Get Real! Am I Behind the Curve on Sex Compared to Other Teens?

Heather Corinna

It's so important to try not to get hung up on the idea that what other people are doing (or not) sexually has any relevance to what we ourselves do or don't do.

Maya asks:

It seems as
if girls at my school are very experienced sexually. They all talk
about hooking up, giving head, getting head, getting fingered, and all
that sort of thing. I, having never even kissed a boy or had a
boyfriend, feel a bit left behind. I wanted to know if most girls my
age, 15 (like on average), have had sexual experience like this.

Heather replies:


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I think it’s so important to try not to get hung up on the idea that
what other people are doing (or not) sexually has any relevance to what
we do or don’t do. I completely get wanting to have some idea of where
we’re at with where others are at, but with something as personal and
diverse as sexuality, it’s a good idea not to put too much stock in the
sex lives of others when it comes to our own sex lives and how we feel
about them.

One thing anyone who works in the study of sexuality or sexual
health knows is that self-reporting (what people anecdotally say to
others about themselves, rather than what we can find out based on
measurable things like pregnancy or STI rates) when it comes to
sexuality is notoriously unreliable, especially between young people.
So often, young people are dishonest with each other about what they do and don’t do, have done and have not done, and given how you’re feeling yourself about this, I think you can see some reasons why.

A lot of young people — and people of all ages — feel strong
pressures to fit in sexually with their peers or partners, and also
feel strong pressures to have the "right" answers with given groups
when it comes to their sex lives. If it seems like peers are more
experienced, and like more sexual experience is the right answer,
you’re going to find more people self-reporting that they have had that
experience. If it seems like peers are less experienced, and having
less sexual experience is the right answer, more will tend to say they
haven’t done anything sexually. Often, the desire to fit in outweighs
the desire to be honest. Few people stop to think about how being
dishonest only muddies the waters even more, leaving pretty much
everyone having no idea what anyone is really doing at all.

To give you an idea about what IS really going on from sound sources
we can count on, and where studies are as reliable as they can be,
let’s take a look at this 2006 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a very reliable source of health and sexuality information.

  • Fewer than half of all high school students report
    having had sexual intercourse, declining from 53% in 1995 to 47% in
    2005. Males are slightly more likely than females to report having had
    sex. African American high school students are more likely to have had
    intercourse (68%) than Whites (43%) or Latinos (51%).
    The median age at first intercourse is 16.9 years for boys and 17.4
    years for girls.4 There are differences in age of initiation by race
    and ethnicity, with 27% of African American high school boys, 11% of
    Latino boys and 5% of White boys initiating sex before age 13.3.
    Over half of males (55%) and females (54%) ages 15 to 19 report
    having had oral sex with someone of the opposite sex. Approximately one
    in 10 (11%) males and females ages 15 to 19 had engaged in anal sex
    with someone of the opposite sex; 3% of males ages 15 to 19 have had
    anal sex with a male.
    The percentage of high school students who report having had four or
    more sexual partners declined in recent years from 18% in 1995 to 14%
    in 2005. Males (17%) are more likely than females (12%) to report
    having had four or more sexual partners.

You can see, even in that last statistic how unreliable
self-reporting can be: in most sex studies we’ll see more men than
women reporting sexual activity, even when they’re reporting on sexual
activity they apparently had together!

I also think this piece at the New York Times
in January of 2009 does a nice job of shedding some light on teen
sexual activity and the numbers we have about it versus what people’s
general impressions about it are. Here are some highlights from the

While some young people are clearly engaging in risky
sexual behavior, a vast majority are not. The reality is that in many
ways, today’s teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations.

…"There’s no doubt that the public perception is that things are
getting worse, and that kids are having sex younger and are much wilder
than they ever were," said Kathleen A. Bogle, an assistant professor of
sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. "But when you
look at the data, that’s not the case."

…As for that supposed epidemic of oral sex, especially among
younger teenagers: national statistics on the behavior have only
recently been collected, and they are not as alarming as some reports
would have you believe. About 16 percent of teenagers say they have had
oral sex but haven’t yet had intercourse.

Being someone from the generation before yours, and someone who
works as a sex educator for young people today, I’d agree with the
writer of that piece that your generation actually seems to be more
conservative about sex than mine was in our teens. However — and this
is no small deal — my impression is and has been that your generation
feels much more pressure to SAY, or behave like, you are more sexually
experienced than ours did, even though you’re often judged more harshly
than we were if and when you are sexually active.

That probably has a lot to do with why we hear a lot at Scarleteen from young people worried they’re behind when it comes to their peers.
My sense is — and in alignment with some of the sound numbers we do
have — that there are more young teens where you’re at in terms of sex
and relationships than those with greater experience than you, and that
includes some of the teens saying they have more experience.

Given, in the teen years, sexual/romantic experiences do tend to
increase by year fairly rapidly, so, for instance, while two years
isn’t that big of an age difference, we do tend to see many more
17-year-olds reporting 9and who are probably participating in, for
real) partnered sexual activities than 15-year-olds. During
adolescence, a lot changes with every passing year, far faster than it
does in adulthood: the differences, in many ways, between someone at 15
and then at 18 are usually way bigger than those for someone at 35 and
then 38. It’s important to know that when we look at figures about
teens and sex that lump a bunch of ages together, too: for instance,
when we talk about 15-19 year-olds and what sex they’re having, way
more of those 19 than those 15 will be sexually active.

It might also be a comfort to you to know that as someone who works
in counseling so many teens who are sexually active, I far more often
hear from younger teens having any kind of sex who are not satisfied,
who are freaking out, who aren’t really enjoying themselves, who are
finding sex makes more crisis for them than anything else than I hear
from young, sexually active teens who are having the time of their

While age alone isn’t a sound basis for who can or can’t have sex
they enjoy, or sexual relationships of quality, the more life
experience we and our partners have — and this tends to be the case
through our whole lives, which is why, so often, sex just gets better
and better for people as we get older — the better sex does tend to
be, and more consistently. The more maturity we and partners have, the
more we know about our own bodies and sexualities (some of which is
about experience, but some of which is just about reflection and
knowing ourselves as we get a better and better idea of who we each
really are), the more assertive we become about what we do and don’t
want, all of which tends to take some time and some growth, the more
able we and partners tend to be to connect sexually in ways that feel
as good as they can, to our bodies, our hearts and our minds.

But let’s go back to where we started, to the part where I’d
encourage you to try not to be so concerned with what others are doing
or say they’re doing.

If and when sex or a romantic or sexual relationship is the right
thing for a given person is a very individual thing. It depends on
where that person is at themselves, what a given person’s sexuality
(all by themselves, not just with others) and sexual identity are like,
on who (when there is one) their partner is, how they feel about them,
and what those unique relationship dynamics and sets of wants and needs
are like, on how able a person is to do things like take care of their
sexual health and to manage things like birth control and the ability
to say no and yes (and to say either when that is what they mean,
rather than what they feel they’re supposed to say), on how much of the
risks of sex — positive and negative — a person is or feels able to
accept and live with, all of what else is going on in a person’s life,
what our unique ethics and values around love and sex are, how
supported we are or are not in our sexuality by our culture,
communities and the people who love us most and a whole lot more. It’s
a list that can go on forever and ever.

But whether a given sexual experience or relationship is or isn’t
right or of benefit to someone often has very little to do with what a
person’s friends are doing or feel (if they do) are right for them.

I know that it can be so painful in your teens to feel like an
outsider, but if it helps you out, know that no matter what choices —
about anything — teens make, most do in some way feel like they don’t
fit in: it’s a feeling that has more to do with being an adolescent in
general than what choices you make. I also know that if you feel like
you want a boyfriend, and/or want to start some kind of sexual
partnership, it can feel very frustrating, and doubly so if on top of
feeling like you don’t have things you want, you also feel like you’re
behind the curve in having them as compared to your peers. Not having
sexual or romantic partnership you want can feel lonely, and feeling
left behind can make you feel even more alone.

What I’d like to inject into this, in the hopes of supporting you
with wherever you’re at with all of this, and also to do a little
mythbusting, is to make clear that romantic or sexual partnership
doesn’t always mean we feel less lonely.

Sex and romance resulting in feeling included and connected really have more to do with quality
than quantity: in other words, just having a boyfriend, or having some
kind of sex, all by itself isn’t what results in feeling less isolated.
It’s having good, mutually supportive and healthy relationships, and
having a sex life that is really about mutuality and reciprocity that
tend to leave us feeling connected. A whole lot of teens who have
boyfriends or girlfriends, or who have been or are sexually active,
don’t have romantic or sexual lives with those components and don’t
find those relationships or experiences do make them feel less lonely
or less isolated. Some find that they feel even more lonely or
isolated with a boyfriend or with an active sex life. The wrong partner
for us, or a given kind of relationship at the wrong time, can feel
really lonely. Sex where everyone involved isn’t being respected, isn’t
seen or treated as a whole person, or isn’t really about both people
sharing something, not just one wanting something for themselves can be
one of the loneliest feelings in the world. It’s not just about having
these things, it’s about what a person really has in them.

Like I’ve said, I’d not say that on average, most 15-year-old girls
have had a lot of sexual experience right now. But even if they did
or do, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that you doing what others are
doing would be right for you or be best for you. People are all so, so
very different when it comes to sex and sexual partnership that the
choices any one person who is like us in so many ways — our same age,
our same gender, our same race or nationality, our same social class,
our same sexual orientation, our same level of life experience, our
same degree of sexual development — makes and which they find right
for them may be totally wrong for us, or vice-versa. The only sound
standard to base our sexual choices on is our own standards, based on
our own unique wants, needs and circumstances.

Here’s the most important thing I want you to take away from my answer: whatever
it is, when it comes to sex and romance, that feels most right for you
as an individual at this time in your life; that is most physically and
emotionally healthy for you, that leaves you feeling — no matter what
the deal is with your friends — best about yourself, sexually and
otherwise, and would leave you feeling that way even if every friend you had disapproved of your choices, is what counts.

If you were making choices that were crap for you but all your friends
thought were the right ones, that approval or fitting in alone probably
would not offer you much, in the short or long-term.

Sometimes, it takes people a long time to realize that, and
sometimes, people make a lot of choices they feel bad about, during or
after, or which impact them negatively, before they figure it out. If
you or anyone else can be spared learning that the hard way, it’s a
serious win.

Mind, sometimes your peers also may not have the maturity to know or
recognize that sexual choices tend not to be made best, or have the
best chance of resulting in the really good stuff, when they’re made
under any feelings of pressure or conformity. If you can get ahead of
the curve on that? Then no matter what kinds of sex or
relationships you do or do not have at any age, you can rest assured
that you’re better set to have a sex and love life that’s a great one
— after all, having a lousy one isn’t what anyone really wants — than

I’m leaving you with a few links I hope will give you some extra information, comfort and insight:

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.


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