Today’s teens are going further—in more ways than one. Studies show that children as young as 12 are experimenting sexually, and Westchester kids are no exception. We let the kids—and the experts—speak. Parents, listen up.
By Deborah A. Wilburn
It’s late August and many teens are using these final days of summer to hang out at the Westchester Mall and shop for school clothes. Amber*, 13, is getting ready to start Mamaroneck High School along with her friends, Francesca and Vanessa, who are 14 and live in Larchmont. The girls sit in the Food Court, gabbing and sipping sodas. They are dressed identically in tee shirts and short shorts—just like every other girl their age. They are fresh-faced and wholesome-looking. They could be anyone’s daughters.
When a reporter approaches to ask them about kids’ dating habits during middle school, they’re more than happy to oblige. “There’s definitely dating,” says Amber. “It could be one-on-one, a group or a double-date.” Whether or not parents know about it,” she says, “depends on the person and the parents.” In other words, if parents don’t approve, Sally may say she’s going to the movies with Jill but could end up on a double-date with a couple of boys. But is it just innocent dating?
Research suggests that there can be a lot more going on in this age group than hand-holding and a little smooching. A report released earlier this year analyzed several studies done in the 1990s regarding the sexual activity of children 12-to-14-years old. The results were startling: The report found that one in five children in this age group has had intercourse. Do these numbers hold true for Westchester?
“Absolutely,” says Bill Albert, director of communications for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington, DC, which released the report. “It’s a nationally representative study that applies to all communities.”
He notes that, even though the studies are slightly dated, “they’re the most recent we have. And even if the numbers have moved up or down a little,” he says, “parents need to know there’s a significant minority of very young teens having sex.”
The girls are asked if they’ve heard anything about this. “The number seems a little high,” says Vanessa, “but if two kids are going out for a while and they’re boyfriend and girlfriend, they’re probably having sex.” She adds that most parents don’t know, although Francesca offers that she knows one girl whose parents know their daughter has had sex. When intercourse is involved, the boys use condoms because they’re “cheaper and easier” than other birth control methods. At one point, Francesca hides her face with her soda cup, giving the impression that the discussion may be more than hypothetical for her.
The girls are asked how prepared they are with information about sex and about their ability to make decisions. Francesca says that, when a commercial comes on about it, “my dad says, ‘Don’t have sex,’ and I say, ‘Okay.’” The girls say that none of their parents talk about sex; they assume their children have gotten the facts in school. When asked what kind of guidance their school offers, Amber replies, “they don’t tell kids whether to do it or not. They answer questions and say not to have sex with someone with an STD.” But how would one know if a person has a sexually transmitted disease? “You’re supposed to ask them,” Amber says.
Older teens have even more stories to tell. Nitza, 16, and Holly, 17, are about to start their senior year at Hendrick Hudson High School in Montrose. Both very attractive and composed, they talk about how sexual activity often starts in middle school, with 13-year-old girls giving boys oral sex to be popular and gain attention. Is fellatio considered sex? “Not really,” says Nitza. “It’s called â€˜hooking up.’” If a girl really wants to keep a guy, she moves on to intercourse. “You can’t believe what these kids do,” says Holly. “We’re talking about a girl giving a guy oral sex on the couch at a party, doing three guys in one night.” Why would anyone do that? “Most likely, she’s pretty drunk,” Holly reasons. Nitza reports that this kind of behavior is common among girls entering their freshman year of high school. “They want to be popular, to get the senior boys’ attention. They’re trying to regain the status they had in middle school. If parents knew what was going on,” she says, “they’d cry. They’d home-school their kids.”
None of this behavior comes as a surprise to those physicians, sex educators and counselors who work with Westchester teens. “We’ve spoken to a lot of kids and hear over and over that girls are servicing the boys,” says Suzanne Witzenburg, director of education and outreach for Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, which covers Westchester County. “We’re hearing about it happening on the school bus, in the locker room at school, parties where oral sex is the focus.”
Do the boys service the girls, too? “This is not done for mutual satisfaction.” says Dr. Cheryl Appel of Rivertowns Pre-teen and Adolescent Medicine in Tarrytown, who sees children from across the county. “This is often about younger girls with older boys. It’s status seeking behavior, or a response to peer pressure.”
Part of the appeal of oral sex, she says, is that girls reason they can’t get pregnant or catch the HIV virus—but they’d be right only on the first count. Still, it leads to sobering questions about girls’ extreme lack of self-respect and self-esteem. Ted, a 15-year-old from Sleepy Hollow, says he knows girls who have performed oral sex on random guys, “but you’d have to have something wrong with your head to do that,” he says. “Everyone just thinks they’re sluts.”
The teens report that once kids get older, those who were promiscuous are less so. There’s a tendency to pair off, beginning around the ninth or tenth grade. “But you have to remember that most teen relationships only last six to eight weeks, so we can still be talking about a lot of partners,” says Dr. Appel. “I just ran a program in Dobbs Ferry and asked the kids what’s considererd a long-term relationship. They said two to three months.”
So exactly where and when are kids getting together? The teens interviewed said that sometimes it could be at home while the parents are at work (if the kids are not involved in after-school activities) or on the weekend. The main requirement for “where” is lack of parental supervision, whether it’s in a car, at a party, at their own home or that of a friend. “I know a kid whose parents left him at home when they went to Europe because they were afraid he’d be bored,” says Nitza. “It was a nonstop party at his house. Sometimes the parents will stay in the city overnight. They say to their kid, â€˜Oh Honey, you won’t do anything wrong.’”
Parents in Denial
Are parents aware that their kids may be experimenting with sexual activities that could lead to pregnancy or an STD? Many experts say that parents either aren’t privy to what’s happening or think they know, but don’t. Some may hear an alarming rumor—such as the one about a girl giving oral sex to a boy on the way to a bar mitzvah—and become paralyzed, not knowing what to say or do. Others think this kind of activity happens only in certain towns or within certain socioeconomic or ethnic groups. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Dr. Appel. “This cuts across all races and income levels. We in Westchester like to think we’re different, but we’re not. We’re a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the country.”
While anecdotal evidence may tell one part of the story, the statistics surely tell the other. According to the New York State Department of Health, there were 1,364 pregnancies among girls ages 10 to 19 in Westchester in 2000. Roughly half ended in a live birth, while the other half ended with an induced or spontaneous abortion. Looked at another way, during the period from 1998 to 2000, there were 47.2 pregnancies per 1,000 females between the ages of 10 and 19 in Westchester. “That’s comparable to the national teen pregnancy rate,” says Dr. Joshua Lipsman, commissioner of the Westchester County Department of Health. However, it’s considerably less than the pregnancy rate for the rest of New York State, which is 75.1 per 1,000 females in the same age bracket.
Dr. Lipsman notes that teen pregnancies are spread proportionately across the county. “Obviously, a small village like Mamaroneck will have far fewer pregnancies than a large city like Yonkers,” he says.
Other evidence of teen sexual activity is the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Dr. Appel notes that 33 percent of all teens have or will have had an STD by the time they graduate from high school. Dr. Lipsman further points out that, while the spread of STDs in Westchester could be considered “moderate” compared to other parts of the country,
“teens are disproportionately represented here. They have higher rates than adults.”
Sexually transmitted diseases range from chlamydia (the most common) and gonorrhea, both of which can be cured with antibiotics, to the HIV virus and genital herpes, for which there is no cure. Unfortunately, many teens don’t realize they have an STD until it is too late. In terms of symptoms, there may be a genital discharge or nothing at all. If there is an obvious symptom, such as painful urination, it is typically ignored with the hope that it will go away. “Infected boys, more than girls, are unaware of what they’re carrying because, like men, they tend to visit the doctor less,” says Dr. Lipsman. In addition, he notes that, “girls are tested for chlamydia when they get Pap smears, but there’s no equivalent screening experience for boys.”
Sometimes the consequences of untreated STDs can be far more serious for girls than for boys. With untreated
chlamydia, for instance, the infection can spread to a girl’s uterus and fallopian tubes, leading to infertility, an ectopic pregnancy later in life or years of pelvic pain. Untreated
gonorrhea can lead to infertility and ectopic pregnancy in girls as well as heart inflammation, hepatitis and meningitis in both girls and boys. Experts say contracting genital herpes can make it more difficult for a child to attract a suitable partner later in life.
Fueling the spread of disease is the fact that many kids don’t know how to protect themselves adequately with condoms. “The latest trend is that boys want the girls to put the condom on, but the girls have never learned how,” reports Julie Frauenfelder, director of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Services Program for Yonkers. “The boys often don’t know the proper way, either.” Of course, knowledge doesn’t always result in action. All the teens interviewed for this article said that they and their friends realized a condom should be used for oral sex, but this advice was always ignored. The other often-overlooked fact about condom use is that, while it reduces the risk of infection, it doesn’t protect from STDs 100 percent of the time, according to the Medical Institute for Sexual Health.
Given these grim facts, Dr. Appel believes that starting at age 13, boys and girls who are sexually active should be screened annually for chlamydia, Human Papilloma Virus (genital warts, which can cause cervical cancer in girls), gonorrhea and, if sex is unprotected, the HIV virus.
Some Are Still Innocent
There’s no question that there is teen sexual activity in Westchester, but it shouldn’t be assumed that every girl and boy has had intercourse. A meeting with a group of teens who participate in after-school activities at the Peekskill Youth Bureau painted a far different picture than the teens at the mall.
Kalia is a slim, pretty 14-year-old who has her sights set on art school after high school. Her idea of a date is going to the movies or to the pool. Experimenting sexually isn’t in her plans any time soon. “I know right from wrong,” she says. “My grandmother told me you get a reputation if you mess up. Girls can’t make mistakes.” Elisha, 16, says her aunt would role-play with her and her cousin, teaching them how to say no. “It was embarrassing,” she says, “but it helped.” David, 15, sees himself attending medical school one day. “I’m just trying to find a girl to have a conversation with,” he says. It’s safe to say that the kids who seem least likely to become sexually active are those who understand and uphold their family’s values, have the ongoing support of parents or other relatives and have future goals firmly in mind.
What Parents Can Do
Doctors, educators and counselors agree
that, while parents shouldn’t be condemned for lack of involvement where their children’s sexuality is concerned, they need to do more. Kids may get the facts about sex in school, but there’s a void when it comes to teaching kids about morals and values and where sex fits in in the context of a relationship.
“Sometimes parents don’t want to do this because they may feel uncomfortable, or worry that their kids will think they’re old-fashioned or corny,” says Jay Genova, a clinical social worker at the Scarsdale-Edgemont Family Counseling Service, which currently runs 37 parent support groups involving 400 parents. “We encourage them to assert their family values, to talk in terms of relationships and to even put these discussions in a spiritual context, if that’s appropriate for them.”
Indeed, a recent survey conducted by Christian Community Inc., a nonprofit research and development program in Fort Wayne, IN, of 5,819 teenagers from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian and Islamic traditions found that only 31 percent of 12th graders who are highly involved in religious life have had intercourse. The difference isn’t that the teens think premarital sex is wrong (only 54.1 percent agreed with that statement), it’s that they believe intercourse should take place only “between people who have a commitment to each other.”
Sometimes parents fear that too much openness about sex is equivalent to condoning it. “It’s not giving permission,” says Kafi Patterson, director of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Services Program in Mt. Vernon. “Parents should let their kids know they believe in postponing sexual experimentation until they are mature and responsible enough to deal with the consequences. Kids today grow up faster, but they’re not maturing any faster.”
Dr. Appel in Tarrytown stresses the importance of using teachable moments to counter the sexual images and messages in the media. “When a provocative commercial or sitcom comes on, ask your teen, â€˜What do you think about that?’” she says. “Or, â€˜Is that a way to start a relationship?”
It may feel like an uphill battle, especially if parents suspect their child has already started to experiment. But experts assure, even if kids have had adult-like sexual experiences, it doesn’t mean they’re having it every week or even every month—and it is possible to reverse direction. Making the effort to stay close to your teens will make a dramatic difference in their lives—and perhaps even save them from contracting a disease that could impact their health and well-being long after the teen years are over.
Deborah A. Wilburn is a White Plains-based freelance writer.