Don’t panic about teen sex

I used the term “moral panic” in my post of January 12 and didn’t define it. A commenter made it clear that my use of the term was probably assumed to mean something more general than I really did mean, so I’m dedicating this post to a discussion of the “moral panic” idea as it relates to teen sex.

I first encountered the term in the work of sociologist Stanley Cohen. Cohen used the term “moral panic” to describe the phenomenon that occurs when a lot of people have an exaggerated sense that a deviant behavior is rampant and causing social problems. The exaggerated perception is heightened by a spiral of media coverage that reinforces the sense that the problem seem much bigger than it is. More recently, Barry Glassner has written about media-inspired moral panics in his book The Culture of Fear, and of course Judith Levine and Pat Califia have both written about moral panics around children and sexuality.

I think we are currently in the midst of a moral panic about the sexual behavior of teenagers, and about the dangers of the Internet. I agree that there are problems associated with the sexual behavior of teenagers, and I agree that the Internet poses dangers, but I think our mainstream perceptions of those problems and dangers are exaggerated, and worse, I think our reactions contribute to the problems rather than help solve them.

Here let’s just deal with the panic around teen sex. I remember about two years ago there was a big “expose” about teens and oral sex. Caitlyn Flanagan, writing in the Atlantic in early 2006, documents the rampant fear that young girls — middle schoolers — were out there having nearly anonymous oral sex with boys in near-assembly-line fashion. In that article, she attributed the widespread fear to a real change in teen sex behavior. She cited data released in 2005, and which were culled from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which indicated that a quarter (26%) of 15-year-old girls had had oral sex, and that by age 17, a little more than half (55%) had done so. (The corresponding rates for boys were 35% and 56%.)

While her article described the fear that parents had about young teen girls “servicing” boys, the study she cited found that of the girls who reported having oral sex, more reported receiving it than giving it. Of the 15-year-olds, 24% had reported receiving oral sex while 18% reported having given it. Of the 17-year-olds, 49% reported receiving oral sex while 41% reported giving it. (All these figures refer to sex girls had with boys.) Also, it is very difficult to note changes in sexual behavior in this age group because they have so rarely been studied.

There is a problem with using the NSFG data to draw conclusions about what middle schoolers are doing. Kids who are 15 are likely in high school, so this data doesn’t tell us anything about what middle schoolers are up to, though we can infer that if, by 15, only a quarter of girls have had oral sex, that in middle school the numbers are fairly low. In January of 2005 NBC News and People magazine released data from a poll they commissioned on teens’ attitudes toward sex and their sexual experience. They surveyed teens as young as 13. They found that very few young teens had much sexual experience at all. Only 4% of teens who were 13 or 14 had had oral sex, for example, and fewer than half (44%) had kissed someone romantically. (Their data on 15 and 16 year olds estimates slightly lower rates of sexual activity than the NSFG data — a few percentage points — so I would suspect their estimates to be a bit low in all age groups.)

Sex surveys, like all surveys, are prone to a certain amount of self-reporting error. That is, people are not always completely honest, even when they are promised anonymity. But anonymity does go a long way to ensuring accurate survey data, and I think the data reported by the NSFG survey is pretty reliable. Yet, moral panics make it all the more difficult to collect good data. The more embarrassed or ashamed people think they should be about something, the harder it is likely to be for many of them to be completely honest. The way we report data has a lot of influence over how that data is interpreted. Imagine if, instead of raising the alarm that “Nearly 3 in 10 young teens ‘sexually active,’” (by which they mean anything from romantic kissing to touching some one else’s genitals to oral sex to intercourse), they had used a title like “More than 70% of young teens have no sexual experience at all.”

If we really want to know what teens are doing, sexually, then we need to ease our panic and approach the problem rationally. But even more than that, we should try to remember what it felt like to be teens, ourselves. What were we curious about? What did we want to try? What did we really do? How did we interact with our friends? And how can we, now adults, help teens to navigate their world respectfully and without instilling shame and fear?


Filed under culture, public discourse, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age

6 responses to “Don’t panic about teen sex

  1. As a mother of a 12 year old girl, these are really pertinent questions for me. Maybe looking at it the way you suggest, this is how I felt at your age, would be another way to go about our talks (if I can suffer through all the ensuing eye rolling I expect to encounter).

    The best thing I can do is expect that she will be interested in sexual exploration and attempt to provide her with a supportive and open environment in which to discuss her feelings and thoughts and avoid panic at all costs.

  2. Wengistein

    Turning 17 this year, I don’t understand why teens are having sex. I was very surprised to find what happens behind the curtains in my high school… what could it be is what I’m confused about. For me, sex is something else to worry about. I have other things to focus on, like my band and completing high school with some above average grades (or maybe even higher if I actually want to work).

  3. Rachel

    The only reason why this is worrying is because so many adolescents do not understand the dangers of engaging in sexual activity. Many do not know about adequate ways to protect themselves, nor do they understand the risks that are still there even when proper contraception precautions are used. Many individuals can still get STDs even if they are correctly using a condom. Not only is there the worry of contracting an STD, but many teens and soon-to-be teens don’t understand the intimacy that sex is supposed to help reinforce. They are not learning how to develop healthy relationships or respect for themselves, and that is what is perhaps the more troubling aspect of this issue on a social and cultural scale.

  4. I must disagree categorically with Rachel’s comment above. If the only concern regarding minors having sex was that they don’t know how to protect themselves against disease, or that they don’t understand emotional intimacy, then why do we do nothing about adults in the same position? I recently discovered that a trusted (and married) friend of mine, a man in his early thirties, has been sleeping with another woman ten years his junior and recently propositioned someone else. Does this mean the woman, in her early twenties, does not understand the intimacy of sex? Or the man, in his early thirties? If youth are not learning the intricacies of relationships or self-respect, the problem does not lie in the youths’ sexuality, it lies in the failure of us adults to educate them thoroughly, early enough to make a difference.

  5. Rachel

    well said, and I agree with you entirely.

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