Sex & Sensibility
Today's young teens are becoming sexually aware -- and active -- at an unprecedented rate. A candid report on how they are dealing with the pressures and confusion of growing up too fast

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, July 16, 2000

Morning brings the invitations. The casual ones. So routine are they that she hardly thinks about them, just waves them away like gnats. Today, for example, a boy came up to her in the hall and asked, "When are you going to let me hit that?" "That means, like, intercourse," the girl explains, with a sort of gum-popping matter-of-factness. She is 13.

She is an eighth-grader, fresh-faced, clear-eyed, with light brown hair and fluffy bangs and plucked eyebrows, her voice sweet and straightforward as, one morning in an unused classroom, she sits relating some of the other things guys say to her in the halls of her Montgomery County middle school, nestled in developed farmland in the central part of the county.

"They say, `What's up with the dome?' " the girl continues, explaining that this is an invitation to perform oral sex, as is the more familiar: "When are you going to give me head?" She tells them never. She laughs. Whatever it takes to put them off. She has not done much more than kiss, though she and her female friends talk about sex a lot, especially oral sex. "They're like, `It's not that bad once you do it. But it's scary the first time.' I guess they're nervous that they won't do it right. They said they didn't have any pleasure in it. They did it to make the boys happy, I guess."

She thinks that someday she will do it.

She thinks that it will be gross.

The serious invitations come in the afternoon, after school, from two boys she knows well, boys who live within walking distance of her house, boys who call her up, or else she calls them, and they come over when her parents are still at work and the only other person in her house is a sibling. When the boys arrive they often say something like what one of them said just the other day: "Let's go to your room. You can give me some head and then we'll go downstairs." To which she replied: "No! You're nasty!"

It is a little complicated to explain who the two boys are. One of them -- let's call him Boy A -- used to be her boyfriend and is now just her friend. The two of them talk a lot -- they're really close, they know each other's life story, he has told her everything about himself and his past, though she's not sure she believes all of it (how much past can an eighth-grader have?), and they've had conversations about oral sex. For example, the one in which she said to him, "If I do it to you and do it wrong, just tell me what I'm doing wrong so I can fix it."

The invitations also come from Boy B. One day, for example, back when she was going out with Boy A, she and Boy B were talking on the phone in the afternoon, and she invited the two of them over, and Boy B "was, like, `Are you going to give him head?' And I was, like, `No.' And then he asked about himself -- he was, like, `What about me?' And I was, like, `No.' I was, like, `Heck no!' and he was, like, `Why?' And I was, like, `Because I don't like you,' and he was, like, `So? You can still do it!' "

"They always ask," she says. "Even if you say no 700 times, they'll always ask you."

What if the boys were to suddenly leave her alone and stop asking? "I would think they didn't like me or something," she says, "or that the other girls are prettier or, like, better than me."

What if she gives in? Just goes ahead and gets it over with? She has thought about this. For example, she knows that if she did it with Boy A, Boy A would tell Boy B, and likewise, if she did it with Boy B, Boy B would tell Boy A. So people would know. She doesn't think it would affect her reputation; you only get a bad reputation if you have sex with every boy who asks you. But the one thing she knows is that if she did it, even once, and people found out, her day would be one endless stream of requests. "They would ask me, and ask me, even more than they do now."

In other words, this girl -- who asked, for obvious reasons, that her name not be used in this article -- is making complex moral calculations all day long, measuring popularity, fending off unwanted commentary, admitting to curiosity, assessing risk. At least until her mother gets home. "How was your day at school?" she usually asks.

Statistically, you might think that this is a relatively good -- or at least, a relatively safe -- time to be coming of age, sexually, in America. The important numbers -- as reported by the Alan Gutt-macher Institute, the National Center for Health Statistics and other research groups -- show:

Teen pregnancy rate, down 16 percent between 1991 and 1996.

Teen abortion rate, down 22 percent in the same period.

Teen birth rate, down 18 percent.

Contraceptive use way up since 1979, when fewer than half of adolescents used contraception the first time they had sex. Now, more than 70 percent do, though less than half say they use contraception every time.

All of these trends, found in every state, every region of the country.

A relatively safe time to be coming of age.

Except: What should we think about a brown-haired girl in a classroom struggling to think of some boys who don't ask her for sex? "The only friends I know who don't do it," she says "are, like, friends I've known since -- well, two or three friends don't do it."

What should we think about similar conversations with other young teens around Montgomery County; an eighth-grader, for example, who kept a diary at my request documenting the stream of unwanted sexual come-ons she fends off every day? One entry, written in careful cursive in light blue ink on notebook paper, read: "I was bending down, getting something from out of my locker when a boy just came up behind and was trying to hump me." Another: "I was at my locker picking up my books from off the floor and a boy stands in front of me and puts his [crotch] in my face and says, `Oh yes, you're the best.' "

What should we think about five Bethesda eighth-graders standing at a picnic, saying that each of them knows a classmate who has had sex? "My mom doesn't know this goes on," says one. "She thinks we don't even kiss. I don't tell my parents anything. I don't want to tell them. They wouldn't understand. They'd think I was retarded."

What should we think about statistics showing that, for all the recent decline in teen pregnancies and abortions, there is nevertheless more sexual activity at every stage of adolescence now than there was 30 years ago? About the fact that, over the same time period, the average age of first sexual intercourse has dropped by a full year (from 18 to 17 for girls, from 17 to 16 for boys)? About research showing that one-fifth of all 15-year-olds have had sex at least once?

What should we think about the fact that -- even as the overall percentage of sexually active teens has declined slightly

during the past couple of years -- for girls under 15 it has continued to increase?

"Our culture is to a large extent experimenting with eroticizing the child," says David Murray, an anthropologist and research director at the Statistical Assessment Service, a think tank in Washington. Look, Murray suggests, at the cult of Britney Spears, or the continued newsstand appeal of the murdered 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. What's going on, Murray says, is not a healthy expression of our culture's sensuality through a fond depiction of the female form. It's not some hip literary Lolita thing, not a fundamentally harmless Alice in Wonderland-type doting uncle thing. It's not a Maurice Chevalier love-those-bows-and-ruffles thing. It's not innocent. It's not affectionate. It's base. It's weird. It's commerce.

"It's the commodification of the eroticization of the child," Murray adds. "We celebrate it."

I've long wondered about this. That is, I've wondered what it must be like, for girls, and for boys, too, to be coming of age in an era shaped by both the '60s sexual revolution and the '80s AIDS onslaught; coming of age in the time of "Dawson's Creek" and "Sex in the City"; a time of HIV and Eminem; a time when Lorena and John Bobbitt and Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton have done more than anybody else to insinuate terms like "penis" and "oral sex" into family newspapers like this one. A time when the media -- all media, even mainstream media -- are more sexualized than they've ever been, and yet, at the same time, the consequences of sex are depicted so grimly, by cultural conservatives and liberals alike. What does it feel like -- how does a kid respond -- when the messages are so mixed and so insistent?

Sex is great!

Sex can be fatal!

"What do you worry more about: sex on television or violence on television?" I asked a man at a party about four years ago. Like most parents at most parties, we were eating buffet food and talking about our kids. The father of three sons, he replied that violence was what he worried about; his sons liked violent TV, they liked action movies and video games, and all of this, he felt, had coarsened his boys' character. Sex on the screen was not something he'd given much thought to.

I felt precisely the opposite.

Twenty-five years ago, as an eighth-grader myself, I can recall being exposed to very little sexual imagery, aside from the relatively subtle innuendo of rock lyrics. Apart from that, I remember few explicit sexual references in the broad popular culture, and even those weren't really popular culture per se. For example, I remember sometime in my early teens when my parents took me to "Walkabout," an Australian movie where there is a brief shot of full frontal female nudity, or the time my friend Kate and I, for reasons that still elude me, went to see Fellini's "Amarcord," of which I remember (of course) only the boy's face smashed in the fat woman's breasts. Instances like these were so infrequent, and so memorable, that I can count them on my fingers. The rest of the time, I was watching Arte Johnson fall off a tricycle on "Laugh-In."

Now, it seems as if each new day pushes the edge of the envelope further. Just last week I was sitting on the couch with my daughter, now 4 1/2, and the TV was tuned to my favorite show, the British series "Absolutely Fabulous," on Comedy Central. During one break there was a teaser for a routine that would be aired later that night. In it, a comic was saying: "Bush-Gore, Bush-Gore: What kind of a presidential contest is that? It sounds more like a snuff movie!" Fortunately the reference went over my daughter's head, but what, I couldn't help but wonder, if it hadn't? I didn't learn what a snuff movie was until I was 30, and only then because I'm married to the son of a cop, who used to confiscate them. What if my daughter had been slightly older -- 6, say -- and asked me what a snuff movie is? What if my son, now 2, was also sitting there? What would I tell them?

For some parents, of course, the solution is to not get cable: That way your kids can't watch Comedy Central, or MTV movies like "Jailbait," or Dr. Drew's sex advice show, though they still could watch "Friends," or "Buffy," or "Fresh Prince," or many of the other TV shows showing relationship-obsessed young people. Or they might go on the Internet, as I did recently, and type in the search terms "teen" and "sex," whereupon they will be rewarded with a zillion links to pornography sites such as WORLD TEEN SEX ("20 Tiny Lolitas!") and SUKEBE 500 FROM JAPAN ("cute school girl from Tokyo") and TEEN SEX, HARDCORE SEX AND FREE PORN WITH TEEN ("amateurs and young girls having sex") and SEXY TEEN GIRL ("Sex pictures gallery! Cleanest looking teens!").

There are filtering devices, of course, but there is also ordinary old FM radio, which I was listening to recently while driv-ing with my kids. Between music segments, a commercial came on that went: "Sex with a regular condom is like this" -- noise of a dripping faucet -- "but sex with our supercharged ribbed condom is like THIS" -- noise of a roaring waterfall!!

I'm not saying that all of this is bad. Temperamentally I'm always inclined to think that information is a good thing; that sexual awareness is a good thing. In particular, it has always bothered me that our culture and literature contain so few explorations of adolescent female desire; that there's no girl's version of Portnoy's Complaint. I know many women who regard their own sexual initiation as a fun and hilarious time, a time they will remember fondly when they are old women in rocking chairs thinking back on their lives.

But how -- in this era -- to regulate the flow of information? What to do when there is no childhood terrain that's sacrosanct? The other day I was at my local playground, and looked down to see that my daughter had unknowingly dug up a used condom in a scoopful of sand. What did she think when she saw grown-ups dashing about, trying to find a napkin or paper towel to pick up the condom, and surreptitiously assessing -- even as we knew we were overreacting -- the statistical odds of HIV contamination?

"How many of you are sexually active?" Aury Coronado asked a group of girls who were slouched in chairs, gazing out the window, contemplating their nails and, in one case, it appeared, napping. Aury is a nurse and a health educator, and on this particular day she was in a comfortable room at a Kensington medical office, conducting an after-school contraception class for a group of Montgomery County eighth-graders. There were nine girls in the room, and none raised a hand. The counselor who'd brought them from their school looked amused. She knew they were just leery about unburdening themselves to a stranger. "How many of you are sexually active?" the counselor repeated.

"Do you mean, do we or have we?" one of the girls said.

"Have you," she said, whereupon the girls snapped to, and six of them raised their hands.

I learned later that this group of eighth-graders was somewhat unusual; the term for them once upon a time might have been fast girls, though I would discover that there was a great deal of heterogeneity in the group; some of the girls strongly disapproved of what others were doing. A better word now might be "at risk," which is to say that many of them were girls from low-income, single-parent or otherwise disadvantaged households. But even given their very specific demographic, it struck me as remarkable that six out of nine of them had had sex, at 13 or 14. What also struck me, as I listened to Aury's very useful discourse with them, was the mix of experience and ignorance they displayed. Their first question, which they'd written down in advance, was what is a female condom, and when Aury told them that the female condom isn't very appealing to look at, that it sort of hangs outside the woman's body, there was a smirk and one of the girls said knowingly, "It doesn't look very appetizing!"

On one level they were very worldly and on another they were full of superstition and childlike curiosity. When they'd come to trust Aury they asked her all sorts of questions, like whether it is true that you can get pubic lice in your armpits and eyebrows, and whether you can get pregnant from oral sex, and whether plastic wrap is an acceptable means of protection from sexually transmitted diseases, and whether one ought to douche, and if so whether one ought to douche with vinegar (no, no, no, no, and no). Another thing they wanted to know was whether people over 50 are allowed to have sex, and if so, whether this is really a good idea.

"I thought there was, like, an age to stop," one of them said. " 'Cuz, you know, some of them get home and have heart attacks." When Aury told the group that even people in nursing homes have sex, the girls fell silent with shock.

Afterward, I kept thinking about this session, about what these young girls knew and didn't know and had done and were doing. Were they exceptions? In the level of their experience, probably. Clearly there are children who spend most of middle school thinking about sports, and friends, and music, and, I don't know, the cafeteria menu. But there are lots and lots of middle-schoolers whose experience of life, and sex, falls somewhere between inactivity and immersion. Exactly where is something that people in the field find it difficult to agree on: Little research has been done on teenagers under 15, partly because for a long time, researchers didn't think this age group was relevant to social problems like teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and also because it wasn't considered seemly to ask.

In particular, there is controversy over whether it's true -- as has been reported -- that there is a lot more oral sex now among middle-schoolers. There are no statistics on this yet, but based on experience and anecdote, many front-liners in the field are convinced that this is true. "When I was growing up, you didn't hear a lot about oral sex, especially in middle school," says Krystal Holland-McKinney, a sexuality counselor who works extensively with kids in Maryland, the District and Virginia. "Now it's happening in middle school and it's happening cross-culturally."

In turn, people like Michael Resnick, director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center, say, "This is nothing new." Resnick isn't debating whether teenagers are having oral sex; he's simply arguing that teenagers have been having oral sex for quite some time, that they began well before the great media pile-on that began with President Clinton's indiscretions. Studies done in the '80s, for example, showed that teenagers were having oral sex back then. These, however, were high school kids, and the practice, Resnick suspects, may have spread more recently to the younger set. Too, Resnick acknowledges that any increase in oral sex could be consistent with the drop in teen abortion and pregnancy; that all of these trends, rather than being contradictory, could be part of the same adaptive behavior.

"In one respect it's probably part of the bigger picture that a growing number of kids in the United States are getting it. They're understanding more about pregnancy prevention and about risk," Resnick says.

But the loose term "oral sex" is itself, I think, imprecise. Among the teenagers I talked to, there was widespread agreement that what oral sex consisted of, in middle school, was girls performing oral sex on boys. "I guess boys think it would be nasty" to perform oral sex on a girl, conjectured one 13-year-old girl. "It's different. It's just -- the body parts -- it's something different," said one 13-year-old boy, looking a little bit horrified.

Equally dispiriting, I think, is the striking research, done by a Washington research group called Child Trends, that quantifies the increase in sexual intercourse among girls 13 and 14. "Almost one-fifth of female teens (19 percent) in 1995 reported that they had had sex before age 15, compared with only 11 percent in 1988," noted a recent Child Trends research brief, adding that males did not show a similar increase. ("Sex" is used here to mean intercourse, and does not include oral sex.) For girls at this age, some of the consequences are obvious: increased risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, because the younger someone starts, the more partners she's likely to have. Sex at this age is also less likely to be consensual and more likely to be coercive; though pressure to have sex often comes from boys in their own age group, it also frequently comes from older boys, and many young girls who do have sex do so with boys who are several years older. According to one study, 24 percent of girls who had sex at age 14 or under reported that it was "nonvoluntary" -- basically, rape or molestation.

Other young girls may consent, but only as a result of pressure: "I was just trying to please him," said one 11th-grader I talked to who had had sex for the first time in middle school.

"I regret the age I was when I lost my virginity," said another, who'd had sex with an older guy the summer after eighth grade; when she got to high school, she said, still embarrassed, "everybody knew."

In other words, it would be naive to think that increased sexual activity by young girls is part of some post-feminist equal opportunity movement. I sat in on one sex-ed class where a group of high school girls could not identify the female organ that is "the center of sexual excitement and pleasure" and another where a group of eighth-grade girls all agreed that it was normal for boys to masturbate, but not for girls. In three months of reporting, I heard very few girls make any bold expression of sensuality, apart from one who, during a discussion of risky behavior, timidly expressed the idea that "hugging feels -- mmmmmmm!" whereupon she was roundly chastised by her group. One of her classmates pointed out that even hugging can be risky if the boy gets ambitious: "There are some people that be feeling on you when they're hugging!"

Mostly, what I saw was girls being pressured to experiment, in some cases girls curious to experiment, and, invariably, girls condemned when they did. There is still a strong double standard, especially in this age group, that reduces the likelihood that sex, for a girl, is going to feel like an empowered act. Even if she feels empowered doing it, she's unlikely to feel that way afterward, when word gets around.

"If a guy's having sex it's like, oh, who cares," said one eighth-grade girl. "But if a girl is, it's like, oh, she's a slut, she's a 'ho, she's nasty."

"Nasty" was a word I heard a lot. So was "dirty" -- usually used to describe girls who were sexually active or who were suspected of sexual activity, and occasionally used as a way of labeling the boys who pressed girls. "Dirty," of course, has always had a sexual connotation -- "dirty old man" being the obvious example -- but lately it has acquired a rawer, more literal meaning. Fundamentally, these days, "dirty" means a girl who is suspected of being diseased; likewise, "clean" is a word I heard a lot applied to girls (and, occasionally, boys) who are not having sex and are therefore deemed to be, well, clean.

It made me wonder whether there might be some collateral damage from the war on AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; whether heightened awareness of disease -- one of the great differences between the sexual climate of the '70s and that of today -- might have had some unintended consequences. "We have had a public health/public relations strategy in this country for some time that emphasized not only an erroneously high impression of risk, but that further suggested the universality of risk to all sectors of the population, regardless of their circumstance or specific sexual behaviors," says anthropologist David Murray, pointing out that in this country the risk of heterosexual transmission of AIDS -- for example -- has sometimes been greatly exaggerated.

"This emphasis has had several very deleterious consequences, not least being the near-hysteria that has sometimes been occasioned in sex education settings."

I wondered whether, as a result, some kids might be overestimating the risk of infection. And whether they were using the information as a way of labeling others, of casting aspersions and besmirching reputations in a way that hurts girls (as matters of sexual reputation usually do) more than boys. I wondered, too, whether our new risk-awareness may be leading boys, particularly older ones, to hit on eighth-graders: Could it be that they think a good way of practicing safe sex is to practice sex on a girl who hasn't had it before?

Which is not to say that girls aren't disease-conscious, too. They are. Indeed, it's difficult, I think, to exaggerate the impact that images of disease have had on the mind of any adolescent: To a teenager, the notion of childbearing may seem remote, but the possibility of being, like, gross and smelly and contaminated is easy to comprehend. One day I sat in a sex-ed session where the counselor asked a group of eighth-grade girls to identify the sexually transmitted diseases they knew about; there was hardly one they hadn't heard of.

"Gonorrhea!" they shouted.



"Shlamidia or something!"

"No, chlamydia!"

Though the group was already well-versed, the counselor proceeded to show flip charts of every so-called social disease imaginable: detailed medical drawings of diseased genitalia, rendered with careful attention to ethnic diversity. What was really striking was that, with each new condition, some girl in the group would become convinced that she had it.

When conversation turned to pubic lice, for example, the counselor told them that it's possible to get lice from toilets, and bedding, and even the clothing of other people. Which was all the encouragement the group needed. "There's this girl who used to go to school here," one of the group said, alarmed. "I know now that this girl had crabs. I would let her borrow my clothes and I slept in her bed . . . Is there any way . . . I mean, whenever I got my clothes back I washed them, like, 10 times, but . . . Ooooh! I'm going to the doctor tomorrow!"

Here the girls were taking this information, and their main worry was not only that they'd caught something but they'd caught something from another female. Occasionally, girls I talked to expressed fear of catching a disease from a boy, but for the most part girls didn't seem to evaluate boys as possible disease vectors. Sexually active boys were "pretty boys" or "players," but they weren't generally regarded as infectious.

In contrast, when I talked to boys, I found that they, too, worried about disease, but seemed to worry about it mostly in terms of girls who might be disease carriers.

One day I was sitting in the food court at Wheaton Plaza talking to a group of eighth-graders, among them a boy who explained why he chose not to have sex with girls who offered. It wasn't so much a fear of getting a girl pregnant -- though that did cross his mind -- as fear of an early death brought on by ill-advised contact with a sexually experienced female like, say, any of the more forward 13-year-olds in his class.

"There are so many diseases people are dying of these days," said the boy, shuddering. "HIV, the AIDS disease, herpes." No matter that people are not, in fact, dying of herpes. This boy was convinced that danger lay everywhere around him; that evil sirens beckoned; that, like Odysseus, he'd better lash himself to the mast and sail on by them. Which is why, he said, when certain girls came up to him, or wrote him notes, offering, as some girls do, to perform this or that service, he turned them down. "If they're coming up to you, they must have been used, and they're dirty. I wouldn't do it with them. Not with a nasty, dirty girl."

Another day I had a long conversation with one couple, an eighth-grade boy and girl, both children of Salvadoran immigrants, who were notable in their peer group for the fact that they were going steady but not having sex. The girl, whose mother and aunt both have a powerful influence on her, is a determined virgin and the moral compass of the duo; the boy has had sex once, in the sixth grade, with a sixth-grade girl. When I asked him if he used a condom, he said of course; when I asked him who had the condom, he said, to my surprise, that both he and the girl had had one. What had become of the girl he had sex with? He wasn't sure; she'd moved away. Did he come under pressure to have sex with his new girlfriend? Absolutely.

"All my boys get mad at me," he said. "They're, like, `How can you be going out with this girl for so long? And you don't do anything? When are you going to break up with her?' "

When I asked him why, despite these pressures, he chose a girlfriend who set such strict ground rules, he said that the reason he liked her is because she is, to use his word, "clean."

"It's different with a clean person," he said. "She's still a virgin, and she doesn't do oral sex."

Clearly, the new attention to disease has done a lot of good. Among teens -- who are at greater risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases, mostly because they are more likely than adults to have multiple partners -- the rate of gonorrhea has gone down, though the chlamydia rate has not. But it seems to me that the emphasis on risk has had a couple of not-so-salutary effects: In addition to exacerbating, possibly, the sexual pressure on younger girls -- contributing to the stream of come-ons -- it has provided yet another way of sorting girls, setting them at odds with one another, dividing them (often with no basis in fact) between good and bad, fast and slow, virgin and whore -- and, now, "clean" and "dirty." In a subtle way, modern scare tactics have lent a new vocabulary -- even a fake veneer of legitimacy -- to ancient, pernicious stereotypes.

"Y'all are going to get diseases! Y'all are going to die!" a girl who isn't sexually active said one day, talking to two friends who are.

The girls were sitting in a circle of desks, in a classroom of an outer-county middle school. This was another session of the group I'd first encountered during a presentation on contraceptives -- the group where two-thirds of the girls admitted to having had sex. In some cases, the girls weren't admitting so much as bragging. And in this -- their outspoken sexual aggressiveness -- they are part of another relatively new phenomenon that people in the field have begun to notice: a trend of girls who openly pursue sex, brag about sex, lie about sex, boldly offer themselves as sexual objects. It's something that's taking place on all socioeconomic levels, according to Judith Mueller, executive director of the Women's Center in Vienna, who says that her counselors see more and more mothers bringing in their daughters for therapy to treat what the mothers perceive, fearfully, as "sexualized behavior."

Which, certainly, is a good term for the swaggering of several girls in this group, which was organized by one teacher, at the request of their school administration, as a way of letting the girls vent about their lives, giving them a chance to talk their way through the fights and arguments and crushes and breakups and slights and tragedies that constitute the daily life of a 13-year-old. This day, they were talking about a party that a classmate was having over the weekend. Two of the girls -- I'll call them Girl One and Girl Two -- had been plotting sexual strategies over lunch, giggling over acts such as one they called "runnin' a train" (serial sex). They were familiar with the house where the party was going to be held, and during lunch had mapped it like a battlefield: They knew that there was a closet downstairs, which would be available for sexual encounters, and a bathroom ("with a tub!"), and low shrubbery outside. They knew, too, that the mother was going to be upstairs, but reckoned that she wouldn't be coming downstairs much to check.

They estimated that there were going to be about 20 girls and 45 boys at the party, including older boys, and that "every boy is going to have to get them a piece." Some of the girls would have to service more than one boy, they figured. There would be lap dancing (where a girl gyrates in a guy's lap) and there would be freak dancing (where a guy stands behind a girl and dances close to her, his crotch against her bottom) and there would be MTV, and BET, and when the teacher asked them whether it made them nervous or not, being shut up in a closet with boys they didn't necessarily know, they found it impossible to take her seriously.

"If you don't want to do something with a guy, he's not going to do it!" Girl One declared.

When the teacher asked them if they'd heard of date rape, she said, "If something happens and a girl screams, people will hear her!"

"How did you get to be this way?" another girl asked them, amazed and appalled. Later, she looked at me and asked, sort of desperately, "What do you think of us?"

Truly, I didn't know how to answer.

As the girls were plotting their sex games, another girl -- I'll call her Girl Three -- was sitting quietly. She was one of the girls who had not had sex; earlier, she'd volunteered that she wasn't ready and wasn't interested. Moreover, she said, she was in a steady relationship with a boyfriend who didn't pressure her. She was a small girl, reserved, self-possessed, and something about her self-possession must have deeply irritated Girl One and Girl Two, because they started working on her, urging Girl Three -- who couldn't go to the party because she had to baby-sit -- to let her boyfriend go to the party without her.

"I think you should allow him to dance and have fun -- harmless dancing," one of them said.

Girl Three didn't disagree. He could go to the party. He could dance. "I'm not worried about it," she said.

The next week, I went back, curious to see what had happened at the party. It was hard to get details: Only one group member showed up for that day's session. She had gone to the party, and reported that somebody brought a 24-pack of condoms, somebody else brought a couple bottles of alcohol, but apparently the mom had checked on them more often than they'd expected; at any rate, there had been some freak dancing but then things calmed down, the boys went home and the girls went to sleep.

Something else had happened over the weekend, though. Girl Two had volunteered to perform oral sex on Girl Three's boyfriend; he had accepted and she had done it, had sabotaged Girl Three, the one whose boyfriend didn't pressure her. The teacher, who had already heard about this incident, believed that Girl Three had made the two other girls angry, and that Girl Two had set out to break the couple up.

"I told him," the teacher said, "that he lost a good girlfriend."

The sounds can be elemental at the Annandale Women and Family Center, a nurse-run health-care operation that specializes in adolescent health and also, three half-days a week, performs abortions. The day I was there, there was a woman wailing and shouting during her abortion -- "Out, out!" it sounded like she was saying -- and a nurse was gently saying, to a woman on a gurney, "It's time to wake up!" About a third of the center's abortion clients are teenagers; one, pres-ent that day, was a high school senior who described herself as pro-life. She had given speeches against abortion in her high school, she said, but then she had gotten pregnant and there was no steady boyfriend and, well, here she was.

I was there in part because I was interested in the ways states are attempting to regulate abortions performed on minors. In Virginia, as in many states, there is now a law saying that girls under 18 must notify at least one parent before having an abortion. When a girl calls up, the receptionist must now ask how old she is; if she is under 18, the receptionist tells her that she must be accompanied by a parent, or have a signed letter from a parent indicating knowledge of the girl's intent. At some clinics, the receptionist might also point out that the letter doesn't have to be notarized. A girl can interpret this as she wishes. There is no law that says the clinic has to verify the letter she provides.

As it is, however, the law may be more symbolism than substance. Gail Frances, the nurse-practitioner who founded and owns the Annandale center and its Maryland branch, Cygma Health Center, says that most teenagers who come for abortions do arrive with a parent and that the youngest often arrive with both, and that this was true before the law took effect. There was the military father, for example, who called up and wanted to know if he could make an appointment for that day; when he brought his daughter in, he insisted that she was only a couple weeks pregnant but the sonogram showed that she was really several months along. This is common: Kids tell their parents they've only missed one period, when in fact they've missed three. Another day, the abortion was for a 12-year-old girl who also had been brought by her father. They had recently immigrated; before their illegal crossing, worried that she might be raped by a border guide, he had shaved her head to make her look like a boy. It hadn't worked, the anguished father said. He was hoping never to have to tell the girl's mother, who hadn't yet joined them in this country.

I was also there simply to talk to Gail about adolescence, about the kids the clinic sees for ordinary medical appointments, to find out how she advises parents to talk to their kids about sex. Gail, who gives seminars on the topic, is a big advocate of being very explicit with kids; of being precise about terms even at an early age, using words like "vagina" and "uterus" so kids won't grow up thinking precise terms are dirty. As part of the center's outreach, staff members sometimes put kids in one room and parents in another, and inevitably get a "totally different story" from parents and kids about what the kids know and do and wonder about. I'd heard about this technique from other researchers, who say that often when parents are asked whether they talk to their kids about sex, they say "yes." When the kids are asked the same question, they say "no."

Gail and her staff are part of a vast, ideologically conflicted complex of advocates who are trying to help kids in this age group, an agglomeration of teachers, coaches, guidance counselors and church leaders -- liberals and conservatives who, for all their strong differences, are alike in their goal of discouraging sex among young teens. Everybody, basically, is for abstinence. The question is how you get there and what you do when that mission fails. They divide themselves, you could say, along a continuum between idealism and pragmatism: idealists being people who believe that young people really can be scared out of having sex and pragmatists being people who believe in dealing with whatever the kids are doing, or might be doing, or someday will do.

"Even if your child is not doing it, if your child is not even thinking about it, you have to realize that your child is still in school with children who are doing it and thinking about it and talking about it," says sexuality counselor Krystal Holland-McKinney. "There are kids who are in the schools French-kissing and touching each other, and your child is exposed to it. You can't hide it."

I spent a lot of time with Krystal, who is program director of Florence Crittenton Services in Silver Spring. Her organization is an offshoot of the Florence Crittenton homes, which were founded in the 19th century for "fallen and betrayed" (which is to say, pregnant) girls. Reinvented for the new millennium, the Silver Spring branch still offers services to teen mothers, but also conducts 30-week "life skills and comprehensive sexuality education" programs in public schools -- sexuality education being a more marketable term than "pregnancy prevention." In the beginning weeks, girls are coached in self-esteem and encouraged to explore their own personalities; the conversations then turn to their relationship with others. Not until spring does the course address sex.

I found Krystal's way with kids to be impressive and instructive. Rather than simply delivering information, she tends to ask a lot of questions: frank, sympathetic, sometimes rapid-fire questions that respect kids' intelligence, avoid judging and encourage them to think situations through. Once, for example, I saw her talking to a 13-year-old girl. The girl, pale and chubby, with long colorless hair that she tended to play with nervously, was in a mall, on a field trip with her sex-ed group. During lunch, she had managed to strike up a conversation with an older guy, a stranger, at a nearby table. Krystal neatly ended that interaction by sliding her lunch tray next to the girl. She almost immediately found out that the girl had what might delicately be called "home issues." The girl, who was white, was going out with an older black guy, and her mother had told her that if she became pregnant by a black man, "she would pull the baby out and stomp it on the ground."

Krystal, who is black, said, "Has your mother had experience with black men that would lead her to think that way?"

"Do you feel badly, the way she talks about black people?"

"Is your dad around?"

"Does he feel the same way?"

"How do you think you will be with your own children?"

As Krystal listened, the girl started talking vaguely about moving out of her house and in with her boyfriend. "If it ends," Krystal asked her, "what will you do then? Where will you go?"

Another time, I watched Krystal working with a group of high school boys who had been brought by their coach. Amazingly, it is rare that anybody pays much attention to boys; there are few sexuality programs for boys, apart from basic health-class sex-ed. This day, Krystal arrived with a game in which she tossed cards with words on them like "vagina" and "testicles" and "fallopian tube" and "semen" on the table and encouraged the boys to pair up the words and explain why they had paired them. She also talked about relationships, asking them if they'd ever had a girl tell them she was pregnant.

"Oh NO!" the boys said, collapsing with laughter.

If a girl said that, Krystal asked them, "what do you think she wants?"

"Some money," said one boy.

"Some support," said another.

She agreed that some girls aren't trustworthy, that some girls sleep around, but if you don't know a girl well enough to know whether she's serious when she says she's pregnant, Krystal wanted to know, "then should you lay down with her?"

She showed them a chart of the female anatomy, saying things like, "Does everyone know what the cervix is?" and then she showed them how the vagina works. To make it really clear she stood up, positioning her own body next to the drawing, and said, "If this is me standing sideways, see how my vagina goes toward the back?" The boys nodded, transfixed: Here was a lady revealing to them the world's greatest mystery. "Do you know how deep a vagina is?"

The boys didn't.

"It's only three or four inches," she said, explaining that sex, therefore, can be very painful for a girl or woman if it goes too fast; or if she doesn't want it; or if she's scared; or if her brain is sending stress messages to her body; but that if a boy proceeds slowly, and gently, the vagina can relax and enlarge.

"So you have to ease up," one of them said.

"That's right," Krystal said.

Afterward, I asked her if there was any way to identify why some young kids have sex and others don't. It's hard, she said. "You can't look at a child and say, `She's not involved in any of that, she knows where her head is and she knows what her goals are and she's not going to have sex now.' " But she does think certain kinds of kids are more likely candidates for sex: a child who is hanging around with other kids having sex; a child who has a lot of free time and overworked parents and little supervision; or a child "who doesn't have a strong, healthy relationship with at least one parent, where they can talk about what's on their mind and what they're dealing with."

During the time that I'd spent with Krystal and others, it became clear how much the complexity of adult lives affects children. So often, it seemed that a girl who was having sex or was on the verge of giving in to pressure came from a home with a single parent, or a home in some state of emotional chaos. In particular, it struck me that girls who came up to their counselors with really complex, adult-type problems -- like one sweet-looking 13-year-old, who approached one counselor to mention that her boyfriend had a baby by a girl who lived in another state, and she'd urged him to stay in contact with the mother of this child but he wasn't really interested, and did the counselor think she should continue going out with him? -- were girls who did not live with their own fathers, often girls having problems with stepdads. This was purely an impression. Nothing systematic. But the prophylactic importance of the father is, I think, too often ignored: One study, published last year, indicated that a girl who has a close relationship with her father may actually, physically, come into puberty later than a girl who doesn't. Researchers don't know why this happens, but speculate that not having a father around may create stress that pushes a girl into early sexual maturity.

"Parents today discount how important they are to their children and how much their children look to them for values," says Kristin Moore, president of the research group Child Trends, who recommends talking to kids about sex not once but often; talking to boys as well as girls; and being specific. What good, after all, does it do to say to your kid, "Be careful"? Does that mean go to a clinic? Carry a condom? Watch out for predators? Walk on the sidewalk and not in the street?

"I told her that it's very hard getting a job without a high school degree. We went through the whole thing. I said, `If you ever decide to have sex, I won't be happy with your decision; however, I have to support your decision.' I got her as much information as I could about disease. We talked about condoms, about using it always. That if you ever decide you are ready to have sex, all I ask is that you tell me first. And what did she do? She had sex and didn't tell me!"

This is one mother talking. I'll call her Big D, and I'll call her daughter Little D. The daughter, who is 16, wouldn't mind having her name in the paper, because that's another thing about kids these days -- kids will talk with strangers about sex, they'll talk with reporters, and often they are willing to use their names because, hey, the kids on "Real World" have sex and use their names -- but the mother, Big D, says no, don't use your name.

They are sitting at a round kitchen table. It is a Saturday morning, early, rainy. The girl is thin, and tall, with wide eyes and hair pulled back in a ponytail; Big D is looking at her fondly. They say they have a great relationship. They talk all the time. Big D is a strict mother, too strict, Little D thinks. She won't let Little D have a pager. She won't let Little D go to a lot of parties. She watches the clothes that Little D wears, and intervenes if she thinks they're too revealing. She gets up early in the morning to go to work, but she always talks to her daughter over breakfast, and she makes sure somebody is there after school. She does everything she can think of. But two years ago, Little D started getting some attention from a guy. An older guy. For three months she resisted. The boy was cute. All the girls were after him. Suddenly, she had a new social cachet! Eventually she had sex with him. She didn't tell her mom. Her friends told her not to tell. "Your friends!" says Big D now.

She didn't like those friends. And

it turns out that, because of them, she didn't know what was happening; didn't know that her little girl had sex, and then sat up afterward, and said to the boy, "That's it? That's all? I could have waited!"

"What do you mean?" the boy asked.

"It wasn't all that!" she told him.

"You just weren't into it!" he said.

"I was into it!" she said. "It wasn't all that!"

Big D laughs now, despite herself. It was the next boy she caught. One night, she was sitting downstairs and heard some rustling, and she didn't know what it was, but before she went to bed she checked on Little D, as she always does, and there the boy was, in bed with her daughter! He had climbed in through the window! Big D went for the boy, who jumped out the window before he even had a chance to pull his pants up. The next day, she called in reinforcements: Little D's grandmother called her, and her aunt came over, and Big D also made an appointment to have Little D checked by a doctor and tested for AIDS, venereal disease, the whole nine yards. "I'm concerned about pregnancy, but I'm more concerned about AIDS," Big D admits. "You have options with pregnancy. You don't have options with AIDS."

In other words, she has talked, she has done everything. Has it helped? Maybe. Does it matter that Little D doesn't have a father living with her to beat the boys away with a stick? Maybe. The only clear thing is that a girl these days better have a strong inner compass, because the wider culture isn't going to give her one; the pull of peer pressure can be as strong as a riptide. "All I can do is keep talking," Big D figures; today, for example, they are going to talk about Little D's new boyfriend, with whom she is considering having sex. Sitting there looking at her, so beloved by her mother, I think: New boy makes three. How many boys does it take before you go from being thought of as one sort of girl to being thought of as another? As it happens, Little D says, recently a new boy moved in to their school and some ex-friends of hers told him some things about her, and when she called him up he told her what the ex-friends said. That she has a disease. Which isn't true.

"I was, like: `Think about this!' " Little D says, sitting there at the table, outraged. " `Think about what they're saying. Why would they tell you something like that about me? You know they don't like me. Have you ever seen me talking to them?' I'm, like, `Why would I give that to anybody?' He was, like, `Where I'm from girls will do that.' I'm, like, `Girls will do that, I don't care where they're from, but I wouldn't do that.' He was, like, `Well, I don't know.' "

"I feel bad for her," Big D says. "I told her, people are always going to be saying something. You can't beat yourself up. You have to persevere."

Little D points out, plaintively: "And I only wanted to be friends."

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