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The joy of not having sex - yet

26th January 2001, USA, source unknown

Just as every generation of teenagers acts as if it is the first to discover sex, every generation of middle-aged adults acts as if it is the first to discover that teenagers are having sex. Certainly the current generation of middle-aged American adults is acting that way, since teen sex has become something of a cultural preoccupation here.

The Washington Post ran a front-page story a year or two ago that chronicled the sexual activities of a bunch of upper-middle-class 13-year-olds and reported that a bacchanal of blow jobs was taking place behind the bike sheds.

Then Talk magazine ran a quivering article entitled "The Sex Lives of Your Children," in which teenagers were interviewed in probing detail about their proclivities. These tended to the wildly gymnastic, to the point of actually including gymnasium equipment. A reader might well have suspected that the kids in question were pulling the reporter's leg, whatever else they were doing to each other's extremities.

This month, the government has made its own contribution to the teen-sex literature, with a report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development on teen sexual activity. In particular, the report centred on the efficacy of the "virginity pledge," a swearing-off of sex before marriage that has, apparently, been in vogue in recent years among teens, at least those not interviewed by the Washington Post or Talk magazine.

The virginity movement has been orchestrated since the early 90s by a Southern Baptist Church group called True Love Waits, and abetted by the likes of Britney Spears, who, according to many media reports, intends to save herself for the marital bed.

The report actually revealed that true love waits only for a little while - teenagers who take the virginity pledge postpone sexual relations for, on average, a few months longer than those who don't.

Taking the pledge had the biggest effect on teenagers aged between 15 and 17; while 18-year-old pledgers ended up having sex around the same time as their non-pledging peers. And pledgers, when they did eventually give it up, were less likely to engage in safe sex.

The report also reveals that taking the pledge amounted to an adoption of style in the face of peer-pressure, rather than an expression of conviction, something that will not surprise anyone who has ever experienced teenage anxiety over owning the right brand of sneakers.

Teenagers stuck to their virginal guns so long as only a few kids in their social circle were doing it; once pledging became mainstream across the school, it became "uncool" and so stopped making the slightest difference to behaviour.

And, stunningly, the researchers measured only what used to be called "technical virginity", and didn't ask teenagers about engaging in oral sex or mutual masturbation. But one look at the racks of teen magazines would have revealed that what teenagers are into now isn't celibacy, but a kind of "hot virginity", in which a girl (or boy) will do anything but.

Underlying the current public fuss in America about teen sex seems to be an uneasy titillation. Reading articles about the "terrible" things that teenagers are up to - or swearing off - provides a satisfying opportunity for both prurience and outrage; and so, for that matter, does writing about them. It's nymphet smut with a clean conscience. If those readers and writers were honest with themselves, though, they might admit that the cleanliness of their consciences is only technical.

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