We’ve heard it so often that it seems like common sense: there’s no stopping teenagers from having sex. But a new poll conducted by Seventeen magazine and the Ms. Foundation gives ample reason for doubt. Entitled “Teenagers Under Pressure,” the survey of a thousand 13- to 21-year-olds found that an overwhelming 81 percent of the girls who had already had sex wished they’d waited until they were older. So did 60 percent of the boys.
Why didn’t they wait? Seventy-six percent of the girls said that they and their friends have sex primarily because they want to please their boyfriends; 58 percent of the boys agreed. The poll suggests that many teenage girls are hesitant—but have trouble justifying their reluctance. They simply seem dazed and confused about sex, far indeed from the worldliness that they often put on display. But whereas hesitant girls might once have had the full weight of adult society behind their “no,” today the message is considerably more ambiguous.
Indeed, to judge by our popular culture—the ultimate arbiter of taste and manners for many teens—the sexual naif is a loser. In a recent episode of E.R., last season’s top-rated TV show, glamor boy Doug greets his recently separated friend’s admission that his wife had been his only partner with a torrent of laughter. Dr. Joyce Brothers notes that in the past, sexually active college students would seek counseling, believing they had a problem. “Now virgins are coming, fearing there’s something wrong with them because everyone else is active.”
It’s not easy for youngsters to find moral guidance in a society that glamorizes sexual freedom. Sex educators talk about “decision-making skills” and “waiting until you’re ready”—vague notions unlikely to steel kids against the influence of their peers and pop culture. Parents find it difficult to instill a sense of right and wrong that is profoundly at odds with prevailing mores—especially when they themselves place a premium on sexual liberation. The notion that teen sex is inevitable seems less a matter of common sense than the rationalization of a culture gone astray.