The list goes on. Middle schools that used to do without dress codes now must
send home exhaustive inventories of forbidden garments, from tube tops to
too-low hip-huggers. Schools that used to handle crude language on a
case-by-case basis now must have ''no-profanity'' policies. And
sexual-harassment training is a normal part of middle-school curriculum.
The world ''is rougher, it is sexier and it has reached down to touch boys and
girls at younger ages,'' says Margaret Sagarese, who, with Charlene C.
Giannetti, has written several books on parenting, including the new The
Patience of a Saint: How Faith Can Sustain You During the Tough Times of
Baby-boomer parents who thought that nothing would ever shock them are shocked
by the way their young teens talk, dress and perhaps even behave, Sagarese
''Things have changed,'' says Jude Swift, 52, a mother of five whose youngest
is an eighth-grade boy. ''I think a great deal of it is due to the media and
what kids see on TV, in magazine ads, in videos. . . . It's all about being
Swift, of Camillus, N.Y., says she picked up a Teen People magazine the other
day and ''I was amazed. It was page after page of young teens dressed in very
provocative ways and in very provocative poses.''
Young girls ''do not see anything wrong in looking that way,'' says
Zbylut-Birky, the Omaha teacher. And, she says, ''they don't see the
difference between how they should look for a party and how they should look
in an educational setting.''
want to look sexy, too
boys face increasing pressure to look sexy, says Sagarese:
''There are 12-year-old boys going to GNC and taking all kinds of supplements
because they want abs the same way girls want breasts.''
Of course, many girls who dress like Britney Spears and many boys who talk
like Eminem (news - web sites) don't go beyond nervous note-passing in their
actual romantic lives.
Zbylut-Birky, who overheard the oral-sex banter, says, ''A lot of times they
use that kind of language to impress their peers, but there's really nothing
going on there.''
But for some substantial minority of middle schoolers, something very risky --
including intercourse and oral sex is going on, some experts say. In 1995,
government researchers asked teens over age 15 whether they'd had sexual
intercourse by age 14; 19% of girls and 21% of boys said yes. In 1988, the
numbers were 11% for girls and the same 21% for boys, says the Washington,
D.C.-based research group
Trends. Data for 2002 are just being collected.
Another study, using different methods, followed 12- to 14-year-olds between
1997 and 1999 and found 16% of girls and 20% of boys reported sex at 14 or
younger, says Child Trends researcher Jennifer Manlove.
As for oral sex, a 2000 study from the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York
caused a firestorm by suggesting that more young teens were engaging in that
activity -- possibly as a way of remaining technical virgins in the age of
abstinence education. That study was based on scattered, anecdotal reports of
increased oral herpes and gonorrhea of the throat.
No nationwide, scientific study has actually asked young teens, or older teens
for that matter, whether they have oral sex.
''A lot of alarm parents feel on this issue is based on anecdotal
information,'' says Bill Albert, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a private, non-profit group
working to reduce teen pregnancy.
some of the anecdotes are hair-raising.
other day at school, a girl got caught in a bathroom with a boy performing
oral sex on him,'' says Maurisha Stenson, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at a
Syracuse, N.Y., middle school.
When the lights went on
Denyia Sullivan, 14, attends a different Syracuse middle school but says she's
seen and heard about similar things. One time, a girl performed oral sex on a
boy in the gym bleachers during a movie.
''The teacher turned on the light and there they were,'' Sullivan says.
''Everybody was looking and laughing.''
The two girls also say there's more than oral sex going on. Sullivan can think
of five pregnant girls at her school, which includes sixth-, seventh- and
eighth-graders. Stenson guesses that ''almost 50%'' of kids at her school, for
seventh- and eighth-graders, are engaging in some kind of sex.
''This is happening; they are telling the truth,'' says Courtney Ramirez, who
directs the Syracuse Way to Go after-school program, designed to help kids
succeed in school and avoid risks. Both girls are peer educators in the
''Youths are really getting involved in things a whole lot sooner than we
thought,'' Ramirez says.
But other experts say that without good, current numbers on nationwide trends,
they can't even say with any confidence that early sex is increasing.
could be getting worse, it could be getting better, we just don't know,''
One problem is that the best government studies are done infrequently. Another
is that researchers and the public are squeamish about asking detailed
sex questions of young teens. And when they do ask, they aren't sure
youngsters always understand the questions or answer truthfully. Albert's
organization will try to fill in the gap later this year with a report based
on data from around the country.
But many educators and parents have heard the alarms and are acting now.
Krystal McKinney directs a program that offers sex education and life-skills
training to middle-school girls in the Washington, D.C., area. Since the 2000
Guttmacher oral sex report, she and her staff have redoubled efforts to make
sure that girls understand the risks.
''We have kids who think you can't get diseases from oral sex,'' she says.
''Kids think they know everything, but we challenge that.''
With the youngest teens, clear information is crucial, says Xenia Becher, a
mental health educator at the Syracuse after-school program.
Recently, she says, she asked some 13- to 15-year-olds to define sex.
''They had trouble coming up with an answer,'' she says. ''Some said it had to
be between a male and female and a penis and vagina had to be involved."
''So I asked, 'What about if two men were involved?' 'Well,' they said, 'I
don't know what that is, but it's not sex.'''
Becher also trains parents to discuss sex with their kids. She tells them that
their voices matter, even in a sex-soaked culture.
''When you get down to what's right or wrong, popular culture is going to have
an influence, but the stronger internal voice comes from you,'' she says.
Becher admits that setting limits and encouraging independence can be a real
balancing act. When her own 13-year-old daughter dressed for a dance in a pair
of ''those nasty hip-huggers'' and a short top, Becher says, she asked her to
think how she'd look when ''she was waving her arms around on the dance
floor.'' But she didn't make her daughter change.
got to pick your battles,'' she says.
shouldn't back off
really do care what their parents think,'' says Kristin Moore, president of
Child Trends. ''They don't really want their parents to back away. But a lot
of parents do back away at this age.''
Some parents, she says, are so intimidated by a child's hostile behavior and
demands for privacy that they give far too much ground.
are home during a party but have no idea what is going on at the party.''
Mark Gibbons, an Augusta, Ga., father of two girls ages 8 and 12, says that he
and his wife are doing everything they can to stay involved. They try to talk
to their daughters about everything.
''We've told them that it may sometimes
be embarrassing, but that we'd rather they get their information from us,'' he
''I talk to them all the time,'' says Lauryn, a seventh-grader who takes
classes for gifted and talented kids. She does say that she prefers to discuss
boyfriends with her mom.
Nevertheless, when Lauryn has friends over, Gibbons says he keeps his ears
When she's instant messaging (news web sites) on the computer, he
says, ''Every once in a while, I'll just wander over there and ask who she's
talking to. And I do look at her little directory and make sure all those user
names are people that I know.
We try not to show that we're being nosy, but we are.''
Gibbons also chaperones middle-school dances. It's a window into his
daughter's larger world -- one that, even in a community of ''pretty
well-behaved kids,'' can be shocking, he says.
''Some of the dancing they do
is kind of risqu้), to say the least.''
Lauryn says she appreciates her parents' involvement: ''I believe it does
makes a difference. . . . I have never gotten into
she says she does know kids who are getting into sexual trouble.
some of the parties I go to, people playing 'Truth or Dare' will say that
they've already 'done it,' '' she says.
Meanwhile, Gibbons says he recently got a reminder that it is never too early
to discuss sexual values. Third-grader Tayler ''came home and said one little
girl took a boy behind a tree and they were French kissing. . . .
'Well, do you think that is wrong?' She said, 'Yes.' ''
But while parents are right to watch and worry, somemay be worrying too much
and enjoying too little about their children's pubescent years, says Sagarese,
the parenting author.
''I can't tell you how many parents have come up to me
at speeches and they are apoplectic that their daughter is kissing. They feel
like the first kiss is a runaway train that will lead to AIDS (news web
sites) or pregnancy.''
Her co-author, Giannetti, says, ''Parents need to take a deep breath and a
step back and remember what it was like to be a young adolescent.''
Sometimes, Sagarese says, a first kiss is just a first kiss and the same
lovely rite of passage it was in a more innocent time.