By Cosima Mariner
Remember your first fumble in the dark? Sneaking around, hormones pumping, wrestling with clothing, the thrill of the illicit before crossing the threshold of first touch, first kiss, first sex. Memories of the first time are tinged with feelings of awkwardness, excitement and wistfulness. War stories and boasts of adolescent escapades form a key part of the narrative of our lives.
Yet the mention of teenage sex often sparks moral panic among older generations, convinced today’s youngsters are more lascivious, morally looser and less responsible than they were. Urban myths abound, like rainbow parties where girls wearing different-coloured lipstick perform fellatio on the same boy, or sex bracelet parties where different-coloured bangles signify what you’re up for (anything ranging from a hug to anal sex, apparently).
So what’s it really like to be a sexually active teen today? They’re having sex younger. They’re having it more often. They’re doing it with more people. And they’re doing things we’ve never heard of – or at least we certainly hadn’t when we were their age.
The single defining characteristic of teenage sex in 2013 is porn. Graphic, hardcore sex, free for anyone with a smart phone to watch. It’s so ubiquitous that the average age of first exposure to porn is now just 11 years old, warping kids’ ideas of what normal sex is years before they are likely to try it themselves.
“When you put a smart phone in the hands of a teen or tween, you’re basically giving them access to online porn,” says Liz Walker, the national director of Get a Grip Teenz education program. “How do we equip kids to understand the difference between porn and real sex? A huge percentage of people who watch porn then want to try it.”
Boys are turning up to see sex therapists because they are anxious they can’t last 20 minutes before ejaculating (the average time is actually three to six minutes). They’re asking sex educators if it’s okay to have sex with animals. Girls are keen to have cosmetic surgery – boob jobs and labiaplasty are popular – convinced the porn-star look and performance is what boys want in bed.
“I didn’t know a lot about sex in the beginning,” says 17-year-old April. “When I watched porn with my boyfriend, I thought that’s how girls should moan, that’s how you should pleasure your partner. Then I had sex and I realised it’s about how you feel, how your partner feels.”
Sydney sex therapist Matty Silver worries that hardcore porn has become the de facto sex education for young people, because parents are too embarrassed to talk to their children about sex, and many schools are “terrified” of providing explicit sex education.
“Porn shows vaginas that are not real, there is no hair, guys go for a very long time, penises are long and firm, sex is really rough, and girls like it when you come on their face,” says Silver. “Porn tends to present one world view – the male view – of sex.”
But Anne Mitchell, deputy director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, argues that for many adolescents “the chance to see any sexual activity is really important and valued”. Many kids now use online porn as a “how to” tutorial. “I gave head one day when I didn’t know how to do it,” says Malina, 17, “so I went home before and watched porn just to see how to do it.”
The Digital Mating Dance
As the first generation of digital natives, today’s teenagers mate and relate via technology. Around half of all teens own a smart phone, giving them instant access to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to connect and document their exploits. “There is no doubt that technology now plays a major role in the social and sexual lives of young people, and takes them to places where their elders can’t see what is going on,” says Mitchell.
Natalie’s father probably wished he hadn’t seen what was going on when he walked into the 16-year-old’s bedroom to find her masturbating in front of her computer for the benefit of her boyfriend watching via Skype. “It was a little awkward,” Natalie giggles.
But technology can make things worse than awkward if intimate encounters are recorded and broadcast for mass consumption. Spare a thought for the 14-year-old who had sex in the back of a maxi taxi with her boyfriend one Saturday night, unaware her friends were filming it on their phones. “By the time she got to school on Monday, everyone had seen it,” says Liz Walker.
“The trauma from that is huge, and there is this ripple effect through the school.”
No teen wants a “rep”, yet many get a kick out of sending a racy text or image of themselves, not realising they could be prosecuted under child pornography laws. One in five 10- to 15-year-olds have either sent or received a sext, according to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry.
Even the latest craze, Snapchat, which lets you send images that self-destruct after a few seconds, can backfire if the recipient takes a screen shot.
But Fred, 17, thinks sexting is pointless. “It’s stupid sitting at home sexting. It makes you incredibly horny. I’d rather just go over [to see them] and do it. Why send a picture when you are able to touch that person?”
Sex goes casual
Friends with benefits, booty calls, f… buddies, hooking up. Short-term relationships and one-night stands have replaced “going steady” for many 16-year-olds, often facilitated by Facebook and mobile phones. “I’m not really good with commitment,” says Malina. “So with my f… buddy I can have sex with him, but then have sex with someone else and he won’t get angry about it because he can have sex with someone else as well and I won’t worry about it.”
The 2008 La Trobe University Secondary Students and Sexual Health survey found 16-year-olds are more likely to change partners than 18-year-olds, with people settling into longer-term relationships as they get older. Thirty per cent of sexually active students reported having three or more sexual partners in the previous year, up from 20 per cent in 2002.
Women of a certain age recall that when they were young, oral sex was an “exotic” part of one’s bedroom repertoire, something you tried after five years of marriage when your sex life had become stale. Anal sex was taboo. For today’s teens, fellatio is so prosaic it’s been nicknamed “a goodnight kiss” in the United States. Nearly half of Australian high school students over 15 have had oral sex, according to the La Trobe survey.
But there’s still squeamishness about “giving” oral pleasure. “You have to get the courage up to give head,” April confesses. “You go [deep breath], ‘One, two, three, go for it!’ It’s uncomfortable for a girl. It’s weird.”
Fred didn’t try oral sex with his girlfriend until months after they lost their virginity together. “She’s the only one I’ve ever done [oral sex] with,” he says. “I find it a very personal thing; you’re crossing a serious line.”
Teens are also crossing one of the last sexual frontiers – anal sex. Spurred by porn, this shift is so recent there is only anecdotal evidence about its prevalence, with suggestions up to 10 per cent of young people have tried anal. April is one of them. “I was curious so I tried it, I just kind of went for it,” she says.
“I don’t know if I would do it again. It’s kind of uncomfortable and pleasurable at the same time.”
Risk-taking marks the rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. Like hooning in a car, sneaking into a pub underage, or sharing a joint, going all the way is a key milestone of adolescence. One in three students in year 10 have lost their virginity, rising to 60 per cent of year 12 students, according to the La Trobe survey. But despite learning about contraception at school, 40 per cent of students admit they don’t always use a condom, often because “it feels better” or “it just happened”.
“Teachers are concerned about the complacency and confusion among kids; they need to know it all, but they’re not able to deal with it emotionally,” says Liz Walker.
Pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections remain key health risks for sexually active teenagers. Rates of chlamydia among girls aged 15 to 19 quadrupled in the decade to 2011, while rates for boys increased five fold. Australia’s teenage pregnancy rate is 4 per cent, higher than countries such as France and the Netherlands, but lower than the US.
Even if today’s adolescents don’t always practice safe sex, Mitchell believes they are more confident discussing contraception and STIs with prospective partners, and they know more about sex generally. April made her first boyfriend get checked for STIs because he had “slept around a lot”. “He came out clean, which is good, because I don’t want to catch anything,” she says. “I’m on the pill, so after that we never used condoms, even though you should.”
A quarter of students surveyed by La Trobe admitted they were drunk or high the last time they had sex. Mitchell says the binge-drinking culture among teenage girls is leading to a rise in unwanted sex, with one in five girls saying they had unwanted sex because they were too drunk at the time. “Picking up a drunk girl? We’ve all done that,” says Fred.
And now for the good news
“Most young people mostly have the sex they want, and they’re having it in a fairly safe way,” stresses Anne Mitchell. “Any teen lives a good sexual life if they are not stressed or threatened or unhappy about it.” More than 90 per cent of teenagers in the La Trobe survey wanted the last sex they had.
It’s also easier to be a gay teenager today, thanks to celebrity role models such as Ruby Rose and Matthew Mitcham, better sexuality education in schools, and the internet offering more avenues to find like-minded people.
“There is a much better climate in schools about having a same-sex relationship,” says Mitchell. About 8 per cent of sexually active young men say their last sex was with a man, compared to 4 per cent of girls who had lesbian sex.
Experts say parents play a crucial role in instilling healthy sexual behaviour in their children. “A good relationship with parents will have a much stronger influence on young people’s outcomes than seeing porn online,” says Rachel Skinner, associate professor of adolescent sexual behaviour at the University of Sydney.
“It’s not just about having one conversation with a child about the birds and the bees when they’re young; it’s having an ongoing conversation right through the teenage years, helping them negotiate relationships. Parents need to take the relationships teenagers have seriously, because teenagers certainly take them seriously.”
With additional research by Nina Karnikowski and Brigid Delane