Teens Say Sex Can Wait

Julee Newberger
July 10, 2000

What if James Bond demonstrated responsible behavior by going to Planned Parenthood and seeking out birth control before having sex? What if every parent began a conversation about sex with kids when they were young, and maintained an open-door policy as kids got older? What if schools had sex education programs as thorough and engaging as those for other subjects?

According to today's teens, they might be able to make better decisions when it comes to having sex. They also might be better able to avoid unplanned pregnancy.

In a recent telephone survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, nearly two-thirds of teens who have had sex wish they had waited, and the majority of teens said they would advise younger siblings or friends to abstain while in high school. The survey, "Not Just Another Thing To Do," polled 501 teens aged 12 to 17.

In response to the survey, the campaign invited their 25-member Youth Leadership Team to answer two questions: 1) who or what influences you when it comes to decisions about sex? And 2) what could these individuals and organizations do to help you avoid pregnancy? The teens, selected for their leadership abilities by organizations across the country, compiled a fact sheet, "What Teens Want," that speaks out about how parents, the media, schools, and the government could help prevent more teens from having sex and becoming pregnant.

Who Shares Responsibility?

The good news is, teen pregnancy and teen births have been steadily declining since the early 1990s. The bad news is, reliable measures of teen sexual activity indicate that teens are having sex earlier, and contraceptive use is inconsistent.

"Don't have sex until you're at least out of high school, but if you do, be certain to protect yourself against pregnancy and STDs," is the advice the majority (64 percent) of teens would give to a younger brother, sister or friend. Fifty-four percent of teens surveyed said that those who are sexually active should have access to birth control.

"We're not saying you shouldn't do this," says Lynsey Ross, 18, a member of the Leadership Team. "We want to have the information available so that we can make informed decisions."

Having information available means adults—particularly parents—must be willing to provide it. When asked who or what influenced their decisions about sex the most, teens who answered the survey cited their parents more than any other influence. The Leadership Team asks parents to be honest and straightforward about sexual issues and to play an active role in teens' lives. For children who do not have parental support, they point to adult mentors and the responsibility shared by schools, government and media.

Although fifty-nine percent of teens rate their sex education classes as "above average," teens responding to the survey say they believe that schools could take things one step further. "We think [sex education] should be equal to the quantity and consistency of D.A.R.E programs," says Cody Brooks, 16, referring to the popular Drug Abuse Resistence Education program. Teens want to talk with other teens about what it's like to feel pressured to have sex, how to have the courage to abstain and how to avoid STDs and pregnancy.

These teens also think the federal government can do more, especially when it comes to reaching young people in all areas of the country, and from every ethnic group. Instead of a one-size-fits all approach to preventing teen pregnancy, teens say the government should provide specialized assistance that respects the culture of the people in schools and neighborhoods. "Each community should come together with government officials to decide what best meets their needs," says Ben Cooper, 17.

Teens are also acutely aware of media influence. "It affects what we wear and what we do, whether or not we want to admit it," says LeAngelo White, 19. According to the survey, the majority of teens have gotten more information about sex in the past month from the media than from any other source. Teens say they are tired of TV shows and movies in which characters engage in casual sex without ever mentioning the risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancy. "We want them to stop making it so glamorous," White says, "or if they're going to do it, at least show us the consequences."

Julee Newberger is the former assistant managing editor of Connect for Kids.