Some teens in inner city barter with sex

Family Matters

January 25, 2004|By Susan Reimer

THE VOICES OF POOR, African-American, inner-city teen-agers are largely unheard, especially in the public debate over adolescent sex.

A new report by Motivational Educational Entertainment (MEE) Productions and a devastating companion video may change that.

"It is depressing, but you can also see great resiliency," says Ivan Juzang, president of the research group he founded in Philadelphia in 1990. "These young people have great insight. But somebody has to listen to them."

MEE tells media, advertisers and entertainment companies how to reach urban young people, but this project was different.

This time, the researchers listened to what 16- to 20-year-olds had to say in 2,000 surveys and in 40 focus groups in 10 cities, including Baltimore. It was an unprecedented private undertaking, supported by grants from the California Endowment and the Ford Foundation.

The questions were about sex, and the answers should frighten any adult.

Why? Because many urban kids don't just set standards in music and fashion. "We cannot assume that baggy jeans are the only things that kids in the suburbs will decide to copy," the report says.

The over-arching finding of the research is that "the old-school thinking about relationships doesn't fit low-income urban youth," said Juzang in a press briefing on the report. "Sex is transactional. It is a tool to barter with."

Girls reported having sex with a guy -- any guy -- in return for a new pair of tennis shoes, an outfit or a trip to the beauty parlor. And the guys pay up without complaint.

The teens also reported that adult male-teen female relationships were so common that older men are cruising high school parking lots and young girls are willingly hopping in their cars.

The men know that sex with a young girl will be relatively cheaper than sex with a more demanding woman of their own age. And the girls know the men will pay with nicer purchases than their classmates can afford.

There was also a real openness about same-sex experiences, about serial sex and about group sex.

"Nobody is saying 'no' to sex," said Juzang.

Baltimore teens interviewed in the focus groups are on the cutting edge of this behavior, Juzang said.

"We have been researching in Baltimore for 13 years," he said. "And we have always gotten off-the-chart stuff from its kids.

"There are lots of quotes from Baltimore kids in the report and in the video. They seem to capture it all. They have amazing insight."

For example, Baltimore was the first place where the researchers heard girls saying they had decided to become the aggressors in sex, because they were tired of being "played" by the guys.

And Baltimore was the first place where the researchers heard about "try-sexuals," teens who will "try" anything once and, if they like it, they will try it again.

"Baltimore is the city that raises your attention on a number of things," said Juzang.

MEE's Pam Weddington, who wrote the report, was struck by the "devaluation of black females."

"We don't respect each other. We don't trust each other. The sisterhood has evaporated," she said.

A girl is more likely to confide in a brother-like friend, with whom she has had no sexual relationship, than a girlfriend, because she's convinced her girlfriend will betray her confidence or go after her boyfriend.

"And there is this range of names men use to refer to women," said Weddington, ticking them off with her fingers. "Well, women refer to each other by these same names."

And finally, the report said, messages of abstinence until marriage have no meaning.

"The environment in which they live makes it unrealistic," said Juzang.

Any teen who postpones sex knows that he or she will be ridiculed. And you can't sell abstinence as a way to protect the future to kids who don't believe they will have one.

And, Juzang said, "There is no point to commitment because everyone cheats."

Most disheartening of all was a comment from one young man who said that most people feel they're not going to live long, so they might as well have their fun on Earth. For him, a baby might be his only legacy.

The teens themselves were asked for solutions and, here too, their insight was impressive.

High school sex-education classes are too little and too late. Most of them had had sex by their early teens. Remarkably, they said that if the horrific pictures of what sexually transmitted diseases can do to the genitals had been presented before they had sex, it might have made them think.

The media, of which these kids are the most voracious consumers, should clean up its act, the kids said. Even they were critical of rap songs and music videos for their overpowering sexual messages.

And, finally, these teens feel like the grown-ups have failed them, too. Their parents most often say nothing about sexual decision-making or contraception. Or they try to frighten their kids on the topic.

And parents often set horrendous examples by having sex with multiple partners in the home or by letting their children have sex in the home. One young man expressed amazement at the pornography he found in the family videocassette player.

But perhaps the most shocking revelation of all was this: Knowing what they know now, most of these teens said they wish they had waited to have sex.

What these low-income, urban teens are saying cuts across all classes and races -- just like baggy jeans and rap music.

These teens say they are pressured into having sex -- by their peers and by messages from the media -- before they are ready.

They are saying that sex has no meaning and no context and no consequences.

And they are saying that the adults -- parents, teachers, coaches, friends and health professionals -- are not in the game with them. The teens are in it by themselves.

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