More Teen Virgins? Not So Fast

Martha Kempner

New data suggest there are more "teen virgins."  Are there? Well....kind of.....

Part One of a two-part series.

Earlier this month, the media jumped all over a new report about sexual behavior of both young people and adults.  Though the study, the latest analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), is chock full of interesting information about teens, one thing seemed to resonate most with journalists.  There are more virgins.  Or at least that’s what the headlines announced.  “Good news everyone more teens are not having sex!” 

Well, kind of.

In 2006–2008, 29 percent of females and 27 percent of males ages 15 to 24 reported that they had never had sexual contact with another person.  This was a small but statistically significant change from 2002 when it was 22 percent for both males and females.  And, it made a big splash in the press.  Headlines proclaimed “More Young People Delay Sex,” “Is Virginity the New Black?,” and, my favorite from a UK publication, “No Sex Please, We’re Americans.”  The journalists and experts they interviewed seemed to agree that this was good news and that adults, parents in particular, should be pleased. In his New York Times editorial on the importance of monogamy, Ross Douthat went as far as to say that this statistic was good news for all Conservatives. 

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Not only did the media gloss over tons of information on oral sex, anal sex, and sexual identity, they also ignored some of the subtleties of this new news on “virginity.”  In truth, the change was very small and only statistically significant when looked at for the whole group of 15 to 24 year olds; when looked at in two separate groups 15 to 19 and 20 to 24 years it was no longer significant (and let’s face when it comes to how we feel about young people and sex there’s a whole world between a 16-year-old and a 23-year-old).  More importantly, this statistic only refers to those young people who had never had any sexual contact (by which the researchers meant oral, anal, or vaginal sex) with another person; the percentage of young people who had had vaginal sex, for example, was unchanged from 2002, and we have no idea whether they were kissing, caressing, or otherwise canoodling. 

It is true that the young people who fit into this no-sexual-contact-of-any-kind category are protected from sexually transmitted disease (STDs) and pregnancy. But I don’t think this is why the media zeroed in on this finding or why one expert declared it “extraordinary progress on a social issue that many once considered intractable.”  When it comes to teen sexual behavior, our society seems to remain stuck on the idea that no sex is the only acceptable finding.

I would argue that there is, in fact, good news about teen sex to be found in this study and in previous reports.  Many teens are making responsible decisions when it comes to their sexual behavior; they delay sex, have fewer partners, and use contraception.  And yet, we adults give them so little credit for behaving, in many ways, better than us. 

AND THE SURVEY SAYS…

Traditionally, when thinking about sex and surveying individuals about their behavior, we have concentrated on penile-vaginal intercourse.  This focus makes some sense from a public health perspective as it is the only behavior that can lead to both pregnancy and STDs.  That said, other behaviors certainly carry a risk of STDs, and, the focus on vaginal sex by nature excludes all same-sex behavior.  Still, I sense that the primary reason for this focus is something different—a societal understanding (however, inaccurate, incomplete, and exclusionary) that only penile-vaginal sex is sex.    

In fact, this is one of the things that surprised me most when the media seized on the data about those individuals who had no sexual contact and proclaimed that we now had more “virgins.” It also frustrates me most when media reports chastise young people (or former Presidents) for not thinking oral sex is sex.  Did anyone ever walk up to his/her best friend the morning after they first gave or received a blow job and say “Guess what, I lost my virginity?”  I think not, but I digress.

The truth is that if we really want to understand what adolescents are doing when it comes to sex and, hopefully, help them make better, healthier decisions, we need to get past categories and labels and ask more questions.  This is what makes the latest report from the NSFG, Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 20062008 National Survey of Family Growth (hereafter referred to as Sexual Behavior 20062008), particularly helpful because it did focus on additional behaviors, including oral and anal sex, and it looked at same-sex behavior as well as sexual identity.  Other information on sexual behavior in this article comes from Teenagers in the United States; Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 20062008, an earlier report based on the same set of data, and the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) a study out of Indiana University for which researchers surveyed a representative sample of individuals ages 14 to 94 about a wide range of sexual behavior. 

So What Are They Doing?

According to Teenagers in the United States, 42 percent of never-married females and 43 percent of never married-males have had vaginal sex in their lifetime.  This number is not changed from 2002, however, leading up to 2002 there had been a steady decline with the percentage of never-married females ages 15–19 who had had vaginal intercourse dropping from 51 percent in 1988 to 49 percent in 1995 to 46 percent in 2002.  Similarly for never-married males the percentage that had had vaginal sex dropped from 60 percent in 1988 to 55 percent in 1995 to 45 percent in 2002 but did not drop again.     

There are lots of different theories about why the percentages of young people who had vaginal intercourse dropped during those years. Some argue that this is when teens started becoming highly aware of the risk of HIV and that a life-threatening STD was a game changer for teenagers. Others credit sexuality education while still others undoubtedly credit abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.  One mother of a teenager jokingly argued it was all because of video games—if teens are really logging 30 hours a week of screen time, when would they possibly have time to have sex?  We may never really know but it is worth trying to understand as the numbers seem to have leveled out in recent years.

Sexual Behavior 20062008 also looks at oral and anal sex among teens which is a step in the right direction when it comes to getter a broader picture.  Though anal sex remains relatively rare (11 percent of females and 10 percent of males ages 15 to 19 report engaging in anal sex with an opposite-sex partner and 1 percent of males that age report doing so with a partner of the same sex), oral sex is quite common—27 percent of 15-year-old boys and 23 percent of 15-year-old girls have ever had oral sex with an opposite-sex partner and, by ages 18 and 19, these numbers jump to 70 percent for boys and 63 percent for girls.  In addition, 7 percent of females and 2 percent of males ages 15-to 19 report oral sex with a same-sex partner. 

Journalists and experts have spouted many theories about this rise in oral sex among teens; most of them negative. Some say that teens are using oral sex to avoid vaginal sex and, therefore, prevent pregnancy and to live up to society’s hopes that they stay virginal.  Others suggest that oral sex now has a certain cache and teens are using it to gain popularity and prestige.  And still others have referred to it (with fear in their voice I imagine) as a “gateway” to vaginal sex. 

But this is rampant speculation.  We don’t even know if there is a real rise in this behavior because we just started asking about it; 2002 was the first time questions on oral sex were included in the NSFG and there was no statistically significant change since then. As for the theory that teens are having oral sex instead of vaginal sex to preserve their chastity, the numbers don’t seem to support it as only 7 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 and 9 percent of males ages 15 to 19 reported having had oral sex but not vaginal sex. In fact, only 50 percent of young people ages 15 to 24 reported having had oral sex before vaginal sex. 

The truth is that there is still so much we don’t know about teen sexual behavior and that, while adding oral and anal sex data is helpful, it is not enough.  “We talk about explicit penetrative sex behaviors but we don’t talk about what leads up to it,” explains Logan Levkoff, sexologist and author of Third Base Ain’t What it Used to Be, What Your Kids Are Learning About Sex Today, and How to Teach Them to Become Sexually Healthy Adults, “so we don’t have a true picture of how a relationship progresses among teenagers.  We seem to think that teens go from kissing to blow jobs and we’re forgetting that there is a range of intimate behaviors that lead up to those acts.”   Dennis Fortenberry, Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University and one of the researchers on the NSSHB, points out that putting people into groups based on their reported sexual behavior is not helpful.  Labeling someone a virgin, he says, “misrepresents what those young people are doing to learn about sex.  They’re probably still dancing, holding hands, kissing.  Those are also part of how people learn about attraction and arousal.” 

Fortenberry and his colleagues often refer to a broad repertoire of sexual behavior, which is why the NSSHB asked about not just oral, anal, and vaginal sex but also about masturbation both alone and with a partner.  It will likely not come as a surprise to anyone that that the most common sexual behavior among teens is solo-masturbation; the NSSHB found that 48 percent of teens ages 14 to 17 had engaged in solo masturbation in their lifetime compared to 22 percent who had given oral sex, 19 percent who had received it, 23 percent who had had vaginal intercourse, and 5 percent who had had anal intercourse.     

These surveys give us even more details about what young people are doing.  In the next installment, we will go over the who, what, where, and when of teenage sexual behavior as well as look at data that suggests that sexually active teens are being very responsible when it comes to using contraception and disease prevention methods.  More importantly, though, we will look at how limiting this data is when it comes to trying to help teens make good decisions and what we really need focus on in order raise a generation of sexually healthy young people.   

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

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