Photo by Abby Wiswall
From Grease to Superbad, high school movies have always depicted high school as a stereotype, no matter the decade. Cheerleading and geeks, school dances and football. There are certain aspects of teenage life that will never change, as the media continues to present thrill-seeking and hormonal rebels to the public image. But today’s high schoolers are growing up slower than ever: getting licenses later, spending more nights at home, and, as recent surveys suggest, having much less sex.
According to a 40-year study done by Business Outsider, only 41% of high school students in the early 2010s had penetrative sex, down 67% from the modern peak of 1991. A more recent Planned Parenthood article agrees, contending that only around half of high school students have had sex, and those who do it do not have it consistently. From a recent survey conducted of 275 of Wilson’s own students, it seems like our high school is following these trends, if not exceeding them. Only a third of the sample surveyed had ever had sex, and even less consider themselves sexually active currently.
- Red: No
- Blue: Yes
- Yellow: Maybe/Unsure
Sex itself is so ingrained in the image of high school life because teenagers are inately sexually driven and curious, as Wilson health teacher Joshua Martin explains; “It’s a natural thing that coincides with just the development through puberty and adolescence, that as puberty hits kids are struck with kind of insane doses of hormones that they’ve never had before that stimulates all this change. One of those big changes is the development and the maturing of the sexual reproductive systems of males and females, and so as those systems are developing- and the hormones are influencing this- kids are taking notice in each other the way they really have never done before.”
At the same time, our adolescent brains respond strongly to the hormone oxytocin and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which control the senses of empathy and our reward systems, responsible for the “thrill-seeking” nature that drives many illicit activities, including sex.
Throughout all generations, the newfound curiosity and hormones in teens has been consistent. The timeline hasn’t changed. Yet today, Planned Parenthood says the average teen has sex for the first time at age 17, or by the spring of 11th grade- an entire year later than Gen Xers. Why are today’s teenagers having sex later, and less often?
Nearly all of the students interviewed agreed that sex wasn’t something determined by age. Instead, most teenagers today feel like sex is something you should do when you’re comfortable with the person, and that there is consent on both ends. “And it shouldn’t be done unless they’re prepared for the emotional and physical consequences that are possible, that they’ve talked about not just what they want to do but what they would do if such and such happens,” Mr. Martin adds. But they all disagree on why the generational differences are so stark; some blame phones, some attribute it to social media. One sophomore girl, when asked why teenagers were having less sex these days, believes it stems from a single distinguishing factor: porn.
Pornography has developed from the stolen Playboys of our parents generation to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, due to the rise and ultimate take-over of the internet. Porn is easier to access than ever, through countless video streams, public websites and social media pages, and as our access to explicit content increases, so does our consumption of it. Researchers for “The Journal of Sex Research” comparing the consumption of pornography viewership between young adults of Generation Z and that of their parents generation at this age find “an increase in pornography consumption of 16 percentage points between young men in the 1970s and young men in the 2000s, and an increase of 8 percentage points between young women in the 1970s and young women in the 2000s.” While this jump is smaller than may be inferred, it is still substantial, as content like porn shapes how teenagers view and think about sex and relationships.
The ease porn provides discourages many people from putting in work and time to build a physical relationship, changing the whole environment of romantic life in high school.
Dating has also changed drastically, starting with the way people meet. Now, teenagers from different schools, cities or even states can communicate or connect over Instagram pages, Snapchat accounts, or any of the countless apps designed for such interactions. Katisyn Sweeney, a freshman, admits “I know we’re underage, but I know lots of people on whatever online dating apps there are.”
Mr. Martin, who observes a completely different dynamic in modern relationships from his own experiences as a teenager, thinks the change comes from social media. “There’s a potential for relationships to move too fast. If like all of your friends see you together and they’re like “Oh they’re so cute together, they’re in love” and it’s been like a week, or only two dates or something.”
It seems that social media, while blamed for preventing relationships, also speeds everything up- not just in terms of how people find others to be involved with, but also the intensity of those feelings, and allows for far more outside influence.
As dating is evolving, its importance in teenage life is decreasing. “I think it’s more casual in the sense that people aren’t like ‘Hey, do you want to go to a movie, and we’re gonna go do this and this after,’ it’s more like ‘I’m gonna go over to your house, and we’re gonna watch a movie and then maybe play Monopoly or something,’” Isaac James agrees. People no longer care to make elaborate plans, and formal dates are replaced by casual lunches as neither party wants to put in the awkward effort.
According to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, today’s teens are less likely to date than ever before. In 2015, a survey of high-school seniors detailed that only around 56% of them went out on dates. For the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers preceding, the number was around 85%. “Obviously like, when our parents were kids, it was all about having a boyfriend or girlfriend, but now the environment is majority hook up,” senior Fran Ierulli says.
Nowadays, there are fewer couples, fewer commitments. As junior Sammie Rosenfield puts it, “People are thirsty. People don’t want to put a lot in when they could just have something easy. Through their phones, but also just one time, no commitment. They want the rewards but none of the work.” It seems that this generation is simply unwilling to work as hard for a dating life, which means a smaller chance of developing a physical relationship- without the time to develop trust and intimacy, many teens are refraining from actual sex, despite still being active in a “hookup culture.”
Our own high school’s data can verify; out of those surveyed who have had sex at Wilson, only 57% lost their virginity with a serious partner. One time hook ups and friends with benefits are growing in popularity, and while many high schoolers claim they’re looking for love, commitment’s on the downfall.
While the dynamics of current dating have changed in the past decades, the awareness and rise of our understanding of sex has too; in Oregon, health education is required in every public school, including core topics of healthy relationships and sexuality. Modern society on a whole is also doing a better job of talking openly about what respect and consent looks like, and is calling out behavior like “locker room talk” or sexist and homophobic rhetoric that was standard in previous high school classes.
“Kids have questions, and if they don’t have an adult to talk with them honestly about it, and give them those answers, they’re going to seek out those answers somewhere else,” says Martin. “Whether that’s through their friends that don’t know any more than they do; or whether that’s through the media and the way that sex is portrayed in the media, which is unhealthy; or whether that’s through pornography, where they’re just getting really unhealthy messages about sexuality and what relationships are.”
By removing the societal taboo on sex, the pressure is somewhat alleviated as kids realized it’s a deeply personal choice, not to be determined by anyone else. “There’s a lot of people who think having those conversations endorses that type of behavior, and I think it’s the opposite. I think that the stats are showing that kids don’t feel the need to experiment if they’re not alone,” Martin says.
And he’s right: In 2016, the teen birth rate hit an all-time low, down 67% from the most modern peak of 1991. Teens today are more protected and informed on the risks of sex, leading to fewer unplanned pregnancies. With increased access to contraceptives, protection and free clinics, the teens that are having sex are able to do it safely.
Martin agrees that these are great steps forward, but he still warns teenagers not to make this kind of choice impulsively, no matter what they decide. “Because there’s so many moving parts in that dynamic, I think it’s in kids best interest if they deliberately try to take things slow, because our world moves so fast, and is set up to push things forward in a faster way. Our world is moving fast enough that it’s okay to slow down and hit the breaks a little bit and be mindful about really important decisions, even if the world doesn’t really support that.”
The following are resources, both at Wilson and national, for teens who need help with contraceptives, birth control, or relationships:
Visit Shaleem Dzon, the school registered nurse
Talk to the school social worker or counselors
Free Clinic at Cleveland High School (Open til 5:30 on Wednesdays)
Planned Parenthood Anonymous Phone Line: ROO 22422
PPS Teen Parent Services: 503-916-5858
American Pregnancy Hotline: 1-800-672-2296
For free condoms, visit the health room