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Depending on your teenagers age and the people they hang out with, you will probably find that they have been thinking about or exploring sex and sexual relationships. During the later teenage stages, sex becomes a big deal and each teenager will approach it differently. Young people are talking about, thinking about and having sex.


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The Child Trends databank of indicators related to child and youth well-being is no longer being updated so that we can focus on data tools and products core to the work of policymakers and other stakeholders, such as:. Additionally, we have a forthcoming interactive tool on childhood poverty we expect to release in late The share of high school students who are sexually active has fluctuated sinceranging from 30 to 38 percent. In Appendix 1 Among black students, however, the proportion who reported they were sexually active decreased from 59 percent in to 33 percent in The proportion of high school students who reported they had ever had vaginal sexual intercourse declined between andfrom 54 to 46 percent.

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The is I am consistently surprised by the ways older teenage and young adult students report having had their sexuality stigmatized and devalued.

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As a researcher who specializes in teenage sexuality and culture in comparative perspective, I was struck by framing: The Youth Risk Behavior Survey frames adolescent sexuality as a risk behavior, rather than a normal and developmentally appropriate exploration. The CDC website describes the survey as an effort to understand the "leading causes of illness, death, and disability" among youths.

This framing itself is damaging to adolescents and deprives them of the guidance they need from trusted adults at home, at school or in the doctor's office. Indeed, as I start the semester — remotely via TV screen and small Zoom boxes — I am consistently surprised by the ways older teenage and young adult students report having had their sexuality, including their romantic relationships, stigmatized and devalued.

I believe their development as young adults is being hindered by the framing of sexuality as a "health risk. Human sexuality — that marvelous source of attraction, sensation, identity, connection to self and to others — should not be defined as a risk.

Rather, I see it more akin to what the poet Audre Lorde called a "power. When, as human beings, we feel ownership over our sexuality, it can help us find our voice in the face of sexism and racism.

Are you ready for sex?

Although Lorde's essay was written for a particular time and audience, its essence can be applied to all American teenagers today. What happens all too often in the U. The Youth Behavior Risk Survey inadvertently contributes to the framing of sex as being by definition dangerous and undesirable. Researchers agree that it is good that fewer young teens are having sex. But framing sexual experience as a risk behavior distorts the picture for older teens.

But framing sexual experience as risk behavior distorts the picture for older teens.

The vast majority of American teenagers have had some kind of sex before they turn 20 years old. And whether the sexual experiences of older teenagers are healthy or not depends on the answers to questions that the Youth Risk Behavior Survey does not ask: Are both parties consenting, desiring sex and experiencing pleasure?

What to expect and what sex means for your teenager

Are they in positive romantic relationships, in which there is trust, open communication and respect? Unlike the U. The irony is that the country that treated young people's sexuality as a development task best guided by trusted adults pulled ahead in setting teenagers up for success by helping them avoid premature parenthood.

The Dutch parents I interviewed in my comparative study saw teenage sex less as a matter of "raging hormones," as the American parents I interviewed did, and more as a matter of teens' becoming ready and falling in love. And it is not only at home but also at school that Dutch teenagers find their romantic feelings and their capacity for good judgment validated, even celebrated.

Sexual activity among teens

For instance, a well-known sex education curriculum is called "Long Live Love. In addition to validating their adolescents' hearts, Dutch parents and teachers also take seriously young people's ability to self-regulate the actions that they take with their genitals.

Young people are frequently encouraged not to have sex before they feel ready, to take their time, to pace themselves and not to go any further than they and their partners want. And, of course, to use the pill or condoms or, at first, both.

Year after year, when my students at the University of Massachusetts learn about the Dutch approach to teenage love and sex, they say they wish their parents and teachers had provided them with a similar environment in which to discover these parts of life. They also talk about the harmful gender stereotypes that research has shown constitute real health risks.

As we well know, American girls confront "slut shaming" even as their culture encourages them to display their sexiness from an early age. Trusted adults could help them feel strong and claim their sexual power, but all too often they do not, leaving girls without resources they need.

Meanwhile, American boys are "love shamed" almost as intensely as their female peers are slut shamed. As a teacher in the time of Covid, I worry about how isolated many of my male students seem. Research suggests that for American boys, romantic relationships are an important source of intimate connection.

This experience of closeness is especially ificant given that as they grow up, adolescent boys in the U. Sitting at home right now, all of us face a sense of disconnection that is unprecedented. Let us not aggravate isolation by stigmatizing the sexuality of young people.

Sex and teenagers

When we focus exclusively on sexuality's risks, ignoring benefits, we deny young people a source of connection and pleasure they need and deserve. Amy Schalet is associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

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For teens: how to make healthy decisions about sex

How to empower teens in relationships and early dating June 4, Opinion How the coronavirus quarantine made my sullen teen a model daughter. Please submit a letter to the editor. Amy Schalet.