Girls of 13, grown men a bad combo

November 23, 1999|By Susan Reimer

My daughter is 13 years old, and, like most girls her age, she splits her time between childhood and young womanhood.

She owns enough makeup to enter a witness protection program, but she still sleeps with her stuffed animals.

But several of Jessie's classmates and acquaintances are sleeping with men. Not boys. Men who are 20, 24 and 27 years old.

Two of the girls have left school. One was reportedly returned to her native country by her parents, but the other has disappeared into Los Angeles with her boyfriend and with police in pursuit.

Another middle-school classmate is dating a 20-something guy she met at a convenience store.

Another 16-year-old acquaintance is pregnant, soon to deliver; the father of her child is in his mid-20s.

I have had to help my daughter make room in her head for these events, but there will never be a place in her young life for an older boyfriend.

I have told her she can't date anybody even 10 minutes older than she is.

But more young girls are involved with guys more than four years older than they, though the numbers are difficult to track. And there is research that shows those relationships are as unequal and exploitative as you might expect.

The number of girls under 15 who report having had sex almost doubled between 1988 (11 percent) to 1995 (19 percent), according to figures from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

There are plenty of numbers just as alarming, but what they boil down to is this: When a young girl gets involved with an older guy, it is likely she will have sex with him, it is likely to be unwanted sex, and she will likely not have the gumption to require that he use a condom.

The dynamics of these relationships aren't difficult to understand. According to a report from Planned Parenthood of Northern New Jersey, young girls get involved with older guys because they think they are mature enough to handle it and because they think boys their own age are a waste of time.

Girls think an older boyfriend will bring them status or material benefits. He might have a job, a car, an apartment. He might take her to restaurants or out clubbing. They often believe older guys are more sensitive, more caring, more romantic.

And some girls look at an older guy as their ticket out of a miserable home life.

But these girls, when interviewed as grown women, say little of this image holds up. And very often, the guys ran out on them when a pregnancy occurred.

Why would a guy in his late teens or 20s want to date a 13-year-old girl? The answers from the New Jersey study are predictable: Status, control, easy sex. The ego trip of being her first, the competition to collect more virgins than his buddies. And, of course, such a young girl is less likely to infect him with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.

There are cultural factors in some of these relationships. Some involve recent immigrants from countries where early marriage, especially for girls, is common, and we need to understand that.

That factor aside, though, young girls deserve the supervision and the protection of the adults around them, because these relationships can cause tremendous damage.

While a bride is, on average, 2 1/2 years younger than her groom in this country, there are stages in a girl's life where even a year's difference -- between middle school and high school, for example -- carries additional risks.

"My first question is always, `Where are the parents?' " says Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "One of a parent's most important roles is to protect their child. I have this image of the father standing sternly at the door and demanding to know what the young man's intentions are toward his daughter.

"But that kind of thing seems to be out of fashion now."

Brown says it is not hard to understand the thinking of a young girl dating a man. She believes she will be thought of as sophisticated by association. She may think he holds the promise of escape from a less-than-happy home.

But the truth is, she will have almost no idea what is going on.

"Girls that age say that they had sex and didn't even know it, that they didn't know what to do, that they didn't know how to say no. They attract the guy and then they don't know how to get out of it. They are frightened, confused, in over their heads," says Brown.

"And they don't even have the skills to ask for help."

Brown admits that young girls, in a rush to be grown-up, may make themselves appear deceptively mature. But she doesn't have the patience to understand the men in these relationships.

"They are skunks," she says. "We can get very complicated about this, but at some point we have to say that these men are fundamentally dishonorable. There might be reasons, but we need to be appalled."

The messages we send both to these men and our daughters must be unequivocal.

The evidence is clear that early, steady dating by young girls puts them at greater risk for early sexual activity.

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