Unless you're an adolescent male, you have already asked yourself this question, perhaps in the past few days: Is there something wrong with teen girls? Specifically, are they getting too sexy? Barely a week passes without a flash bulletin blinding us with news of another prominent preadult who is in the family way or showing off her underthings. Miley Cyrus, 15, seminaked! Jamie Lynn Spears, 16, pregnant! A bunch of Massachusetts high schoolers all having babies together! It's an epidemic!
Once the idea has taken hold, it's hard to shake off, and the fact that the presidential campaign features a pregnant 17-year-old means that the debate about teenage sexuality is growing only more heated. Girlhood sexiness seems to be everywhere: on TV shows and in movies, in advertising, in teen magazines and all over the Internet. Most disturbingly, it seems to be coming from the girls themselves: the way they dress, the way they text, the way they present themselves on Facebook and, oh, mercy, what they get up to at parties. There are whispers, stories for which the anecdotal evidence--from school counselors and child psychologists and mothers--keeps accumulating like a national pile of unwashed laundry. These suggest teen girls are getting very liberal with sexual favors, especially of the type detailed in the Starr report. In one generation, girls seem to have moved from Easy-Bake to easy virtue.
In the past four months, there have been four weighty books published on the subject, with titles like Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children and So Sexy So Soon. Most of these treatises have a similar thesis: young girls are sexually loose because they're aping behavior they see on TV or read about in magazines. And as if on cue, the media deliver a new 90210 with an oral-sex scene in the first episode; Gossip Girl comes back with billboards promoting it as MIND-BLOWINGLY INAPPROPRIATE ... and your daughter starts singing that alarmingly suggestive song about licking a lollipop.
Before we reinstitute the chastity belt, though, we might need to take a breath. There are lots of reasons to worry about adolescent girls having sex too early, ranging from serious health risks to the likelihood that they are seeking it for the wrong reasons to the impact it may have on their ability to maintain healthy future relationships. But is it the sex we're worried about or the sexiness? Is it what they do or how they look? And whose problem is this anyway?
Wasn't It Ever Thus?
Middle school counselor Julia Taylor of North Carolina had a conversation with her sixth-graders last year that worried her. "A lot of them were watching The O.C.," she says. "I just remember the show's multiple sexual partners, the cocaine use, and then at the end, they drink, they drive, they set fires, but all is well! There are never any consequences." Taylor understands the media better than many. Her sister Mary is a producer who has worked on MTV shows including My Super Sweet 16 and Spring Break. "I'm messing them up, and she's fixing them," says Mary jokingly. But Mary also suggests that if nobody were watching the shows or buying the products that are advertised on them, they wouldn't succeed. "We're not Little House on the Prairie anymore," she says. "The world is different. If parents said, 'You can't watch this,' and the ratings dropped, maybe we would change things."
Society has always had this Taylor-sisters duality in its attitude toward young women. Like steak-house owners trying to raise vegetarians, we idealize youth and sexiness but recoil if our young want to be sexy. What has complicated things recently is that girls are literally getting older younger. Their bodies are hitting physical maturity sooner, often before they are ready to deal with the issues of sexuality that go along with it. According to Jane Brown, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Twelve-to-14-year-old girls who start puberty earlier are more interested in sexual content in the media." Brown's studies found that adolescents whose media diet was rich in sexual content were more than twice as likely as others to have had sex by the time they were 16.
And yet. With the pornucopia of media at teens' disposal in the past decade and a half, on cell phones and computers as well as TVs, early-adolescent sex should be having a growth spurt. But the figures don't necessarily support one. Despite a minor increase in 2006, the rate of pregnancies among teen girls has been on a downward trend since 1991. Another indicator, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, is alarmingly high: nearly 1 in 4 girls ages 14 to 19 and nearly 1 in 2 African-American girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But this is the first year such a study has been completed, and the study doesn't separate 14-to-16-year-olds from 17-to-19-year-olds, so it's still unclear which way that trend is heading.
Other studies imply that girls, while not exactly chaste, are not behaving in ways that media reports about the hookup culture might lead us to believe. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one-third of surveyed teenagers 15 to 17 had had oral sex, and most of those were not virgins. Of teens ages 15 to 19 who had had oral sex only, two-thirds reported having had only one partner. There are plenty of people who want their daughters to wait until they get married to get it on. But failing that, many parents would prefer that their daughters have sex for the first time with someone they are in love with. Which is what the studies suggest they may be doing.
The Drip-Drip Effect
It would be naive to believe that the media are having no effect on teens and tweens. But it's much more complicated than Tracey See, Tracey Do. In the aftermath of the Gloucester pregnancy spurt, some experts spoke of a Juno effect, girls getting pregnant to emulate that movie's protagonist. Local teens scoffed at this idea. "Pregnant celebrities are no big deal," says Ashley Hill, 16, a (not pregnant) senior at Gloucester High. "Most teenagers aren't dumb. They can tell the difference between fact and fiction." Studies support her: teens are less susceptible to media firestorms that galvanize the grownups, like those set off by a famous pregnant person or a seminaked tween star. But when most outlets say the same thing, the effect can be overwhelming. "We call this the drip-drip vs. the drench effect," says Brown.