Sex: Undressing the issue

Virginia Plain*,
junior, had sex when she was 13 years old.


By Shreya Chattopadhyay, 
Kellie Levine, & Raevyn Walker, with contributions from Tazaieen Sayeda

Edit (3/4/15): Read our open letter to the community regarding this article and the associated pictures here.


“If I had a chance, I’d change things,” Plain said. “I (now) have a bigger view of the consequences and the impact of having sex.” Although Plain admits that the age at which she first had sex was “too young”, she maintains that she does not regret the act altogether. In Plain’s view, having sex when she did was justified because she was in love.

It is common for teenagers to have sex when emotion is a factor, sometimes even earlier than they themselves believe is appropriate. This was the case for Rose Jones*, junior, who had sex with her longterm boyfriend during her freshman year of high school. “I think I was too young,” Jones said. “I could’ve waited a little bit, but it was with a good person and there was that emotional attachment.”

However, while people with Plain’s mindset believe that sex should not occur without love, Jones believes that there can be physical intimacy without an emotional component. “I think it can be an expression of love. I saw it like that for a bit, but now that I’m older, I wouldn’t mind doing it without the emotional aspect. There wouldn’t need to be a boyfriend.”

Although this generation is commonly characterized as the “hookup” generation, in which individuals are more inclined to align with Jones’ thinking, there remain a large range of opinions.

Danny Philips*, senior, illustrates two of the main schools of thought on the subject, saying, “there are two different types of sex. There is love, and then there (are) hookups at a party.” While having sex in a committed relationship is more socially acceptable, the idea of hooking up at a party has developed a negative connotation, becoming synonymous with slurs like “slut” and “easy.” Philips conceded that “in general, people do look at it negatively” but he believes that this negative stigma does not have to exist. Rather, the choice of whether or not to casually hookup “is just a part of how you live your life,” said Philips.

A common concern surrounding hooking up is the desensitizing that may occur. Seniors Oliver Johnson* and Violet Samuels*, who have been in a relationship for the last five months, have similar opinions on the prospect of hooking up without emotions involved. “It would be kind of numbing, almost,” said Samuels, continuing to explain that although many who adhere to the hookup culture have “sex for sex”, it is impossible to shut out all emotion. “There’s still some kind of connection with the other person,” he added.

Johnson mimicked these concerns, saying that having sex outside of a relationship would be “just going through the motions and not actually feeling anything.”

On the other hand, Philips understands why people choose to have sex outside the context of a relationship. “People like affection. Those who do not get as much love at home might want the opportunity to feel warm and happy on the inside,” Philips explains. “(As a result) they use sex to fill an emotional void.”

In contrast, Plain and Jones both had sex with committed boyfriends, and they do not have any regrets about their actions. However, this is not the case for everyone. Lily Aleman*, junior, had sex during her freshman year of high school with someone she admits she did not particularly care about.

“When I first (had sex) I felt gross because I knew I made a mistake. I knew I didn’t care about him. I wanted to be young and do everything I could and enjoy life, but I was going about it in a wrong way,” Aleman said.

After this negative experience, Aleman “never wanted to have sex again” because she feared that every subsequent experience would mirror her first. But now, after having sex with her longterm boyfriend, Aleman feels that the experience of having sex with someone she cares about is much different than her previous experience – so different, in fact, that she said “sometimes I forget that I’ve been with anybody other than my current boyfriend. I feel like I lost my virginity again.”

There remains a large faction of teenagers and adults who believe that underage sex is, regardless of the reasoning behind it, a bad idea. “I don’t plan on having it anytime soon,” said Mark Mull*, junior. “I’m only 17.”

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On Law and Judgment

The conversation surrounding teenagers having sex is one that often takes place in the dark. Laws intended to protect teenagers from being taken advantage of don’t stop teen sexual activity, as they are intended to do. Rather, they lead to teenagers sneaking around. As a result of this secrecy, information for teenagers looking to ensure safety and inform themselves can be scarce. “You have to go about it secretly because it’s not approved of by most,” said Plain. “If I ever had questions, I was always uncomfortable talking to adults, so I went on the internet like most people.”

This is the case for many teenagers – many operate under the fear of being persecuted or judged, and with good reason; having sex as a teenager comes with a plethora of potential peer judgments.

“When I did it with my boyfriend and everybody found out, they were like ‘oh, you’re a bad person … you’re a slut,’” said Jones. “Everyone is going to have their own opinion, but some of the things you don’t need to state because it’s not helping you. It’s just hurting other people.”

Philips believes that much of the scrutiny comes from equating having sex to losing oneself. “I think it has to do with a security thing. It is negatively looked upon because of how people give themselves away to someone, because we are all in our own bodies.”

Aleman is well aware of the potential to be judged, and worries that she would be looked down on if her sexual activity became public knowledge. “I want (my name changed) because I think that teenagers are cruel. I think that teachers would judge me for it, and I think that I would get judged by everyone on campus, including administration. They’re supposed to report you if you’re having underage sex. It’s not a supportive community, at least not right now.”

Aleman’s worries are not misplaced – there are serious consequences for engaging in underage sex. The laws surrounding underage sexual activity are clear, and attempts are rarely made to ease these fears and facilitate open communication. Instead of being able to rely on adults for information and support with their concerns, teenagers must instead keep their illegal activity under wraps for fear of being reported. This isn’t to say that the laws are unnecessary or should be done away with, but that they encourage teens to not have the conversations with adults that they need to have.

There is no provision in laws that allows for the possibility of consensual sex between minors. Because of this, in a case where two teenagers consensually engage in sexual activity and an official is notified, there can be legal ramifications that are detrimental to teenagers. As a result, while these laws are designed to protect teens, they end up limiting the already minimal conversation between teens and potentially supportive adults.

While support is minimal, Aleman says that it is available. “I know that some of the counselors are good to talk to, and maybe they should advertise that more, but I think most people are afraid that if they tell any adult figure that they’re having sex, then they are going to get in trouble for it.”

The Birds and the Bees

“The talk” has been exploited in countless afterschool specials as well as sitcom after sitcom. However, if one were to talk to a small sample of real-life teenagers, it would quickly become apparent that “the talk” is much more common in media than in reality.
The way that parents approach talking to their children about sex varies from outright ignoring its existence to fostering an environment in which their children feel that they can come to their parents with any questions.

Johnson, who recently had sex for the first time, felt like he had constructive conversations with his parents about sex before making the decision to have it. “I really liked how my parents did it,” he said. “They said, ‘here are all of these options, don’t get anyone pregnant, you’re probably going to do this sometime in your life, so just know here is plan A, here is plan B, here is plan C.”

Now, Johnson is almost positive his dad knows of his decision. “My parents just kind of accepted that I’m in high school and going to college soon. It’s going to happen, so they just wanted me to go about it safely,” he said. “I think that was the right approach to take.”

Jones and Aleman also have good relationships with their parents. However, they don’t yet feel ready to tell their parents that they had sex. “I have a really good relationship with my mom,” said Aleman. “I’m just personally not ready yet.”
“My mom is really open,” Jones agreed. “She’s good about talking about this stuff and we have a solid relationship. It would be good to tell her if it happened again and kept happening because she’s really good with understanding.”

Samuels had a very different experience with her parents. “My parents are very anti-teen relationship, overprotective, overbearing. (Their approach) was just ‘don’t have sex. You’ll get pregnant and go to hell,’” Samuels said. “Nobody ever talked about it (to me), and I think it’s bullsh** that we are supposed to depend on some ambiguous idea of a talk.” However, while Samuels disagrees with her parents’ approach, she is able to understand their concern. “I get where they’re coming from, but it’s too much,” she said.

Philips had a similar experience. “My parents were very uninvolved,” he said. “They would never touch upon the subject of sex – they just told me ‘Danny, just leave it in your pants until you’re married.’”

It is clear that even teens who have had sex have encountered varying approaches to ‘the talk.’ Because of this, the only uniform approach to the conversation about sex comes in the form of sex education in schools.

Factors to Consider

Although the decision to have sex ultimately belongs to the teenagers themselves, there are a plethora of external influences they must consider.

One frequently considered factor is religion. While sex is often addressed and even encouraged in religious texts, the official stance of many modern-day religious institutions on teen sex is a resounding “no.” Islam and Christianity are no exceptions. Imam Junaid Hussain, a muslim leader at Jamat-e Masljidul Islam, said that the main reason Islam is against teen sex is that “Islam does not consider women or men objects of sexual pleasure.” Rather, Hussain believes sex should be an “extension and expression of love” between people who are legally in a relationship.

Similarly, Christianity also promotes premarital abstinence. Ken LaMont, lead pastor at Newbury Park First Christian Church, explained the Christian belief that God created sex for “a husband and wife to experience what the Bible calls oneness, so they experience real intimacy at every level – emotional, spiritual, but also physical intimacy.”

Hannah LaMont, senior and member of Newbury Park First Christian Church, believes that many teenagers are too casual about sex. She said, “you have to set boundaries … there is this whole thing (in Christianity) about becoming ‘one’ (when you get married).”

Ken believes that waiting until marriage is the best choice. He said, “if you don’t (wait), you’re going to experience issues – guilt, shame, sin … because God says that (sex) is reserved for a husband and wife. (Having sex) before (marriage) means that you’re trying to have that physical intimacy without the other parts.”

However, even though their respective religions decry premarital sex, Ken and Hussain are not against constructive sex education in high schools. “In the Qur’an, Allah talks about reproduction, family life, and creation and mentions menstruation,” Hussain said. “According to Islamic teaching, sex education is good if it teaches students to adapt to new ideas, new conditions, and different kinds of morality and values.”

“There are certain things that you can teach in a classroom that are healthy,” Ken agreed. “As long as those classes (are) teaching young people to have a standard that they live by, teaching them not to follow peer pressure, teaching them to be responsible, teaching them that sex has a lot of consequences, good and bad.”

Religion, while an important factor for some, does not apply to the entire student population. All students are required to take health classes, which teach an abstinence-based sex education curriculum.

“We have to teach the truth about abstinence, which is that abstinence is the only 100 percent way to prevent all the risks and consequences of sexual activity,” said Lorena Caulfield, health teacher. “And we are not just talking about pregnancies and STDs, we are also talking about social health aspects and people’s reputations.”

According to Amy Jiao, a junior who took health online before her freshman year, “sex education was basically teaching you what the menstrual cycle was and what is going to happen to our bodies.”

However, many students believe that this is not enough. “They basically tell you that if you have sex you’re going to get pregnant, and that just makes me uncomfortable more than anything ” said Kylie Kelleher, junior.

Josh Bence, junior, said, “Sex education? You mean that crap that they teach you in health class that nobody listens to and just laughs about? It’s not effective at all.”

“Our sex education is terrible,” agreed Jiao. “It doesn’t talk anything about sex itself. It doesn’t talk about gender, sexuality, and the entire range that comes with it.”

Many students believe that the curriculum should not only be more comprehensive, but also taught earlier. “There is really a limited amount of knowledge that you have until you hit a certain age when you begin to be exposed to these things (in a social setting),” said Jiao. “At that point it is a little late to be exposed (to constructive sex education) because you already (have) ingrained ideas. So, I think it is better when you are first exposed, if you could get everything all out at once. If we had better sex education since we were middle schoolers, it would probably help a lot.”

Violet Samuels, senior, believes that health classes should go as in-depth as biology classes on the topic of sex. “I took a biology class with Mrs. Lockwood which gave information in detail. It is an eye-opening class, but it is a second year IB class. That’s what they should teach in health class, in that (amount of) detail.”

Jennifer Lockwood, who teaches reproduction to students in Anatomy & Physiology as well as IB Biology classes, teaches the scientific process of technologies such as birth control. She emphasized the value of sex education in providing students with useful and credible information. “I don’t want students to leave here with information spread from student to student,” she said.” I want them to have scientific and accurate information.”

Lockwood believes that there needs to be a balance between providing enough information to answer questions while being accurate without exposing students to content they aren’t ready for.  She said, “I think no matter what the level, you can tailor how much information (you give) so that you are giving accurate information.”

Even Caulfield sees problems with the current health curriculum. However, she believes that sex education should be revisited again at a later age rather than earlier. “I think … as adolescents get older, your opportunities and your experiences change,” she said. “Maybe as a fourteen-year-old freshman there is no way that you are going to engage in sexual activity until you’re older. Well, now you’re sixteen, and maybe you consider yourself ‘older’, and that you can handle these risks and consequences … I think it is a good idea to have a refresher health course, like a booster shot.”

A Learning Opportunity

There are many consequences to engaging in teen sex. Among them is regret – either with a bad sexual experience, potential health consequences, or with having sex in the first place.

Having had sex at parties with guys that he admitted that he was not close with, Philips would take back some of the choices that he made. “I totally regret a lot of the stuff that I have done in my life,” said Philips. “I regret a lot of sexual decisions, and there are things in the world that can scare you from making (any more) sexual decisions.”

For Philips, the regret he experienced extended further than merely his emotions. “Especially in the gay community, there is (the fear of) AIDs and HIV,” he said. “I’m going to be honest, I’ve had a lot of scares … I had a real bad scare just a couple months ago when I was almost positive that I had HIV. I just felt it in my gut. I was freaking out, but I had never been tested before. I didn’t know what to do.”

Philips had himself tested for HIV. The results were negative. After this scare, Philips realized that it was time to learn from his experiences.

“I know what I need for myself a lot more,” said Philips. “I’ve had my share of bad relationships and emotional rollercoasters that have not went well, but they have taught me a lot. I learned … that I need to surround myself with people that are going to make me feel more whole and better inside.”

However, while Philips does regret some of his decisions, he thinks that his bad experiences will help him in the future.

“I am grateful for what has happened,” Philips said. “I think I’m going to be a really mature freshman going into college next year. I am going to know what guys are good for me.”

Aleman held similar beliefs after she had sex with the wrong person, and thinks that all sexual decisions should be made with a great level of caution.

“Don’t get into situations with people you know you don’t feel safe with,” said Aleman. “(Be with) someone who you know is going to be there for you in a year. You have to do a lot of thinking and sometimes things happen. You are going to make mistakes and you just have to get over it and find somebody who you actually care about.”

“Think about it,” said Chris Reusch, junior. “Think about all the implications that it’ll bring, all the perceptions of other people upon you, especially your parents, how they’ll react if they find out, because they most likely will find out.”

*names changed upon request

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