To be very specific, a group of 20 to 25 kids were bumping and grinding to the music. Some boys removed their shirts. Some girls unbuttoned or unzipped the tops of their hip-huggers. The children involved were 12 and 13 years old. Dances are huge here, and it was hard to cancel it, but we needed to make a statement that the recreation department was not going to allow this kind of behavior," says Diane Dinell of the Weston Recreation Department, which sponsored the dance.
Not so long ago, at Catholic school dances, nuns would move from couple of couple, warning them to leave enough room "for the Holy Ghost." Today, you couldn't squeeze a toothpick between some of the young couples on the dance floor.
And "dirty dancing" may be the least of parental nightmares. Though there are few hard numbers on the sexual habits of young teens, the incident in Weston, Mass. and other anecdotal evidence suggests that they are becoming more sexually precocious. Nowadays, puberty begins at a younger age--and so, apparently, does sexual experimentation.
A recent "sin poll" conducted by a student newspaper at Milton Academy found 15 percent of freshmen reported having engaged in oral sex, twice the number who said they'd had intercourse. After a dirty dancing experience a few years ago, Collins Middle School in Salem, Mass. went into "shutdown," and the entire school developed rules for proper behavior at future dances. In a manuscript psychologist Michael Thompson just completed on children and social cruelty, he cites a survey in which 25 percent of eighth-graders reported fondling another's genitals.
"The big thing in the eighth and ninth grade used to be kissing and touching, and now that is being fast-forwarded to having oral sex," says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Lexington, Mass. psychologist who treats adolescents and adults. Her message to both boys and girls is simple: Wait. "A bad early sexual experience can really affect you later on in having good, healthy romantic relations."
The good news is that there has been a decrease in sexual intercourse among teenagers. According to a survey last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation, slightly less than half of high-school students had intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991. But the other news is that more teenagers are engaging in oral sex: 55 percent, the same survey found. They reason that they can't get pregnant and think--erroneously--that they can't get AIDS.
Interviews reveal that many middle schoolers are following the high schoolers' lead. "People are pretty wary about having real sex," says one 13-year-old boy at a suburban school where an eighth-grade girl was recently discovered performing oral sex on a male classmate. With intercourse, he says, "a lot can go wrong. It can screw up your life." But the boy and his friends don't equate oral sex with actually having sex. "It's just hooking up," he says. "It happens all the time." And dirty dancing? "It's not like a sexy thing," says 14-year-old George Sholley of Milton. "It's just the way you dance."
In today's teen lingo, "hooking up" is the term of choice, and it can mean "anything from kissing to third base; it's not the home run," as the 13-year-old boy puts it.
Stacey Harris, a 12-year-old who attends Milton (Mass.) Academy, has seen couples making out at parties since early sixth grade. "There is peer pressure to hook up. You gotta know that just because you don't, people won't hate you," she says. "The guys who hook up are cool, but the girls are called sluts or ho's. There's no such thing as a guy slut."
Therapists who treat adolescents are hearing more and more from girls who feel coerced into substituting oral sex for intercourse. And in interviews, middle-school girls describe oral sex as a way of preserving their virginity. "It's totally different from real sex," says one 14-year-old who attends a private girls' school. "We don't call it sex. It's very common in the eighth grade. Girls do it to be cool, and to protect their reputations." It's okay to have oral sex at her age or younger, she says, but not sexual intercourse. "The worst thing that can happen to a girl is to get pregnant."
Two eighth-grade girls who attend a Dorchester middle school in Boston say that pressure from boys to perform oral sex starts in the seventh grade. "Boys will say, `Will you do me?' I say, `No way.' It's not worth the diseases," says one 13-year-old. Talk to the boys, however, and they deny any coercion. "We ask them, and if they say no, that's their choice," says one 14-year-old boy. He adds: "But sooner or later, they may say yes." His two friends nod in agreement.
Thompson, who has written several books on adolescents, tells of a seventh-grade boy who engaged in oral sex with an eighth-grade girl. "He said to me, `I know this is supposed to be very exciting, but I haven't reached puberty yet.' "
Generally, though, it's the other way around: The boy is the instigator. Many girls see oral sex as a bargain, says Deborah Roffman, a health educator whose book, "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parents' Guide to Talking Sense About Sex," is due out in January. "They think, `He'll stop pressuring me to have intercourse if I do this.' The girls also think it puts them in control. But it's a no-win situation for them. It's just a cutting of their losses," she says. "This kind of early sexual behavior is sexist and dehumanizing, and the girls don't even get it."
Experts stress that it is still the minority of young teens who are actually having some sort of sexual experience. "The majority are intensely interested in what's going on," says Thompson, who is also the counselor at the Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Mass. "But they're holding back, seeing what the impact is."
But--as was the case in Weston--the involved minority is a very visible minority: the popular kids. "It's the kids who want to be the social leaders, who want to set the pace, and they're going to take the risks to dazzle everybody else," says Thompson. "The majority can stand back and watch and talk a lot about it and sort of get off vicariously on what they're doing."
Parents shocked by reports of such behavior so early need to take a close look at the messages they are sending their kids, experts say. Allowing unlimited access to the Internet or MTV and letting R-rated movies regularly into the home all desensitize children to the issue of sex. Then there's the time-honored parental emphasis on intercourse and pregnancy when talking about sex. "We parents have persistently said that the only kind of real sex is intercourse, and we reinforce the notion that the rest of it is not real; it doesn't have consequences," Roffman says. "The parents are not there. They are not giving the kids the right information, clear values and clear limits. So kids are free to experiment with things based on their very limited view, which they get from TV and each other."
One result, says Erika Guy, assistant headmaster at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., is that oral sex has become the sexual issue that "more than anything else divides our generations." Students are astounded to hear her label it "the most intimate act," and she, in turn, is astounded at their more casual attitude.
"I was saying that this is the far reaches of intimate sex, and they were saying that this was entry-level sex," she says. "There's a real generational split here. To them, it's okay." A major culprit seems to be the highly sexualized popular culture--preaching abstinence to teens yet targeting them with suggestive lyrics, commercials, and movies--from which young people take their cues. "If kids are seeing and hearing about how prevalent sex is in the lives of celebrities, then they want to experience that for themselves," says 14-year-old Sholley.
From MTV to Abercrombie and Fitch ads, males with their hands on their crotches are prevalent, surrounded by girls in suggestive clothing and positions. Britney Spears does a striptease at the MTV Awards, and hard-core pornography pervades the Internet. The number of sexual references on mainstream TV tripled during the 1990s, according to the Parents Television Council.
And music is eroding the taboo against oral sex among black youths. "Rappers have put it out there, and now it's considered popular among the kids," says Matt Balls, director of teen services at the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club.
Just turn on MTV, Guy advises parents. "Eighty percent of the dance movements really mimic a sexual act," she says. "Look at the advertising in magazines. The kids are swimming in all of this, and parents don't even realize it."
And the targets are increasingly becoming younger and younger children. "Through no fault of their own," says Steiner-Adair, "the popular culture is unusually sexually violent, demeaning, and cynical about love and tenderness and heartfelt connections between men and women."
Kathleen Hassan, who leads a self-esteem group for girls ages 11 to 14 in Milton, Mass. called Girls' Voices/Good Choices, was surprised recently when she asked her 4-year-old niece to sing her a song. "I expected `The Itsy Bitsy Spider,' " she says, "but she started singing, `Oops! . . . I Did It Again' by Britney Spears," with the refrain, "I'm not that innocent."
If children are not that innocent these days, they need to hear more from the adults in their lives, experts say. "My daughter and I talk about it all," says the mother of the ninth-grader who attends the all-girls' school. "I know some of her friends are into this. I feel with all the pressure out there, my voice needs to be louder."
Most parents, says Thompson, start discussions two years too late; frank talk should begin at least by age 10. "Puberty's coming earlier and earlier and earlier," he says, "and then we're astonished when they take these bodies out and flash them around."
Roffman sees sexualized middle schoolers as both a symptom of lost values and a wake-up call to parents. "This is about body parts relating to body parts, not about human beings engaged in intimate behavior," she says. "These kids are going to be jaded. If you've done oral sex in the eighth grade, what's next? These kids have totally missed out on the idea of sex as intimacy. "We adults have to understand that we are raising kids in the world as it is and not as we want it to be," she adds. "We have to stop looking at the world through our eyes and see the world through their eyes."