Teenagers have tough choices to make about sexand they're making them. Research tells us that 38% of teenage girls and 45% of boy have had intercourse by age 15; two-thirds of 15 to 19-year old boys have experienced oral sex, anal intercourse, or masturbation by a female; and then there's virginity. Most teen virgins keep their choice on the down-under, but those who take "the virginity pledge"much-touted by the Southern Baptist Church and several teen magazinespostpone first-time intercourse for an average of 18 months.
Those are the facts. But whats really up with the sex lives of high school kids? How do they deal with the pressures and perils, the agonies and the ecstasies of being young, sexual, and exploring? I spent the 99-00 school year following three seniors through their last year at Berkeley High in California, in my book Class Dismissed. Two of those seniors were Autumn and Jordan, two very different teenagers facing some very similar, life-altering decisions, as detailed in the following excerpt.
"Were the Berkeley High peer sex educators. And were here to drop some info on you." One adult counselor from the schools health center and four students who get class credit for volunteering there are lined up in front of forty gigglingly attentive Berkeley High seniors.
"Im Katie," says one of the peer educators, a lesbian whos a member of Berkeley Highs Gay-Straight Alliance. "Did you know that two-thirds of teenagers are sexually active by the end of high school? Did you know that only half of those kids use condoms? And that thirteen young people in the U.S. are diagnosed with HIV every five minutes? Were not assuming youre sexually active, but we want to make sure that if you are, you stay safe."
Katie turns to Mr. Richards and Ms Crawford. "Im gonna ask that you teachers leave the room now so we can talk privately."
As soon as the teachers are gone Katie gives the students their instructions. "If youve ever been discriminated because of your race, age or sexual orientation, walk across the room." Every teenager in the room walks, stops, looks around, walks back.
"If you or anyone you know has had sex while drunk or high." Every one of the students crosses the room.
"If you or anyone you know has had unprotected sex." Again, everyone.
"If you or anyone you know has ever questioned their sexual orientation." Some of the students giggle; fifteen others, including Autumn and Jordan, walk across the room.
Jordan is absolutely positive that hes straight, but his female friends sure arent. Lately it seems like half the girls he knows are experimenting with bisexuality: having sex with each other on Saturday nights, giggling about it with their boyfriends on Monday.
Autumn walks for the same reason: she, too, knows a lot of girls who are "questioningon the verge of bisexual." Autumn doesnt have a problem with that. Even though homosexuality is against her religionher stepfather is vocal about his opinion that its "disgusting"she believes "God will handle it." What Autumn does have a problem with is her peers double standards: "Everyone thinks its okay for girls but not for guys," she says. "I hear people saying bad stuff about gay guys all the time. I say, "If it was two girls you wouldnt say that." They say, "Yeah, well, two girls together is okay. Two guys together is scandalous."
"Walk across the room if you feel your life has been affected by HIV." As he walks, along with Autumn and half of their classmates, a movie plays in Jordans head: the day last year when he went to get his HIV test results at the schools on-site health center, his heart pounding like a conga drum the whole way there. "I hadnt had unsafe sex. Not much, anyway. I hadnt used needles. But Id seen my moms friend dying of AIDS. Just the thought of that disease, that test is so earthshaking: this is the rest of your lifepositive or negativeon a piece of paper." When the counselor told Jordan the test was negative, he promised himself to start using condoms every time. Im still promising, he admits to himself now.
How can anyones life not be affected by AIDS? Autumn wonders, shuffling across the classroom with the others. Her mom works at a hotel in San Francisco, so naturally shes known a lot of people with AIDS. Autumn cant imagine a world without the disease, a world in which sex is not linked to death. To Autumn, AIDS is "a big problem for the world, and a serious consequence of something Ive done before and will do again. But not anytime soon," she hastens to add.
"Walk across the room if you think you or your partner might be infected with HIV." This time no one moves.