Despite their portrayal in shows like Gossip Girl or the racy, sex obsessed teen drama Skins, America’s youth are actually more chaste now than they were 10 years ago. According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28 percent of Americans 15-24 years old are virgins. A six-percentage point increase when compared to data collected in 2002.
The reasoning behind the jump isn’t readily apparent, but some experts feel it could be a combination of improved sex education, raised awareness about sexually transmitted infections (STI) and reinforcement that it’s okay to wait.
“Compared to a decade ago, kids today may feel better equipped to make decisions for themselves and not just react to what their peers say they should be doing,” says Mark Schuster, MD, PhD, chief of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-author of the book ‘Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But were Afraid They’d Ask).’ “There’s still much work to be done, though, in educating young people about sex, relationships, love and responsibility.”
The study also shows that even more youth are engaging in oral sex, which has some wondering if today’s teens have a more casual view of oral sex.
“Adolescents need to understand that just because you can’t get pregnant from oral sex, doesn’t mean it isn’t sex,” says Schuster, who is also William Berenberg Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “You can still get an STI from oral sex and you also can have emotions that are just as strong as with intercourse.”
Also according to the new study, a notable subset of young women and men are attracted to, or have had sex with, a same-gender partner. Schuster says this data should act as a reminder to all parents to be careful not to presume that their children are heterosexual, for fear of isolating those who are not.
“It is important for parents to recognize that their kids may be gay, bisexual or uncertain about their orientation,” he says. “Parental openness about orientation may convey to the teens that they can talk to their parents about any sensitive issue and lead to more open, frank discussions about their lives and development.”
Regardless of the specific topic, Schuster says parents need to make a conscious effort to talk openly about sex with their children, no matter how uncomfortable they may find it. Taking advice from the child’s pediatrician or using cues from mainstream media and popular culture might be an excellent way to bring up an otherwise sensitive topic.
“TV can provide ample opportunity to discuss sex, love, relationships and all sorts of important topics,” Schuster says. “And by referencing these things as they come up in real life, parents can avoid having the one, ‘Big Talk,’ which isn’t always sufficient, especially if the parent or teenager is uncomfortable and anxious to get the discussion over with.”
With the wealth of misinformation on love, sex and relationships available to today’s media savvy teenager, access to quality and factual sex education is more vital than ever. And though most teenagers would hate to admit it, a majority of them really listen to their parents when serious topics like sex are brought up.
“When their parents aren’t around to hear, many kids will admit that they’re eager to learn from their parents,” says Schuster. “However, if your kids really won’t talk with you, try to find another trusted adult, perhaps an aunt or close family friend, who can be available. Every teen should have an adult he or she can open up to.”