The Mating Habits of the Suburban High School Teenager

Four South Shore teenagers are packed into a new, parentally subsidized, white compact car, which is driving too fast down Route 53. They have plenty of gas, no homework, and a whole night to kill. The only problem is, they have no idea where they're going. It's vacation week, most of the popular kids from their high school are away on family vacations, and the social void left in that wake hangs over the speeding car like a humbling bad-hair day.

“There's never anything to do around here,” complains Nicole, a pretty Keri Russell-look-alike riding shotgun and wearing a hooded Abercrombie & Fitch shirt. A chorus of amens (one “No shit” followed by a “Yeah, and it sucks”) rises from the back seat. Thus bolstered, she goes on. “I mean, you know, tonight is, like, way worse and all that because there's really nothing to do. But there's never anything good or any fun. It's just like . . . uchh.” She expels a sound that's half ennui, half disgust. “All we ever do is go hang out and get drunk, like, all the time, and, you know, hook up.”

Hook up with whom? Boyfriends and girlfriends? “Not really . . .” she says, hesitating at first and turning to her peers for backup. “It's all pretty random. We just get together in small groups of kids and drink a lot and then hook up with whoever.” Christine, a curly-haired pixie in the under-90 weight range, chimes in. “Sometimes we'll hook up for two or three months at a time with one person. But no one really ever goes steady. Dating is just really uncommon. No one wants that kind of responsibility, you know? Most of us just go out and get drunk and whatever — hook up at someone's house.”

“Like the time I hooked up with Ryan,” offers Christine. This earns her a wrinkle-nosed grin and a nod from Nicole. “Hey, I have to give you a big pat on the back if you hooked up with him,” she says. “Because he is so hot.”

As euphemisms go, “hooking up” is loaded and vague — not to mention ubiquitous. To the kids who use it, it can mean anything from sexual intercourse or oral sex to serious touching or just kissing. “No one I know considers oral sex to be sex at all,” says Rob, a senior at an area private school who joins up with us later, after we crowd into a booth at a local restaurant for a snack. Dark-haired, clean-cut, and with high cheekbones, Rob looks the very picture of sweet innocence. “Oral sex just isn't what sex means,” he says definitively, sounding distinctly reminiscent of Bill Clinton. “But I guess it's what hooking up can mean.”

So what does Christine mean by it? “Oh, we didn't have sex,” she says, shaking her brown curls slowly to add drama. “But we did come close. You know . . . ,” she trails off deliberately. “Anyway, I don't think I could have sex with other people there.”

“Like those two freshmen at the New Year's party that we walked in on?” asks Rob. “Remember that? They were totally going at it on the day bed, and we just walked in and they didn't care.” He starts laughing. “And, meanwhile, this other girl was in the room, just using the phone, like, 5 feet away from them. Talking like they weren't even there. She didn't care at all. She was just, like, 'Whatever.'”

Ah, adolescence. In every decade, it's always been as much about raging hormones as it is about personal discovery. But make no mistake about it: Things today are very, very different in high school from the way they used to be. Not different from two or three generations ago, but different from just 5 or 10 years ago. Kids may not be telling their parents so, but among their peers they are unflinchingly plain about it: Oral sex is the new second base. When it comes to sexual experimentation, high school is the new college. The prom, which will bring self-consciously attired teenagers to function rooms and high school gyms all around Boston and its suburbs this month, is no longer even remotely the traditional night of sweet discovery or coming of age. And sex, says Monica, a quiet-spoken 17-year-old student in East Boston, is the new kissing: “People just assume you do it, because most everybody is.”

Parents across Massachusetts were shocked last year when police uncovered a sex scavenger hunt at Newton South High School — including a list of sex acts to perform for points — and when oral sex was reported between a 15-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy on a Silver Lake Regional school bus. Kids, however, were not. “We thought it was funny that they got caught,” says Jessica, a cute, lively, blond 17-year-old senior. “But nobody was surprised. I mean, I've been on buses when people have hooked up bigtime. And I've heard of boys asking girls to touch them or whatever and people doing it on buses and at school.”

Recent studies about teen sexuality and months of interviews with students from eight Boston-area high schools suggest that today's eastern Massachusetts teens are both sexually advanced (blame the Internet) and sexually daring. And most aren't afraid to go out and try what they're curious about — or put serious pressure on their peers to give it to them. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 46 percent of Massachusetts high school boys say they have engaged in sexual intercourse. Columbia University's National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse says that number is on a par with the national figure, up from about 20 percent in the early 1970s. The same study shows that the percentage of 15-year-old girls having intercourse has skyrocketed from 5 percent to 38 percent nationally. The CDC says the number of Massachusetts high school girls having sex is even higher, at 42 percent.

With this increase in sexual activity has come a profound shift in the culture of high school dating and sex, with no-strings “hooking up” — and Internet porn and online cybersex — often replacing dating. “We talk dirty to each other a lot,” says Rob, who is 18. “It definitely goes beyond just asking, 'What are you wearing?' It's a lot of R-rated flirting, and I definitely know kids who have had cybersex.”

Jessica agrees. “Relationships are a lot of responsibility,” she says. “Lots of kids think hookups and online stuff is just easier.”

The very terminology kids use is their way of pushing off not only responsibility, but fear, says Lynn Ponton, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and author of The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls.

“Just look at what words teens use to describe sex,” says Ponton. “Today, it's 'hooking up,' which is a casual term that [teens] use to make sex less frightening. If it's just 'hooking up,' it doesn't have the same fear going along with it.”

Teenage sex is obviously not a new phenomenon. But 20 years ago, not only was it much less pervasive, it also had a different context. That context was called dating. Typically it went like this: Boy drives up to girl's house, rings doorbell, meets girl's parents, drives off to movies and/or dinner with girl. Sex was something that happened only after a boy and girl had “gone steady” for a while. These days, something else is much more common: Single boys and girls with nothing to do go in a group to a friend's house (where the parents may or may not be home), drink or smoke pot, then pair off and engage in no-strings “hookups.” A week later, when the same scenario happens again, they hook up with someone else.

Don't believe it? Michael Milburn, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and coauthor of the book Sexual Intelligence, says the days of a boy showing up at a girl's front door and meeting her parents before he takes her on a date are almost obsolete. “Dating has been replaced by house parties and a culture of 'hooking up,'” says Milburn. The reason? Simple, he says: “Kids today are raised in a hypersexual culture where they're told every day that sex will make them happy.”

What is less simple is identifying the cause of this dramatic shift. Perhaps it's the intense sexualization of teen culture of recent years. But what has caused that? It's tempting to blame the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs so popular with teens (spotlighting scantily clad adolescent models of both genders), the aforementioned Bill Clinton, or the highly sexual marketing of today's teen pop idols. In the 1980s, Madonna's relatively tame “Like a Virgin” and George Michael's “I Want Your Sex” (even when accompanied by a video urging viewers to “Explore Monogamy”) were considered shocking. Now there are dramatically more suggestive images, lyrics, and videos: from Britney Spears singing about her virginity (or lack thereof) and doing a striptease on MTV, to an equally undressed Christina Aguilera singing “Dirrty” on her new album, Stripped. Take your pick of any of the sexual music videos that highlight bodies (usually girls') in various states of undress. And while blaming only one of these causes may be too simplistic, the impact of each is significant. Add it up, say kids, and what you've got is intense pressure coming from seemingly every direction to be sexually active.

“There's definitely a lot of pressure at school to have sex,” says Rebecca, a tall, carefully groomed Roslindale senior with dark eyes. “A lot of people lie and say they've done it. You see these girls on TV in a [music] video, and they're perfect. And you think you have to be like that even if you can't be. And you see them half-naked on TV and in magazine ads, and they're with a guy with his hand on her butt, and it's all sex, all the time, all around you. And you think, maybe that's what I should be doing. And your friends see the same thing and say the same thing, and they ask you all the time if you're having sex or not.”

Such pressure may seem like enough to send teens screaming to embrace the widely publicized abstinence movement, but so far that hasn't happened — in spite of stepped-up efforts by abstinence backers. Last year, the Bush administration sought an 83 percent increase in federal spending on an abstinence education grant program, bringing the annual total for abstinence-only education to $135 million and sparking debate over whether the money would be better spent on teaching kids about having responsible, protected sex. The abstinence-only program bars classroom teachers who use the money from discussing contraception — that is, other than stressing that condoms are not 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). At the moment, 49 states including Massachusetts use federal funds for education programs that discourage sexual activity outside of marriage.

Instead of encouraging kids to resist the pressure to have sex, the abstinence movement seems to be causing a backlash. Evidence that any of the movement's efforts are actually keeping teens from having sex — or protecting themselves when they do have it — is minimal at best. In 2001, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said it had found no conclusive evidence showing an impact by the abstinence movement on how much sex teenagers were having. In one town in upstate New York, 13 girls, some as young as 14, were infected with the HIV virus after having sexual relations with the same man in 1997. And in suburban Rockland County, Georgia, more than 200 teens, some as young as 12, were exposed to syphilis in 1996 by swapping partners for casual sex. In Massachusetts, 43 percent of high school students admit they didn't use a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“Most people just do it to do it,” says Nicole. “The abstinence movement just makes us want to do it more. Plus, there's a lot of pressure to do it. If you're together for more than a month, everyone starts asking you if you've done it yet.”

Many teens consider abstinence a moot point. “Most of my friends think it's stupid,” says Jordie, an outspoken 18-year-old student at the Snowden International School in Boston. “You know, you see an ad on TV for abstinence and ignore it. They see this person telling them not to have sex, and they've already had sex a long time ago. So they say, 'I've already done it, so abstinence has nothing to do with me.'”

Many area teens get birth control at local clinics. “I went to one with a friend once and we saw like seven girls I knew,” says Christine, who visits a clinic near her home in Hull. “But I just heard about it from friends, not through school.” In fact, when asked, many kids give their in-school sex education low marks. “I had it in seventh grade, and not since then,” says Jessica. “They talked a lot about HIV but didn't tell us much about birth control at all. They showed us a couple of videos about rape and nothing about sexual harassment — I learned about that from my mom,” she says. “Overall, the class was pretty weak.”

When real sex education isn't available or sufficient, teens overwhelmingly turn to one source: their computers. “Teens now get most of their sex 'education' from the Internet,” says Richard Davis, a Boston University-trained psychologist who specializes in Internet behavior and founded the Web site “Some of that information is great, but the Internet also increases the sexual repertoire of young people, exposing them to extreme sexual behaviors like rape or animal sex or child pornography. The problem is, kids don't understand the ramifications of different sexual activities. It's like exposing a young child to swear words, and the child goes around using the words without knowing exactly what they mean.”

One of the biggest casualties of the Internet sex education phenomenon is accurate information. In the case of birth control, kids who say they use it appear to be doing so primarily to prevent pregnancy, without much concern for disease. “Lots of girls use pills, and sometimes boys use condoms,” says Christine. “But it's mostly pills. Nobody's very concerned about AIDS. We don't really see many STDs around here. Kids think it's just something that they [parents] made up to keep us from having sex.”

There seems to be an equal amount of misunderstanding about whether STDs can be passed through oral sex. “I never worry about that. No one even considers that real sex. But everyone's concerned with pregnancy. So am I,” says Rob.

“Herpes is worse than AIDS,” says Jessica, a junior at Boston Latin School.

“No way. I'd rather be pregnant than have AIDS,” pipes in her friend Michelle. “That's why so many people use condoms.”

Asked if they have — or know anyone who has — found that a condom wasn't handy during foreplay and had sex anyway, they nod yes. “So many people are on the pill. And they worry about having kids much more than about diseases,” Jessica explains.

In some cases, neither issue appears to be a concern. “If you see a girl and you think she's hot,” says Jordie, “and your friends say, 'Don't mess with her, she's got VD,' chances are you'll probably mess with her anyway. Because why not?”

The more crucial question may be, in the face of all the dangers, why. “Teens feel more and more isolated,” says Milburn. “And sex is a way to form a connection, a way to self-medicate their pain and stress and insecurities and isolation, much in the same way people use drugs, alcohol, or food.”

If the way teens are using sex is akin to drugs, then the failure of Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign may be the most apt analogy for the general failure of the abstinence movement. In fact, more often than not, sex and alcohol and/or drugs go hand in hand. “The main drugs are alcohol and pot,” says Rob. “Sometimes prep-school kids do ecstasy, mushrooms, coke — coke is actually getting more popular right now. Kids don't see it as dangerous even though they've seen some of their friends ruined by it. I guess it's sort of a responsibility thing. We just don't want any, you know? As you get older, you have more freedom. You have a car and a part-time job. You want to escape from all that.”

Years ago, college was the place for sexual experimentation. Now it's high school. One of the many reasons for that may be that girls have changed their attitudes toward monogamy. Naomi Ninneman, manager of adult education at the local Planned Parenthood, oversees an education program that counsels 1,500 teens per month about relationships and sex. She says she often hears girls saying they have lost their faith in relationships.

“We hear stuff about mistrust a lot,” she says. “When we ask questions like, 'How do you build trust in a relationship?' we often hear girls say, 'You don't.' Many girls still want relationships, but feel like it's a lost cause.”

Their complaints may be increasingly valid. If the numbers are any indication, teenage boys are exhibiting more sexual aggression than ever. Over the last two years, a rash of teen arrests in Braintree, Canton, Kingston, and Winthrop in connection with alleged assaults and rapes left dumbfounded parents and school administrators searching for answers: Why are these boys becoming more sexually aggressive? Why are these rapes happening in Massachusetts?

“There seem to be isolated pockets across the country where we're seeing more cases of [teen rape], and New England is where it seems to be happening right now,” says Lynn Ponton, the psychiatry professor. “But it's surprising to me that people are so shocked when these things happen. The media and the Internet continually feed teenage boys the idea that girls are sexual objects at their disposal. It's gotten significantly worse in the last 5 and 10 years. The degradation of women is everywhere, it's glorified, and then we're surprised when teens act that out?”

Most of the local rapes involved older boys and younger girls, which doesn't surprise students from local schools, who describe a culture in which senior boys routinely proposition younger girls at weekend parties and even in the halls at school.

“At Hingham High, there's a core group of jocks who go way out of their way to hook up with freshman and sophomore girls, because they know it's easy ass,” Rob says nonchalantly. Christine, who was sexually abused last year when she passed out drunk after a party, is noticeably less at ease with the subject, but agrees. “They're mean to anyone who isn't rail thin and super attractive. And even if you are, once they've used you for sex or oral sex, they're mean to you anyway. They walk right up to you in the hall and grab you and say gross things to you. And they think that's okay. And it's like, Hello? What a turnoff.”

Ponton says a majority of girls under 16 report that their first sexual experience was forced. “For young girls, sexual intercourse, whether it's forced or not, feels like an invasion,” she says. “When you combine that with the actual increase in violence and aggression of teen boys, it's a very serious situation.”

For some girls, it's a matter of privacy and betrayed trust. “I would never seriously date anyone from my school again,” says Nicole. “Because once you do, your boy will tell everybody your business about what you're doing with him sexually. And in that way, you have no privacy. It's like I'm dating the whole school.”

Backing off from monogamous relationships, some girls say, has given them a greater sense of control. “If I want to hook up with someone, I will,” says Monica. “It's not fair that I should be too scared to because they, like, might call me a slut or whatever. It's my decision.”

Carl Wilson of the Washington, DC-based Coalition for Positive Sexuality, a self-described “guerrilla sex-education” group, says girls can be more openly sexual today than 20 years ago. “We're seeing more girls having sex without dating, and I think that's a way to fight the whole 'bitches' and 'whores' thing that's been used to disempower women sexually,” Wilson says. “Part of [the coalition's] message to girls and teens is, 'You have the right to have the sex you want, and the right to not have the sex you don't want.'”

Commenting on the age-old double standard, Rebecca lays that philosophy out even more bluntly. “Once a girl does it with more than one guy, she's a 'ho,'” she says, using popular-culture shorthand for whore. “But these days, when you think about it, everyone is a ho. Because if a dude is messing around, he's considered a player and he gets all kinds of high-fives. But if a girl plays, then she's a ho. But the truth is, everybody's having casual sex and pretty much everybody's doing it with multiple partners. So, really, everybody is a ho.”

Even with this exponential increase in high school sexual experimentation, one thing is clear: Parents — and these are largely parents who were products of the sexual revolution — are overwhelmingly clueless about their kids' sexual experiences and knowledge. Most teens interviewed for this story said their parents have no idea what their real sex lives are like, and that they get much of their own sex education online.

“The problem is that most parents don't have a model of how to talk to their kids in a meaningful way about sex,” says Milburn. “Parents often have a lot of their own guilt and shame around sex, and that keeps them from talking to their kids in an honest way.”

To combat this, Planned Parenthood's Ninneman suggests that parents use situation-based examples to jump-start conversation with their kids. “We often tell parents to use a news piece or a movie to bring up the topic,” Ninneman says. “If you see people on TV talking about sex, ask your kid what they think about it. It helps ease the tension and makes it easier for both of you.” What's more, advises Milburn, that conversation should go beyond just the biological basics. It should, he says, “also emphasize values relevant to sexual decision-making, and the emotional components of sexuality.”

The emotional components of sexuality may be a foreign concept to many teenagers, who have shunned the complicated world of relationships for quick and emotionally distant sex. On the other hand, frightened or not, there are those who say they're holding out hope for the future.

Back in that South Shore restaurant booth — between complaints about the lack of anything to do and gossip about upcoming graduation parties — Jessica pipes up. “A lot of girls I know do want relationships. But for me, not if it means being treated like shit. I'd rather be alone than that,” she says, slurping up the last bit of Coke out of an ice-filled glass and pulling on her windbreaker. “In college, it seems like guys will start to wise up about relationships. I guess we'll see.”