Sex, self-esteem and young teens

There’s a troubling gender gap emerging on the adolescent sexual scene; it’s almost as troubling as the consequences

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“It was a big thing at my middle school, especially in grade seven and eight,” says Alana Moralis* of Hamilton.

She’s not talking about smoking, skipping school, or extreme low-rise jeans. Alana’s referring to oral sex — an increasingly common practice among 12- and 13-year-olds in middle schools, junior highs and even elementary schools across the country. It’s disturbing enough that children are engaging in sex — oral or otherwise — much more at younger ages than previous generations.

According to the 2002 Canadian Youth, Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Study, which surveyed more than 11,000 Canadian adolescents, almost a third of grade-nine students have had oral sex, with a quarter of the boys and a fifth of the girls admitting to engaging in intercourse, often without protection.

“But there’s a double standard,” says Alana, now 16. “The girls who were sexually active were not the popular girls, not the best looking. But the guys who were sexually active had lots of friends and had that whole sports-team profile going for them.”

Recent research corroborates Alana’s observation. Children engaging in sex at very young ages tend to be girls with low self-esteem and, conversely, boys with high self-esteem. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, Statistics Canada reported in 2005 that girls whose self-image was weak at ages 12 and 13 were more likely than girls with a strong self-image to have had sexual intercourse by the time they were 14 or 15. However, the opposite was true for boys.

“That sounds right to me,” says Kyle Jones,* 14, of Barrie, Ont. “A guy who’s confident can get girls, and the insecure girls are the easiest to get.” Of course, researchers who survey people about their sex lives can’t verify the information, and a study that asks kids about their self-image may seem particularly nebulous, since a seventh-grader’s self-esteem can soar and plummet like a roller coaster.

Even the term “self-esteem” is imprecise, struggling to encompass a person’s perceptions of acceptance, belonging, competence and confidence. Still, by any name (self-worth or self-image), self-esteem’s long been touted as a factor in how we make life decisions. And experts agree with the findings of these sex surveys. “From my experience, it’s true that girls who have early sexual experiences tend to have low self-esteem,” says Meg Hickling, a Vancouver-based registered nurse, sexual health educator and author. “The girls may come from dysfunctional homes or have sexual abuse in their history. Or they may just not have the confidence to stand up to pressure from the boys. They may be trying to gain some prestige from having a boyfriend, to make them feel more worthwhile.”

As for the boys who are having sex early, Hickling says that high self-esteem doesn’t necessarily mean healthy self-esteem.

“These boys may be physically mature — captain of the football team or whatever — but not emotionally mature. There may be an aura of entitlement: ‘I’m so wonderful that no girl could ever refuse me.’ But the girls tell me they feel exceedingly used by the boys.”

Couldn’t it be that some young girls and boys truly enjoy having sex? Hickling doesn’t think so.”In my 30-year career, I have never met a young teenage girl who was really enjoying sex. Most aren’t having orgasms, and half the time they’re not even aroused.”

And what about boys? “There’s some satisfaction for boys, but they know these are not good relationships. They’re secretly embarrassed, and when they talk to me about it they often bury their heads in their hands.”

Young teens with hormones in overdrive may not fully understand the repercussions until years later. Jim Raymore* of Bradford, Ont., was a 14-year-old in ninth grade when he had his first sexual experience with a 16-year-old girl in grade 11 who initiated the encounter. He doesn’t regret it, but today, 10 years later and newly married, he says: “Her parents had recently divorced and she might have been going through a rough time. But she was the one who called the shots in our relationship. I was kind of like her pet.”

They dated for four months before she dumped him, which left him feeling hurt and betrayed. “But after that, I was on a rampage. I could get any girl I wanted.” Raymore acknowledges that he may have been used and went on to use others. “Lots of girls regretted that I was their first. I ran into one girl a year after a one-night stand and she threw a drink at me.” Just as with previous generations, while the social stock of sexually active boys may rise, that of the girls may plunge.

“The girls are labelled sluts, but people say the guys are just being guys, just having fun,” says Alana Moralis. “It’s ironic — in middle school when a girl does it with a guy, often the next day the guy ignores her or mistreats her.”

Shades of the old “stud” and “slut” reputations? It would seem little has changed since the school days of these kids’ grandparents but, in fact, there’s been one major difference — the dramatic increase in sexually transmitted infections. Children who have intercourse by age 13 are more than twice as likely to report a sexually transmitted infection as those who delayed having sex until they were older.

Furthermore, studies show that Canadian students’ sexual knowledge is lower today than it was in the late ’80s. (It’s astounding, considering that kids are being raised in a society rife with sexual images and innuendo.) According to Hickling, we need to clearly explain there are four types of sex — vaginal, oral, anal and digital — so kids don’t dismiss blow jobs or fingering as “no big deal.”

Elicia Loiselle, Ottawa health educator with the national office of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (formerly Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada), is concerned that ignorance of sexual risks could cause lasting harm to young teens.

“Oral sex in grade school is on the rise, but a lot of kids don’t know that you can get gonorrhea and chlamydia in the throat, or that you can pass oral herpes on to another person’s genitals, or that even with oral sex, a girl can get pregnant if the boy ejaculates anywhere near her genitals.”

Most parents and health educators would agree that early sexual activity should be discouraged, including Loiselle. However, she’s reluctant to say that sex at a certain minimum age is OK. “An 18-year-old could be in just as unhealthy a sexual relationship as a 12-year-old,” she says. “Instead of urging teens to delay sex to a specific age, I’d rather focus on a person’s feelings of self-worth, individual readiness and how to make informed choices.” Lynn DuMaurier* of Newmarket, Ont., would agree. She was 14 when she first had sex with her 18-year-old boyfriend.

“We’d been together two months, and I was ready,” says DuMaurier, now 20. “But there’s a difference between losing your virginity to somebody you’re in a relationship with, and just sleeping with anybody. I know lots of girls whose first experience was not a good one, with a guy they didn’t know well, and then they continued to have sex with other boyfriends whether they wanted to or not. But after my boyfriend and I did it, we were together for five months, and we only did it a couple of times altogether.”

That was the informed choice of a girl who respected herself and continued to have a healthy self-image. These grounded girls are more likely to stay involved with family, friends, schoolwork and extracurricular activities, such as sports and music, and they’re less likely to have sex too early and in unhealthy ways that put them at both physical and emotional risk.

But what about boys with high self-esteem? As Rhonda Katz, a Toronto family therapist and mother of an adolescent son and daughter, says: “Is our conclusion that we have to browbeat our sons and elevate our daughters? No.” However, she adds that parents should guard against their very confident sons becoming cocksure with little regard for those they may trample in their paths. Plus, it’s important for boys to have male role models, who treat women with respect. “We have to teach our sons, especially those alpha males — the ones who are taller, hairier, more muscular, with deeper voices — to respect girls and never take advantage of them through drugs, alcohol, manipulation or coercion.”

Parents may underestimate the enormous influence they have over their children’s choices, even in the face of unrelenting peer pressure and media influence. In fact, Katz says kids often secretly wish their parents would talk to them more about sex — not just about the mechanics, but the more complicated issues. When parents opt out of these talks, they may unwittingly give kids the message that sex isn’t important, or mom and dad don’t care or are content to let kids figure it out for themselves. Whether you want your children to wait until their late teens, adulthood or marriage before having sex, it’s crucial to make your wishes and values clear, then tell them you hope they make the right decision for themselves.

“Tell them sex is wonderful when there’s trust and commitment and no risk of sexually transmitted infections,” Katz says. “If you can help them feel competent and special and to know themselves, then they’ll know when they’re ready.” Beyond the birds and bees

Much as we’d like to, we can’t control our children’s sex lives. What we can do, though, is help them make wise decisions for themselves. Here’s how:

Seize opportunities to discuss healthy sexual relationships. If your child leaves the room every time you try to discuss sex, wait till the two of you are in the car on a nice long drive, where you have a captive audience.

Monitor all high-risk behaviours. There’s a strong link between smoking, alcohol and early sexual intercourse.

Emphasize healthy relationships, whether sexual or not. Both girls and boys need to know that their own feelings matter, and so do other people’s.

Keep encouraging a positive self-concept in your child even if she’s sexually active. According to a US study, girls with a stronger self-image communicate better with their partners and are more likely to refuse unwanted or unprotected sex.

Help your child develop and work towards goals. One study suggests looking forward to a hopeful future is the best protection, for girls, against having sex too early and risking unwanted pregnancy.

*Names changed by request.

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