "but we have been transparent about our partnership and maintained ongoing conversations with them about our commitment to independence in the design and analysis of the study.")
The oops factor
The study is a great snapshot, but it's a little like Google-mapping the state of Texas to figure out a nice neighborhood to move to. Last year I was involved in a survey of more than 2,000 mothers and teenage daughters for Seventeen and O, the Oprah Magazine. Though hardly up to the scientific snuff of the present study, we also got some interesting on-the-ground scoop. When we asked the girls who were no longer virgins (27 percent of our sample) if they'd ever had sex without using a condom: 78 percent said they'd done so. And 56 percent confessed to having intercourse without any birth control. Those "missed times" provide another set of numbers, and they're clamoring for attention.
Who's counting the broken condoms?
The other important factor is how you wear the little raincoats. "And this is an area where adolescents may fall short," says Lynn Barclay, president of the American Social Health Association (a nonprofit resource for sexually transmitted infections), who wrote one of the commentaries accompanying the study. Earlier research, she says, suggests that 40 percent of adolescent condom users started sex without it. Big mistake. Add that stat to the number of times a condom slips off or gets punctured because kids don't quite have the knack down, and there's a lot of room for STIs and babies.
Where does sex education come in?
Barclay and Fortenberry are both cheering the news that for the first time in more than a decade, the federal government is not limiting funding to abstinence-only sex education. The Obama administration has just announced a five year, $375 million grant for programs that have been proven to lower pregnancy, no matter what their focus. As AP reports, about half of them aim "above the waist" to help kids improve academics and get involved in extra-curricular activities-efforts believed to lead to better decision-making regarding sex. Many of the programs also distribute condoms. "We have heard from young people that incorrect information about condoms has discouraged use,"says Fortenberry. And Barclay adds, "These programs give kids a chance to learn what they need to and to ask the kinds of questions we know they have. I absolutely believe that comprehensive sex ed is critical to this nation's sexual health."
By all accounts, kids actually get most of their information about sex from friends and the media. But what they learn from parents is crucial. The Oprah/Seventeen survey found that, although mothers might not teach their daughters to pinch a condom tip correctly, "having the talk" was a major advantage in navigating sex: 26 percent of the teens said it made them practice (or plan to practice) safe sex while 26 percent waited longer to lose their virginity. And 20 percent said it influenced them to commit to abstinence before marriage.
Of course, for a parent, having that talk is easier said than done. Many of our own mothers avoided sex like the plague, leaving us to march blindly into an adolescent blizzard of rolling eyes and emotional freeze-outs. One thing experts and teens both agree on is that delivering a State of the Union Address is not the way to do it. "When you're riding in the car, playing video games, or cooking together-these are all good times to kind of chat about sex," Hazle Cain-Johnson, a special ed teacher in Wisconsin, said at the time we did the survey.
Barclay agrees. "It's our job to teach our children how to be sexually healthy adults." Her son, in fact, turns 16 tomorrow. "I said to him, 'Let me tell you what I will, and will not, tolerate. For one, I expect you to respect your partner, and for your partner to respect you.' I also gave him condoms and told him to go practice, because at some point in his life using them correctly is going to be important."
How did he respond?
"He's been around me for a while," she says. "So he was okay. But sometimes he's horrified. Once he asked me what a magnum is. I explained that it's a condom for larger penises, and told him, 'Don't worry, honey, you don't need it.' And he said, 'Mom, how would you know?'"
Barclay laughs and says it's a lesson to all parents: "If you're embarrassed, let me tell you, you're not the only one!"
[Click here for more helpful info on talking to your kids.]
What do you think of the new sex education spin?
For more on how to broach the subject..
What a 26-year-old Knows
4 Easy Talking Points
Diary of a Single Mom
[Photo credit; Thinkstock]
Today on Yahoo
1 - 6 of 48