In pop culture's breezy treatment of the matter, teenagers have an uncomplicated relationship with sex: Apart from the designated nerds, everyone's having carefree sexual fun or conniving to do so at the earliest opportunity. A more complex picture emerges, however, when you interrogate real-life teenagers about sex, as ABC News did in a survey of kids age 13-17.
The haves aren't necessarily happier than the have-nots. The poll found that "teens who are currently in a sexual relationship are 15 points less likely than their counterparts to say they're 'very satisfied' with their lives overall (47 percent compared with 62 percent). Such results suggest that at least some teen sexual activity can be seen as an expression of broader personal discontent." Boys were nearly as likely as girls (10 percent vs. 13 percent) to say they have "done something sexual they didn't want to." Along the same lines, 26 percent of girls and 19 percent of boys said they've "been in a relationship where things moved too fast." Among the 19 percent of teens who claim to have had sexual intercourse, half wish they'd waited until they were older.
The poll undercuts the notion that teen life is full of pressure to have sex. In fact, just 20 percent of girls and 27 percent of boys said they feel this way. The number feeling "a lot" of pressure is in single digits. "Far more teens feel pressure, and feel it more intensely, in other areas of their lives—pressure to get good grades (78 percent), to look good (62 percent) and to fit in (44 percent)." This helps explain why relatively few teens (33 percent) think about sex every day.
The old "double standard" persists, with girls its chief adherents. The teens were asked how one's reputation is affected by having sex. Among female respondents, 85 percent said it gives a girl a "bad" reputation, vs. 1 percent saying it gives her a "good" reputation and the rest saying it makes no difference either way. By contrast, 42 percent of female respondents said having sex gives a boy a good reputation, while 31 percent said it gives him a bad reputation and the rest said it makes no difference. Male respondents were less likely to say that having sex gives a girl a bad reputation (61 percent) or that it gives a boy a good reputation (32 percent).
While we're used to parents voicing dismay about sexual content in pop culture, their kids often share that view. Sixty-five percent of girls said there's too much sex on TV and in movies, as did 42 percent of boys. We must, though, salute the frankness of the 6 percent of boys who insisted there's "not enough" sex on the screen. They'll go far (as programmers and producers).