A friend recently alerted me to a disturbing Teen Vogue article that is best described as an explicit “how-to guide” on anal sex for adolescents. In the piece, sex educator Gigi Engle uses dehumanizing language at times (like “vagina owner” for adolescent girls) to paint a positive picture of a sexual activity the CDC says is the highest risk sexual behavior for HIV for men and women. To be fair, the article was “recently updated” to emphasize the necessity of condoms because “STIs are widespread and abundant.” Engle concludes the piece by telling adolescents that anal sex is “awesome” and “if you want to give it a go, you do that. More power to you.”
Teen Vogue is obviously targeting the general content of its magazine toward sexually active teens—many, who, let’s face it, have been exposed to online pornography from a young age. In the magazine’s view, if teens are doing it, considering doing it, or being pressured by a partner to do it, then the responsible thing is to give them all the tools they need to do so as safely as possible. It’s a common argument we often hear in sex education disputes.
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But this vision of young people ignores the majority who are not sexually active. These young women and men are swimming against the cultural tide that says everyone they know is “hooking up” and that even the highest-risk behaviors are acceptable, as long as they are done “right” and the person is willing. It also ignores the overwhelming majority of teens who express support for postponing sex, along with a desire for more encouragement for that decision.
Instead of giving them that support, content like this Teen Vogue article leaves teens with the mistaken impression that most of their peers are sexually active, which, as a recent Harvard study found, can put a lot of pressure on young people. Richard Weissbourd, the study’s lead author, told ABC News, “these overestimations of the size of the hook-up culture can cause young people to have sex or to hook up when they’re not really interested, and they’re not really ready.”
Last month, the CDC’s National Centers for Health Statistics (NCHS) released its latest report on teen sexual activity and contraceptive use, which is based on data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). Not surprisingly, the news that more sexually active teens today are using contraception generated a good bit of media attention. One headline from CNN read, “Teens Are Still Having Sex, Most Use Contraception.”
But the NCHS report also tells us that teens who have not yet had sexual intercourse make up well over 50% of the teen population (57.6% of teen girls and 55.8% of teen boys), similar to the “levels seen in 2002 and 2006-2010.”
In terms of overall trends, as the figure below indicates, the percentage of teen girls “who had ever had sexual intercourse” fell from 51.1% in 1988 to 42.4% in the most recent survey, and for boys it declined from 60.4% to 44.2% (there was a slight increase for boys between 2006-2010 and 2011-2015, but the NCHS says the change was “not significant”). The report also notes, “This pattern across recent decades sheds light on the contribution of sexual activity to the pattern of decline in the teen birth rate in similar time periods.”
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