Changed views on teen sex

Education: Some say casual attitudes and lack of dialogue set the stage for dropped charges of rape at a Howard County school.

May 23, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

When a 15-year-old Ellicott City girl told police last month that a classmate raped her in a high school bathroom as another held her down and a third boy watched the door, it was appalling and shocking.

When the story changed to the girl having consensual sex with two of the boys in the bathroom during class time, that was appalling, too. But given the sexual behavior norms that exist among teenagers today, it was hardly shocking.

"This behavior in this school building is symptomatic of a culture that just doesn't have a clue" about how to teach kids healthy sexual relations, says Deborah Roffman, who teaches sex education at the private Park School in Brooklandville and speaks on the topic nationally.

Roffman says many teenagers are too cavalier about sex, an attitude she says is caused in large part by media messages and lack of candid conversation among families.

The Ellicott City incident - which became public after the girl accused a male Mount Hebron High student of rape and later recanted the story, according to Howard County police - brought the issue to the forefront.

Divya Mirchandani, a 15-year-old sophomore at River Hill High School in Clarksville, says people are talking about it in class. "It's brought up a lot of key points that maybe teenagers nowadays are trying to act a little older than they are. It's a matter that I guess everyone's concerned about."

While Roffman acknowledges that the situation at Mount Hebron is not the norm, the mindset that allowed it to happen is becoming so, she says. Adolescents are learning to view sex as a casual pastime, devoid of intimacy and importance. In that view, girls are sex objects, boys are sex machines and the sex act is no big deal.

Designers push short shorts for preteens and clothes with words like "juicy" emblazoned across the chest. Near-naked women maul pop stars in music videos, radio songs recount sexual feats, TV characters have one-night stands. And rarely does anyone appear to suffer real-world consequences. In the fantasy version, there's no unwanted pregnancy, no sexually transmitted diseases, no emotional upheaval.

Their own peers and the media give youngsters the impression that sex "is as casual as having lunch together," says Lucy Lublin, who teaches health education at Lime Kiln Middle School in southern Howard County.

She says she is often shocked by the talk of sex in school - real or imagined - that she hears from the youngsters. "So many kids are talking about it, it's hard to know who's talking and who's doing."

According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, teenagers today are actually less likely than the ones from 10 years ago to have sexual intercourse, but that doesn't mean they're not engaging in sexual behavior.

"The reason it's lowered is because they're having other kinds of sex," Roffman says, referring to oral sex and other types of behavior.

Catrice Alphonso, executive director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy says: "There's a lot of variety of sexual experimentation going on right now. We have our work cut out for us."

Most research on adolescent sexual behavior has focused on collecting data about intercourse. But a December 2000 article in Family Planning Perspectives - since renamed Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health - says that 1995 data showed 53 percent of boys age 15 to 19 had been masturbated by a girl, 49 percent had received oral sex from a girl, 39 percent had given oral sex.

A study last year by the Kaiser Foundation says 40 percent of young men ages 15 to 19 had intercourse, though more than half had engaged in other forms of sexual activity. Overall, a third of teenagers have had intercourse, though the number rises with their ages. According to the foundation, nearly two-thirds of high school seniors have had intercourse.

River Hill's Mirchandani, who leads the school's Student Advisory Committee, organized a survey to gauge students' perceptions about sexual activity. The statistically unscientific study found that about half of ninth-graders - 57 percent of the girls questioned and 43 percent of the boys - did not even think of oral sex as actual sex, which mirrors national impressions.

"Some girls have even shared that it's a great way to prevent pregnancy," says Deborah Chilcoat, a health educator with Planned Parenthood, who fears teenagers don't realize diseases can be spread through oral sex.

Roffman says it's the "context issue that people are tearing their hair out over" in trying to teach sex education to children. Sex, she says, should be taught as a private, intimate activity that is among the most powerful acts on earth, with the power to both create or take away - through something like AIDS - life.

"If it sounds as if I'm blaming the media, I'm not. The media only walked into a vacuum that we as families and schools created," she says.

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