Last summer, junior David* pulled up to a parking lot. He stopped the car and motioned for a girl he knows, another CHS student, to get in the backseat. Obligingly, she climbed in, he joined her, and they exchanged some brief conversation. After about 10 minutes of talking, she went down.
That girl now regrets her decision. She said she did it partly out of pressure, and when she walks through the hall she wonders if people are looking at her and thinking, “Oh, there’s that girl.” She didn’t think of the aftermath then, but she now feels used.
SEX IN POTOMAC
In today’s society, it seems increasingly common for high school students to have sex, but the perception of many CHS students is that the age at which one engages in sexual behavior has lowered in the last five or ten years.
According to freshman Jessica*, there are several freshmen in her grade who have been sexually involved with guys in both her grade and older grades to get attention and create a reputation. They even have adopted a name—the Naughty Nine.
“There are rumors about who’s in it, what they do,” Jessica said. “There are some girls who want to be known, and they want to be out there. A few people’s decisions have ruined our grade’s reputation. It’s kind of embarrassing. You get associated with these people. Everyone thinks you’re the ‘slutty’ grade.”
While students may feel that the pressure to have sex in high school has increased, nationally the number of teenagers having sex has actually decreased in recent years. A Jan. 26, 2009 New York Times article reported that according to a National Youth Risk Behavior study, the number of teenagers having sex dropped from 54.1 percent in 1991 to 47.8 percent in 2007. But even though fewer teens are engaging in sexual activity on a national scale, students such as senior Erica* feel that the situation is different at schools like CHS. According to Erica, these kids may be behaving based on their examples at home.
“Maybe it’s just this area with typical Potomac moms,” Erica said. “To them, it’s important to look young. It’s not bad to look young, but at a certain age you got to give up the short shorts.”
Senior Amanda* agrees that because of the environment some students live in, sex in high school is much more likely to occur.
“Kids in Potomac have a lot of freedom; we’re allowed to explore a lot of things,” Amanda said. “A lot of parents turn a blind eye that can turn out to damage kids.”
SEX AND THE PEOPLE YOU’RE HAVING SEX WITH
As a result, some students have adopted a more careless attitude toward not only sex, but also toward the partners they are involved with. According to David, who has recieved oral sex, it’s fine to engage in it if there’s a mutual respect, but it’s not always necessary.
“I have done it without respecting the girl,” David said. “How I treat them afterwards depends on the person.”
According to David, once a girl engages in sexual activity, her reputation is established among guys.
“They say, ‘Oh she’s a slut, I’ll try and get with her,’” David said. “It’s kind of sloppy, but some guys like that. I don’t mind casual sex in high school, but it makes the girls look like they’re throwing themselves out there and doing it for attention. You make yourself look bad; everyone talks about everyone. Kids, being at CHS, are nosy.”
Resource counselor Beverly Lubenetski, who has taught at CHS for six years, has noticed two major trends in her tenure as a counselor. One is the emergence of friends with benefits. Because boys and girls are such good friends, there is less embarrassment in experiencing sexual activity.
“When I first started teaching, kids still would ask each other out,” Lubenetski said. “There was a greater separation of boys and girls. Now it’s wonderful that there’s better communication, but there’s a breakdown of inhibition. The taboo of something like oral sex on a [friend] is not what it used to be.”
The other trend is the elimination of monogamous dating.
“The lack of dating etiquette has led to a breakdown of barriers which has led to increased sexual activity,” Lubenetski said. “When you can send a picture of your private parts, there’s more temptation. There are more avenues for sexual images with Facebook.”
SEX AND THE MEDIA
With the growth of social media, kids have more access to broadcast what they’re doing online. According to licensed psychologist Dr. Jacqueline Iseman, who attended CHS and currently runs a private practice dealing with children, adolescents and families, texting, Facebook and other modern day websites play a role in the sexual desensitization of today’s teenagers. Kids are being exposed earlier through social media to sexual topics in today’s society and discuss sex more often than she did when she was a student.
“There is a psychological distancing and anonymity that teens feel is provided by these mediums,” Iseman said. “Therefore, they feel it allows them to make comments and share information or sexual pictures of themselves that they would not otherwise share face-to-face. Unfortunately they believe that these ways of communicating are much more private then they actually are, and once the information is released it cannot be reversed.”
Jessica believes that part of the reason teens she knows are becoming so sexually active is because they’re seeing other kids online and wondering why they should be any different.
“You go on Facebook and it’s like they’re publicizing how active they are,” Erica said. “Everything’s more public now so kids feel pressure because they see everything. Looking at homecoming pictures, there are holes in dresses. My homecoming dress was to my knees and no cleavage. [These girls] are proud of dressing like skanks. The definition of modesty has changed. Before purity was valued, now it’s weird.”
According to a Nov. 3, 2008 MSNBC article, a 2004 study found that teens who watched shows with high sexual content, such as Sex and the City, That ‘70s Show and Friends, were more likely to become pregnant. The amount of sexual activity on TV has increased with popular teen shows such as Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, so presumably the level of sexual activity among teens will also continue to increase with time.
According to the results of an Observer survey distributed in English classes, more than 70 percent of the students who completed the survey watched shows with sexual content.
“It’s a cultural thing—its image is changing,” senior Amanda said. “People are more comfortable with it. When you’re watching TV, it encourages the idea [that] sex is not a huge deal. It’s something you should do if you like someone.”
SEX UNDER PRESSURE
Because of this desensitization, more students may be thinking others are active when in reality they are not. According to Iseman, many teens have sex out of pressure to attain and maintain popularity. Girls will have sex with a certain peer to secure a spot among the group or clique that they want to be a part of and engage in other sexual activities before feeling ready.
“Frequently teenage girls feel pressured to engage in these activities by their significant others or by the person that they interested in, even if they are not in an exclusive relationship,” Iseman said. “Teens seem to overestimate the longevity and intensity of these relationships as most do not endure through the high school years.”
According to Iseman, however, peer pressure is a greater factor among males.
“Approximately one-third of males report feeling pressure from their peers to have sex despite not feeling ready,” Iseman said. “It is perhaps this pressure that is then transferred from the males to their girlfriends.”
Iseman has also noticed a new trend of boys and girls, particularly in middle school, getting together frequently at parties to have oral sex. According to her, these teens underestimate the psychological effects. David, who first received oral sex in tenth grade, did it out of curiosity and wanting to gain experience.
“There’s pressure to meet standards,” David said. “I was interested and curious about it from things I’d heard. My friends talked about it. They’ve done it.”
However, part of peer pressure is perception. While many students feel pressure to have sex before college to gain experience, according to the Observer survey, the majority of students are not sexually active.
According to the survey results, around 12 percent of the freshman class this year has had sexual intercourse. However, over 50 percent of the freshmen who’ve had sex think that over 40 percent of their grade is active. The same goes for other grades as well. This false perception leads to many students putting greater pressure on themselves.
SEX FOR MARRIAGE ONLY
While many teens experience this pressure, there are also those who choose to resist the pressure and abstain from sex until marriage.
“There’s no self-control in our society,” said junior Aaron Ross, who is in a relationship. “When someone says no, it seems not normal. There’s no humility, and most people want what they want. Here, we can get what we want. As teenagers we’re crazy about sex because of hormones, and we go after it. A lot of these guys are forward; there’s no sense of respect, especially at CHS. Guys here don’t respect girls; some of the girls make themselves look like the victim. It takes two.”
Amanda, who is also abstinent and in a long-term relationship, believes there are more students resisting the pressure than people think.
“It’s brought to the forefront when one person does it; I know a lot of people who practice abstinence,” Amanda said. “I do believe a lot of kids value it, but maybe I’m just being optimistic.”
According to Iseman, most patients she sees who have sex in their early teenage years end up regretting it.
“When we get married, it’s supposed to be a special moment, and it’s ruined because kids do it younger,” Amanda said. “It adds unneeded pressure to young relationships. It adds stress when things get physical. I’ve seen it rip apart relationships.”
IS SEX SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE?
However, according to the results of the survey, 78 percent of students believe that having sex in high school is socially acceptable, and if one is in a relationship there is nothing wrong with taking things to the next level.
“You’re going to college; you’re almost an adult,” senior Nayomi Hettiarchchi said. “You’re going to have sex anyways. Sex is not a bad thing. It’s so frowned upon, but it’s a good thing. A lot of people do it. Don’t do it on someone else’s clock—wait until you’re ready, but I think it’s unrealistic to wait [until marriage] to have sex.”
Hettiarchchi does believe that younger, sexual relationships have a tendency to not last. According to Iseman, she has seen patients in these relationships experience greater emotional turmoil because they tend to be emotionally abusive. The damage to a person’s reputation can also lower an already fragile self-esteem, and students aren’t the only ones who hear the gossip about a teen’s reputation.
“Even if you walk down the halls you can hear kids,” Lubenetski said. “[Teachers] do hear things about students. It makes me sad because I know it hurts their self-esteem. They may have bravado, but they get hurt. You only get one body; you want to protect it.”
While sex in high school is a topic of particular interest to most students, personal values and environmental influences shape different attitudes toward having sex in high school for the first time. Hettiarchchi feels losing one’s virginity is overrated, but others feel differently.
“You’ll never gain back two things—your virginity and your reputation,” Erica said.
Hettiarchchi also feels younger students should understand that just because they had sex, it doesn’t necessarily mean the other person will return the same feelings or that the relationship will be stronger. She knows couples who have waited, and as a result they are stronger.
“Most people think they’re ready before they are,” Hettiarchchi said.
*Students interviewed requested that their names not be used.