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The change from child to adult is an especially dangerous time for adolescents in our society. 

From their earliest years, children watch television shows and movies that insist that "sex appeal" is a personal quality that people need to develop to the fullest.  Teenagers are at risk -- not only from AIDS and STDs -- but from this sort of mass-market encouragement.

Sexual content is regularly marketed to younger children, pre-teens, and teens and this affects young people's sexual activity and beliefs about sex.  According to the fact sheet, Marketing Sex to Children, from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, children are bombarded with sexual content and messages:

  • In 2003, 83% of the episodes of the top 20 shows among teen viewers contained some sexual content, including 20% with sexual intercourse
  • 42% of the songs on the top CDs in 1999 contained sexual content -- 19% included direct descriptions of sexual intercourse
  • On average, music videos contain 93 sexual situations per hour, including eleven "hard core" scenes depicting behaviors such as intercourse and oral sex
  • Girls who watched more than 14 hours of rap music videos per week were more likely to have multiple sex partners and to be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease
  • Before parents raised an outcry, Abercrombie and Fitch marketed a line of thong underpants decorated with sexually provocative phrases such as "Wink Wink" and "Eye Candy" to 10-year-olds
  • Neilsen estimates that 6.6 million children ages 2-11 and 7.3 million teens ages 12-17 watched Justin Timberlake rip open Janet Jackson's bodice during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.  

TV, movies, and music are not the only influences -- the Internet provides teens with seemingly unlimited access to information on sex as well as a steady supply of people willing to talk about sex with them.  Teens may feel safe because they can remain anonymous while looking for information on sex.  Sexual predators know this and manipulate young people into online relationships and, later, set up a time and place to meet.

Teens don't need a sexual predator to introduce them to online pornography.  It comes to them through porn spam on their e-mail or by inadvertently clicking on a link to a porn site.  Through pornography, young people get a twisted view of what constitutes normal relationships.  In fact, pornography is directly related to sexual abuse, rape, and sexual violence.

Just as sexual preferences are learned behavior, most or all sexual deviations are also learned behaviors, with pornography having the power of conditioning into sexual deviancy.  Pornography can be addictive, with the individual becoming desensitized to 'soft' porn and moving on to dangerous images of bondage, rape, sadomasochism, torture, group sex and violence.

At the very least, addiction to pornography destroys relationships by dehumanizing the individual and reducing the capacity to love.  At worst, some addicts begin to act out their fantasies by victimizing others, including children and animals.

Teens also have their own cultural beliefs about what is normal sexual behavior.  Although most teenage girls believe that sex equals love, other teens -- especially boys -- believe that sex is not the ultimate expression of the ultimate commitment, but a casual activity and minimize risks or serious consequences.  That is, of course, what they see on TV.  The infrequent portrayals of sexual risks on TV, such as disease and pregnancy, trivialize the importance of sexual responsibility.

Other misconceptions include:

  • all teens are having sex
  • having sex makes you an adult
  • something is wrong with an older teen (17-19) who is not having sex
  • a girl can't get pregnant if she's menstruating
  • a girl can't get pregnant if it's her first time
  • you are a virgin as long as you don't have sexual intercourse -- oral sex doesn't count

Clearly, parents are in a tough spot.  But there are some key ideas that help make sense of things.

Teenagers should learn the facts about human reproduction, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases.  Of the over 60 million people who have been infected with HIV in the past 20 years, about half became infected between the ages of 15 and 24.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 25% of sexually active teenagers get a sexually transmitted disease (STD) every year, and 80% of infected teens don’t even know they have an STD, passing the diseases along to unsuspecting partners.  When it comes to AIDS, the data is even more chilling -- of the new HIV infections each year, about 50% occur in people under the age of 25.

Young people need to know that teens who are sexually active and do not consistently use contraceptives will usually become pregnant and have to face potentially life-altering decisions about resolving their pregnancy through abortion, adoption, or parenthood.  

Health classes and sex education programs in the schools typically present information about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy risk, and contraception.  However, evidence shows that traditional sex education, as it has been offered in the United States, increases sexual knowledge, but has little or no effect on whether or not teens engage in sex or use contraception.

Parents, too, need to know important information, such as the younger the age of first sexual intercourse, the more likely that the experience was coercive, and that forced sexual intercourse is related to long-lasting negative effects.

The following is all related to later onset of sexual intercourse:

  • Having better educated parents
  • Supportive family relationships
  • Parental supervision
  • Sexually abstinent friends
  • Good school grades
  • Attending church frequently

The challenge for any person is to make sense of facts in ways that are meaningful in life -- in ways that help them think and make wise choices.  Schoolroom lessons leave much to be desired in this regard.

Commitments and values differ so widely in society that schools cannot be very thorough or consistent in their treatment of moral issues.  According to a growing body of research, parents and religious beliefs are a potent one-two combination when it comes to influencing a teen’s decisions about whether or not to have sex.

    Parents can best help their teens from becoming sexually active by:

  • maintaining a warm and loving relationship with their children
  • letting teens know that they are expected to abstain from sex until marriage

(Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Family Planning Perspectives, Alan Guttmacher Institute)

Parents who are involved in their children's lives, and who confidently transmit their religious and moral values to their children, have the greatest success in preventing risky and immoral behavior.

For this reason, it is more important for teenagers to see real-life examples of people who understand and deal responsibly with their sexual natures.

Morals are not abstractions.  Morals have to do with real-life commitments to people and things that have value.  Parents and other influential adults (at school, at church, and in the community) need to show teenagers the difference between devotion and infatuation and help them make the distinction in their own hearts.
Teenagers need to understand that satisfying sexual relationships -- like other relationships -- require careful thought and wise action.


The Range of Teenage Sexual Behavior

It is important for parents to understand what is "normal" sexual behavior in children and teenagers, and which behaviors might signal that a child is a victim of sexual abuse, or acting in a sexually aggressive manner towards others.


  • Sexually explicit conversations with peers
  • Obscenities and jokes within cultural norm
  • Sexual innuendo, flirting and courtship
  • Interest in erotica
  • Solitary masturbation
  • Hugging, kissing, holding hands
  • Foreplay, (petting, making out, fondling) and mutual masturbation: Moral, social or familial rules may restrict, but these behaviors are not abnormal, developmentally harmful, or illegal when private, consensual, equal, and non-coercive.
  • Monogamist intercourse: Stable monogamy is defined as a single sexual partner throughout adolescence. Serial monogamy indicates long-term (several months or years) involvement with a single partner which ends and is then followed by another

Although many of these are not necessarily outside the range of behavior exhibited in teen peer groups, some evaluation and response is desirable in order to support healthy and responsible attitudes and behavior.

  • Sexual preoccupation/anxiety (interfering in daily functioning)
  • Pornographic interest
  • Polygamist sexual intercourse/promiscuity -- indiscriminate sexual contact with more than one partner during the same period of time.
  • Sexually aggressive themes/obscenities
  • Sexual graffiti (especially chronic and impacting individuals)
  • Embarrassment of others with sexual themes
  • Violation of others' body space
  • Pulling skirts up/pants down
  • Single occurrence of peeping, exposing with known peers
  • Mooning and obscene gestures


  • Compulsive masturbation (especially chronic or public)
  • Degradation/humiliation of self or others with sexual themes
  • Attempting to expose others' genitals
  • Chronic preoccupation with sexually aggressive pornography
  • Sexually explicit conversation with significantly young children

Illegal behaviors defined by law

  • Obscene phone calls, voyeurism, frottage, exhibitionism, sexual harassment
  • Touching genitals without permission (e.g., grabbing, goosing)
  • Sexually explicit threats (verbal or written)
  • Sexual contact with significant age difference (child sexual abuse)
  • Forced sexual contact (sexual assault)
  • Forced penetration (rape)
  • Genital injury to others
  • Sexual contact with animals (bestiality)

    NOTE:  Bestial porn is illegal under current federal obscenity codes.  Bestiality is specifically illegal in 30 states.  Animal abuse/cruelty laws have been and can be used in all states.  In other words, there are NO states where bestiality is legal.

Information provided by Missouri Division of Family Services.
More Information on Teen Sexual Behavior
Teen Sexual Behavior:  Issues and Concerns


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