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Wrong Messages: Young kids are casually experimenting with oral sex


Wrong Messages: Young kids are casually experimenting with oral sex

Article by Meredith O’Brien

Oprah was stunned.

In May 2002, she could barely contain her outrage as she sat in her Chicago television studio and told parents something most were unprepared to hear:

“Your kids are having oral sex. Everywhere. As young as 12. In school bathrooms. On buses. At unsupervised parties. In your house when you’re not home. And worst of all, they don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s nothing more intimate than a casual goodnight kiss between friends.”

“There’s an oral sex epidemic going on in junior high schools across the country,” Oprah boomed… “The sexual revolution has trickled down to 12-year-olds.”

Here in Massachusetts, parents had already started hearing bits and pieces about sexual activity brewing in the middle school grades.

In November 2000, a Boston Globe article reported that preteens at some elite eastern Massachusetts schools were not only grinding their bodies together and undressing during middle school dances, but were engaging in sexual activities. The paper quoted a poll of students at Milton Academy where 15 percent of the freshmen admitted having oral sex.

Then came a string of high profile news reports in January 2003 about students—including middle schoolers—engaging in oral sex on school buses and in bathroom stalls. Parents in the greater Boston area began to take notice of this “new” trend.

This, however, was not considered “new” to middle school teachers, counselors and others who talk openly to preteens on a daily basis. This trend of kids who have barely entered puberty engaging in such intimate acts has been going on for a while and it’s about time, the developmental experts say, that parents wake up to reality.

As Young As 12

“Kids are definitely talking about this… Kids are getting caught,” said Marjorie Mitlin, a social worker at Sharon High School. “Middle school is where it’s happening.”

Though there are very few national or statewide statistics which address adolescent oral sex—most student surveys only inquire about intercourse, not other types of sexual activity—those in the know say that it has replaced spin the bottle games. One of the few surveys done nationally, a 2000 poll by Seventeen Magazine, found that 55 percent of teens responding reported they’d had oral sex and 40 percent didn’t consider it sex.

What’s maddening to the grown-ups is that oral sex is starting very, very young with children who are very, very blasé about it.

During the Oprah show last spring, teen after teen admitted on national television that not only had he or she had oral sex with multiple partners—mostly with people they weren’t dating steadily—but some started as young as 12. “I don’t understand why parents are getting so uptight about this,” one 17-year-old said.

“They just don’t consider it sex,” said an incredulous William Keating, the district attorney in Norfolk County. As he received a growing number of reports of children engaging in oral sex in greater Boston, Keating decided in December 2002 to establish the High Risk Teen Sexual Behavior Task Force, which he hopes will get the message out to parents that they need to start talking to their kids about the serious health and emotional risks involved with all kinds of sexual activity. “The discussion (about oral sex) has already started and parents aren’t a part of it,” Keating said.

“It (oral sex) is part of something bigger,” said Sharon Maxwell, a Canton-based clinical psychologist who has developed a sex-ed curriculum for fifth graders. “It’s not just, ‘Oh my God! Oral sex! How can it be happening in middle school?’… A lot of sexual activity has shifted in its meaning with kids. The attitude kids have about it seems to be, ‘So what? What’s the big deal?’ It’s actually very destructive to kids.”

Why This?

Why is this happening? No one can quite put a finger on it, but several key factors have contributed to its popularity, experts say. The causes are as varied as: incessant sexual media messages, a lack of adult supervision after school, peer pressure, girls’ sexually charged clothing (think belly shirts and Britney Spears’ attire), parents condoning co-ed sleepovers for middle schoolers and older, and even something as basic as what kids consider as “sex,” which some have attributed to former President Clinton arguing that oral sex isn’t really sex.

“We have become so used to the media and what they’re sending out to the kids that we don’t see it,” Maxwell said. “. . . Kids are on a quest to figure things out and as grown-ups, we’re not thinking about how they’re figuring things out.”

Maxwell said a simple trip to the grocery store for a middle schooler can expose a child to sex without a parent even noticing. By looking at the provocative magazine covers at checkout stands and the teasing, sexual headlines on Cosmo and Mademoiselle, children get the wrong messages about sex. “Kids find out everything they need to know about sexuality just walking through Shaw’s,” she said.

Kids are telling educators that they’ve internalized the messages that sexual education classes and their parents have sent when it comes to intercourse: Don’t have it because it could result in pregnancy, or you could get AIDS or other diseases. National statistics bolster this claim as the teenaged pregnancy rate is falling and students report remaining virgins longer.

But these same kids are replacing intercourse with other activities, like oral sex, because they don’t think that it can harm them. However, a 2002 Centers for Disease Control report found an increase in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among adolescents. Educators say that what the students don’t realize is that oral sex isn’t the “safe” alternative and they can contract STDs that can harm them for life.

Sexual Media Messages

Given the graphic sexual nature of much the music, television and video games that children are exposed to at younger and younger ages, parents and educators need to get to these young kids first and explain all types of sexual behavior before they’re sent the wrong message that oral sex isn’t a serious matter.

The January 2001 issue of Pediatrics, a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), said that the average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references annually through the media, yet only 165 of those references are likely to deal with birth control, self-control, abstinence or risk of pregnancy or STDs. If you think that you’re doing your young kids a favor by allowing them to watch evening TV only during the so-called family hour—8 p.m. to 9 p.m.—you obviously haven’t turned on the tube lately to catch NBC’s bed-hopping “Friends” crew or J. Lo’s latest butt-bearing music video during that time slot. Broadcasts during that hour contain an average of more than eight sexual incidents per show, and one-third had sexual references, the Pediatrics report found.

Add in the fact that the majority of American children have their own TVs and computers in their bedrooms, and exposure to sex acts without the benefit of adult explanations is certain. “Although early sexual activity may be caused by a variety of factors, the media are believed to play a significant role,” the AAP said in a January 2001 press release.

Throw in the fact that there are plenty of locations for these kids to engage in sex acts after school, namely the homes of two-income parents, and there’s ample opportunity. A December 2002 survey done by Pediatrics of over 2,000 students in public high schools, found that children who had more unsupervised time after school were more likely to be sexually active.

What To Do?

What can parents of young children do in the wake of such disturbing information? Talk, talk and more talk. Stash away your embarrassed smile and prudishness. Get ready to say words like vagina, penis and oral-genital contact. Prepare for rolled eyes. Get past that sick feeling in your stomach and take every chance you can to explain the world of sexuality to your child as early as possible, experts recommend, because you don’t want someone else to give your child messages before you do.

“Rule of thumb right now—and parents don’t want to hear this—but by 8 years old, they’re (kids) already going to be hearing about sex,” said Maxwell, who is a member of District Attorney Keating’s task force. “…Start talking. Start making sense of the culture to the kids. Let them know what your values are. First matters. You want to have your ideas there first.”

Keating thinks that parents should not miss the opportunity to speak with their kids about sex at least by middle school. “Young people are more engaged (in middle school),” he said. “You can still talk to them. It’s a very receptive age.”

Sexual educators agree. “The best strategy of all is for adults to talk openly with their children about the meaning of sex long before someone else even gets the chance, and long before they risk being discounted as a trusted and reliable source,” wrote author Deborah Roffman in her book “Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex.”

Discussions between parents and kids can begin as early as elementary school with small talks about the changes in their bodies, an emphasis on fostering self-esteem and self-worth, laying the foundation for understanding loving, stable relationships and how to make good decisions that show respect for themselves, their bodies and others, said Mitlin, a psychotherapist in private practice.

“The biggest message is really teaching kids values and that their behavior has value,” she said.

On-going Conversations

Parents don’t need to stress out over having one big, meaningful sit-down with their young kids, said Jill Kantrowitz, director of education and training at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which provides sex-ed programming and instructors to 100-plus schools in Massachusetts.

“I think the way to take pressure away from parents is to take pressure off of ‘the talk,'” said Kantrowitz. “You could be watching a Britney Spears Pepsi commercial and have a conversation and ask your middle schooler what he thinks about what she’s wearing. The conversation has to be on-going.”

Parents can also choose from among many good books about the topic and leave one in the child’s room, Kantrowitz said, maybe even discuss a chapter or two.

Author Roffman urges parents to establish a very broad definition of “sex” so that when they discuss sexual activities, kids will be thinking beyond intercourse. “Sexual behavior is any behavior involving willful physical contact or the sharing of body parts, that arouses or is intended to arouse erotic or sexual feelings,” she wrote.

Dr. Phil McGrath, the popular psychologist, put it more bluntly in the Oprah teen sex broadcast: “If it involves a sex organ, it is sex and there’s no way you’re going to change that.”

“Beautiful Energy”

Maxwell likes to explain sexuality to young children as “a beautiful energy” used to lovingly make babies and express love between grown-ups. “This idea of it being ‘energy’ really works,” she said. You can use the concept to explain other aspects of American sexual culture, she said adding, “You can say that the media manipulate that energy to try to get you to buy stuff.”

When she speaks with middle school students, she tries to explain how people manipulate sexual energy by the way they dress and that it can be a powerful thing. “But you don’t want to manipulate someone’s sexual energy in math class,” Maxwell said.

Parents need to clearly explain to their kids, at times appropriate to their children’s development and age, the family’s values and how those values translate into making practical decisions about the kids’ sexual activity later in life, Roffman says.

The more explicit the parents are about their feelings regarding all different kinds of sexual activity, including oral sex, the more guided and protected the children will feel, experts argue.

Parents shouldn’t fear that bringing up the topic of sexual activity with their child will suddenly spur an interest, Kantrowitz said. “Research shows that giving somebody information that is factual does not lead to an increase in sexual activity,” she said.

So go get those books and start talking before someone else does it for you.

“There will come a time in each of our children’s lives when they will have to make a choice about sexual behavior,” Maxwell said. “The only thing we know for sure is that we will not be there. Discussing these choices before the fact is our best shot at having them use their heads and not their hormones.”