Youth Culture Window
“When is a person not a virgin anymore?!” “If u have sex underwater, do u still need a condom?” “Why do guys think it’s cool to sleep with a girl and tell their friends?”
These are just a few of the questions teens are anonymously asking complete strangers regarding sex.
The Sex Text Hotline
The Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign based in Durham, NC has been making headlines for several months due to its unorthodox approach regarding sex education (and counsel) given to teens. The APPC allows teens to anonymously send their questions to The Birds & the Bees Text Line and get answers about sex from adults who work with the state-funded program. The popularity of this program has quickly swept across the country, and now students from all over America are sending text messages to North Carolina, as this article from the New York Times attests.
There are two basic reasons for the program’s popularity. First, um…lots of teens are having sex. The website for the APPC claims that “63% of North Carolina high school students report having sexual intercourse at least once.” Reinforcing that number is the 2007 study from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which found that 47.8% of high school students (grades 9th – 12th) admitted to having sex at least once. (Unfortunately, the numbers go up as the teenagers get older.)
And all that sex comes with consequences. For instance, The Center for Disease Control recently reported that 26% of teenage girls in the U.S., between the ages of 14 and 19, have a sexually transmitted disease. Additionally, preliminary studies point to an increase in teen pregnancies, ending a decade-long decline. (This table shows teen pregnancy rates by state.)
But there is another reason for the rampant use of this system by teens: privacy (from parents). The system allows teens to be discreet when asking questions and receiving answers for awkward inquiries concerning sex. That obscurity is an attractive feature for many teens.
But what kind of advice are teens getting when they let their thumbs do the talking?
My Test Text
Frequent readers of our Youth Culture Window articles could probably have guessed that I would contact the Birds and Bees Hotline. What the heck, right?
I sent the following message to the text hotline because of the frequency with which I had to answer it as a youth pastor: “Since I am about to marry my girlfriend is it ok to have sex with her?” Within about three minutes, I received this short and courteous reply: “Thanks for texting the Birds & Bees Text Line. Someone will respond to your text within 24 hours.”
Sure enough, inside an hour and a half, my smart phone buzzed, letting me know I had received a message. The profound counsel I received was this: “That is entirely up to you. How do you feel about premarital sex? Only you can decide what is right or wrong for you.”
OK. I know how “I feel” about premarital sex as a happily married youth worker, but I doubt a hormone-driven 15 year old kid shares my sentiment. Oh, and did you catch the innate relativity of their response? “Only I can decide what’s right or wrong….”
So, I’m sure that teens who text their questions to these adults about the life-changing event known as sex will be sure to get the “best” answer that can be crammed into 160 characters or less.
But why are complete strangers even brought into this discussion in the first place? Isn’t this a conversation best reserved for parents to have with their own kids?
Talking the Talk
In a joint effort between O and Seventeen magazines, a couple thousand parents and young girls were surveyed about whether or not they had ever had “the talk” with one another, and if so, how it went. The findings were quite interesting.
First, there appeared to be a large discrepancy between moms and daughters as to whether or not “the talk” had even taken place. 90% of moms claimed they had, in fact, had “the talk” with their daughters, but when asked, only 51% of the daughters agreed. That’s a rather large gap.
One of two realities is true: either “the talk” never happened, or it wasn’t that memorable. Either way…failure.
However, the girls who did collaborate their moms’ story claimed “the talk’s” impact on them was significant. For instance, girls who had “the talk” were half as likely to get pregnant and were more likely to practice safe sex than those who did not. Further, 25% of the young ladies said “the talk” caused them to delay sex.
Sounds like an important conversation for parents to be in on.
The Price Tag for Teen Sex
As any youth worker and parent knows, sex carries big ramifications with it. We talk a lot about STD’s and pregnancies as they relate to teen sex, and MTV has even begun airing a show entitled “16 and Pregnant” that documents the (many) difficult moments of teen pregnancy.
The show follows six pregnant girls as they confront social dilemmas brought on by the unwanted pregnancy, not to mention the chaos of their child’s delivery and their own early parenthood. Excerpts of the show are available on MTV.com. In this article about the show, Tony DiSanto, President of MTV Programming, says, “MTV has a long history of reflecting the lives of our viewers with compelling reality stories.” I would say that MTV also has a long history of producing shows that glamorize premarital sex…but that’s another article.
But even if the tragic consequences of STD’s and unwanted pregnancy are avoided, there’s still the guilt and shame teens must wade through in the aftermath of their sexual decisions.
What’s Our Reply?
Like any text message, we must have a response for the sexual situation(s) facing our teens.
- Don’t let technology replace you. Part of what makes this tech-driven “solution” so popular is that the typical teenager can fire off 40 text messages, containing questions about sex, much quicker than he can get put on his mom and dad’s calendar for a solid conversation about sex. Technology is ever-present in teens’ lives; we must make sure that we are, as well. Face it: all teenagers have questions about sex, and they WILL find answers to them. Make yourself available, so it’s you they bring their questions to.
- Don’t just have “the” talk; have ongoing conversations. So many parents think having “the talk” once during their child’s adolescent period is enough. Too many youth workers believe if they address “sex and sexuality” one time each year, the problem is solved. Nope. Parents and youth workers must be committed to ongoing conversations…not intermittent lectures. If you are wondering how often you should speak with your teens about sex, just remember, they’re bombarded all day long with sexual images and messages in the world.
- Create an environment where off-the-wall sex questions can be safely asked. Don’t wait for them to broach the touchy subject with you; be proactive in discussing the sex lives of the teenagers closest to you. Too many parents wait until a problem exists before intervening. If you really want to capture their attention, hand them a “coupon” that reads, “good for one free sex talk,” or declare next Tuesday night the “No-Holds-Barred Sex Talk Night.” I guarantee you there’s no way your teen will ever forget it.
Sex is one of those make-or-break facets in teenagers’ lives today. We must be the first voice, the most consistent voice, and the most compassionate voice they hear on this subject. Too much hangs in the balance to delegate this responsibility to a stranger in North Carolina who owns a cell phone.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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