The Secret Life of Teens: A Special Report

They eat. They sleep. They study. They Facebook. But what goes on when kids are out of sight? And, more importantly, what are they thinking? To find out, we asked.

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Sex

Britney Spears going without underwear; Paris Hilton making a sex tape. These are the role models our culture puts forth for young women. A 14-year-old Walter Payton College Prep student told us that she felt pressured to kiss other girls at parties because the boys they hung around with had seen similar behavior on the Internet. “They’re growing up in a hooking-up culture,” says Sharlene Azam, a Los Angeles–based journalist who interviewed 100 teen girls across the United States and Canada for her new book, Oral Sex Is the New Goodnight Kiss. “Parents don’t want to believe kids have intercourse, so the talk is usually once, in a clinical and difficult manner. For a lot of kids, where they get their information about being sexual is from the Internet and pop culture.”

It’s not that love has disappeared completely from teen relationships. It hasn’t—but, teens said, love is no longer a prerequisite for fooling around. In fact, teens said you hardly need to know a person to make out or “hook up,” a mighty term with a pretty fluid definition. When asked, teens explained that hooking up generally means doing something more than kissing—with no strings attached.

One New Trier senior, Melinda, explained that getting pregnant wasn’t socially accepted on the North Shore. She and her friends could count on one hand the number of girls they knew who’d gotten pregnant and chosen to have the baby. But that didn’t mean that kids weren’t having sex. “There is a lot, lot, lot of oral sex,” she said. Her curly hair framed her face, which looked younger than that of an 18-year-old. “I think it’s because, first, it relieves you of going all the way. Second, it finishes the job. Third, as a girl, if you are a little self-conscious, you can do things without showing off your body.”

“It’s quicker than sex,” said one 16-year-old boy, talking about oral sex. “You don’t have to take off your clothes or get too involved.” We asked another group of teens, Do the boys reciprocate? “Not as much,” said one girl, who held tightly to her boyfriend, her arms clasped around his waist.

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What role does sex education play in all of this? Nearly 80 percent of teens in our survey said their school offered it, but the message there, teens said—and it didn’t matter what area of the city or which suburb they lived in—is, Have safe sex, if you have it at all. In other words, if abstinence isn’t an option, use a condom when you have sex, and that’s that. “There has been so much emphasis on abstinence education, and when parents talk to their kids about sex, it’s very narrowly defined in the minds of both parties as intercourse,” says Azam. The problem is that at least half of the teens we talked to did not think oral sex counted as sex. What’s more, many teens didn’t seem to consider that STDs were a possible outcome.

When we asked if oral sex counts as sex, Melinda wasted no time answering the question. “You could argue it either way, but I’d say the majority of high schoolers don’t take it seriously,” she said. “It’s been around for a while, like [since] eighth grade, when that stuff started happening.”

Pressure to talk about sex—and know what you’re talking about—starts young, teens say, mainly with jokes and innuendo. “[Sex] is the undertone of every conversation,” said one Whitney Young girl, 16. And it progresses. “You need to get laid.” That’s what the friend of one 18-year-old Roosevelt High School senior told her, as if it were a badge that she needed to wear. The casual nature of it all baffled her. “[They] claim to be my best friends,” she said. “They say it’s been six months for them, or three months [since they’d had sex], and they make it seem like that’s weird.”

One 15-year-old Whitney Young student, who plans to wait until she’s older to have sex, said this: “Love is a word that I feel like, with teens, in relationships, has lost its value.”

Teen Pregnancy

In Chicago, one of every seven babies is born to a teen mother; in Illinois, in 2007, it was one in ten. These numbers make public health experts cringe: After three decades of decline (both nationally and in Illinois), the number of teen births is again growing—and so are concerns about neglect and abandonment and a continuing cycle of poverty, since many of the babies are born to low-income parents. In Chicago, an overwhelming majority—57 percent, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health—of teen mothers are African American.

Over lunch at a Thai restaurant, two juniors from Wells High School, a public school in East Ukrainian Village, talked about several of their friends who had recently become pregnant. “It’s not just our friends, it’s the whole school,” said one, 17, a shy Latina with a fresh bob. She described an environment where girls were congratulated when their baby bump began to show; how a friend had gotten pregnant just to keep a boyfriend. “Especially in my neighborhood, there is a lot of girls getting pregnant who are barely 14, 15, and it’s, like, OK.”

“Many girls don’t have a sense that they own their own bodies,” says Judith Musick, the Highland Park–based author of the seminal 1993 book Young, Poor, and Pregnant. “Maybe they don’t feel empowered enough to tell their boyfriends no or to say, ‘You have to stop now.’ They are afraid they’ll lose a boyfriend.” Musick points out that girls from financially stable families who get pregnant have more options, including abortion (one in three teen pregnancies ends in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.). But they also have a lot of reasons to avoid pregnancy. “They have good schools and all kinds of activities; there are all kinds of things that build their competence and their options as they grow up. You can’t be something else if you don’t see something else,” says Musick.

At Christopher House, an agency that provides doula services, counseling, and mentoring to teen mothers on the North Side, there was a young mother named Mary, 16. Pretty, with long brown hair, and surprisingly sure of herself, she is trying to earn enough credits to graduate from her high school on the Northwest Side and find money for diapers. On this morning, her petite arms encircled her 11-month-old chunk of a son, who bounced and giggled and waved his hands as she spoke.

“My boyfriend and I had unprotected sex, and I went for the morning-after pill the next day,” she said. “They did a test—they told me I was four weeks pregnant.” Despite the hardships, she said she loves being a mom. Her boyfriend is also 16, and they’re living with his parents. “I’ve had to grow up very fast,” she said. “But I’ve got motivation to keep going. I want to give our son a good future.”

Of course, Mary’s parents weren’t happy about it—“my mom was really disappointed”—and the wave of disapproval felt even more crushing when a favorite teacher at school said the same. But her classmates were ready with heartfelt congratulations. “Everybody wants to be your friend when you’re pregnant,” “Everybody wants to be your friend when you’re pregnant,” she said.

Beside Mary sat a sweet-faced 14-year-old from Senn High School on Chicago’s Far North Side. She is the new mother of a three-week-old. “At first, I wanted a baby. Life was boring,” she said. But then reality set in, and she realized that motherhood was no way to repair the broken relationship with her mother, so she stopped wishing for a child. After she changed her mind, she got pregnant anyway. We asked why she didn’t use birth control, and she shrugged. Now she’s living with her father, trying to go to school and learn how to be a parent—diapers, midnight feedings, and all.

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