Few things are certain in adolescence, but there’s one thing upon which teenage girls agree: pubic hair is out.
“Everyone shaves. Everything,” says 16-year-old Anne*. “If you’ve left it you are classified as disgusting. You’d be embarrassed for the rest of your life. Boys would [tease you], call you hairy. People start shaving in [7th grade].”
They know, or think they know, a few other things, too. That oral sex doesn’t count as sex. That sending nude pictures via text or Facebook is the new flirting. That boys their age watch porn regularly, and demand from their girlfriends the sexual menu they see online – hairless, surgically-enhanced bodies, ‘girl-on-girl action’, and much, much more.
They are learning from the 21st century’s version of sex education class: the internet; a more enlightening and forthcoming source than nervous parents and teachers. But these lessons are a dangerous mix of misinformation and distorted images of sexuality, which is contributing to behavior that can leave young women with deep psychological and physical scars.
Teenager girls are under more sexual pressure than ever before. The good news is we can help them through it, although that requires a few lessons of our own.
It’s human nature to judge adolescents by our experience. It wasn’t like that in our day, we scold. But for once, we are right – it really wasn’t like that in our day.
For one thing, girls are becoming women earlier than they used to. Reasons range from better nutrition to obesity to the break-down of the family unit.
“When dads aren’t around, they’re more likely to move into puberty earlier,” says parenting expert Michael Grose. “If it starts earlier, I imagine this would mean they are beginning to be sexually active earlier.”
In the past 60 years, the age at which girls lose their virginity has dropped from 19 (when many women were just getting married in the 1950’s) to 16-years-old, but many start much earlier. Dolly magazine’s 2011 Youth Monitor found 56 per cent of teens first had sex between 13 and 15 years old, a figure backed up by an Australian study that found the age of girls’ first sexual experience ranged from 11 to 17 years, with a median age of 14.
Anne Mitchell, the director of the Australian Research Center in Sex, Health and Society, says rates of oral sex are climbing. The center’s latest survey of high school students, in 2008, also showed the number having sex with three or more people a year had increased significantly.
Most worryingly, there has also been a marked increase in unwanted sex, an experience that can have a long-term effect on how a woman feels about herself and her sexuality. “The main reasons are being too drunk or high, and pressure from a partner,” Dr Mitchell says. “Alcohol [consumption] has gone up over time, too, and it’s intimately connected to their sexual behavior.”
Rates of sexually transmitted diseases are rising, especially in the 15-19 age group; in 2008, slightly more than 25 per cent of all chlamydia infections were in the 15- to 19-year-old age group, and girls were diagnosed at three times the rate of boys.
That’s just the statistics; the anecdotal evidence is more frightening. Parenting expert Michael Grose says there is a casual attitude to oral sex. “I’ve heard stories from teachers of oral sex happening at school,” he says. “My generation went behind the shed and had a smoke. It’s been put to me that oral sex at school is like smoking. That’s extreme, but I think extremes explain the norm.”
This doesn’t sound unusual to 16-year-old Anne. “Oral sex happens a lot, it’s before losing your virginity,” she says. “I had a 16th birthday party and apparently two people were doing it on my front lawn.”
Technology has also changed the sexual landscape. Once upon a time we would sit by the phone, praying our crush would call and hoping our parents wouldn’t listen in. These days, there’s constant contact via SMS, Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging. Parents have little, if any, ability to monitor the conversation.
Teens flirt online, often with people they have not met. “If there’s a guy you’re interested in from another school or something, you might ‘like’ one of his photos on Facebook and get talking to him,” says 16-year-old Rebecca*. “I know lots of people who’ve hooked up that way.” They create online games such as ‘sneaky hat’, in which naked teenagers cover themselves with a hat and post the photograph as the profile picture on Facebook.
Online flirting often becomes more daring, with one party – usually the boy – asking the other to send sexy pictures. “When you’re in year seven or year eight, it’s pretty big,” says Rebecca. “It’s more the younger years, they don’t do [sex] in person, they do it on the internet. One girl was talking to a friend’s older brother, she didn’t know him in real life. She sent him photos. The guy will ask, and the girl will think about it, and she will eventually end up doing it.”
Of course, this can go terribly wrong. “One girl’s photo was passed around,” says Rebecca. “I was sitting on the train and got a Bluetooth message and it was a picture of her. She sent it to one boy, he sent it to a friend, and he sent it around. She was fully naked. You couldn’t see her face, but you knew who it was.”Yet social media is far less harmless than another consequence of the internet; pornography. These days, it is available for free to who anyone who wants it. “I was watching it when I was about 13,” one teenage boy, Mike* said. “It is so easy, all you do is type ‘boobs’ into Google.”
A Sydney study found that almost half of all adults, like Mike, first watched pornography between the ages of 11 and 13. Further research found 92 per cent of the boys had been exposed to online pornography by age 16.
In a flooded market, the industry is producing more extreme material to get an edge. In her research into the impact of pornography, Melbourne researcher Maree Crabbe has found a trend towards sex that is rough, aggressive, and idealizes acts women don’t enjoy in real life – gag-inducing oral sex, anal sex, physical and verbal aggression.
The industry admits this. One porn star told Maree actors were required to be rough with the girl, and take charge. “He had moved from lovey dovey sex, towards material where the pornographers want to get more energy … ‘**** her to destroy her’ ”.
For many boys, porn is their sex education. They copy what they see, and expect their girlfriends to be like the women in the film. “Young people have described to us again and again, that pornography is shaping their sexual imaginations, expectations and practices,” says Maree. “We have had young men who have been genuinely surprised that when they enact what they see in porn, their partner doesn’t like what they were doing, because they’ve always seen women enjoy it on screen.”
Wolf, 40, now worries that “mine is probably the last generation to experience that sense of sexual confidence and security in what we had to offer. Being is not enough; you have to be buff, be tan without tan lines, have the surgically hoisted breasts and the Brazilian bikini wax – just like porn stars.”
Many young women take the sexual lessons from their teens into their 20s and beyond, as evidenced by the rush of young women towards breast enhancement and [genital surgery to look more like airbrushed porn stars]. “The issues that concern me are what the influence of porn seems to be meaning for young people’s capacity to negotiate free and full consent, and experience the kind of sexuality that can feel acceptable and pleasurable,” says Maree.
Arguably, there has never been a more confusing, stressful time to be a teenager.
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