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Catching hell



Step into these shoes: A married, upper-class, working mom is stuffing blue jeans into the washing machine when a note falls out. From the crumpled page, the words "blow job" leap out. Further inspection reveals what would be a typical teen exchange, except for the crude and graphic description of how one of her daughter's friends -- a kid the mom has known since kindergarten -- goes about the deed. It's an instruction note, a sort of "how to" guide to giving head.

Over the next month, the mom's reaction alternates from shock to mild amusement to fear, as the questioning of her Winter Park High School honor student leads her into another world.

It's a world where unprotected oral sex -- even among the "good girls" -- is casual experimentation and not couched with any notion of intimacy. There are few "steady" relationships, and many teens have several sex partners. Boys get off while girls maintain their "technical virginity" without fear of getting pregnant.

"What you're going to find is a real high rate of sexual activity among teens in Central Florida," says Sue Idtensohn, director of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando. "There's a lot of oral sex and bisexuality, and this goes to 12- and 13-year-olds. A lot of kids are still experimenting. They're not getting pregnant, but there's still lots of disease." She estimates that of the 800 teens who come through her West Colonial office each year, between 20 and 25 percent have a STD.

This new wave of promiscuity carries serious consequences. While many teens don't think oral sex counts, the fact is, it does: Human papillomavirus, herpes simplex virus, hepatitis B, gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, chancroid and HIV can all be spread orally.

And while teens don't take oral sex seriously enough to protect themselves, many parents simply don't know what's going on. Schools are starting to catch on, but even then, many are too bogged down in rigid abstinence programs to do anything about it.

"There's not as many relationships," Jewel says in between nibbles of cheese pizza and glances at MTV. Instead, it's "just hooking up" -- the popular catch phrase for casual acts of intimacy. A pretty girl with dark hair and eyes, Jewel and three friends -- Jade, Madison and Carrie (the names have been changed) -- are sitting in a cozy suburban living room, chatting sheepishly about sex. They're all 15 going on 18, soon to be sophomores at Winter Park High School, typical girls-next door: White, middle class, image conscious, cell phone in hand, chatty but not obnoxious, flirtatious but not sexual.

"When you go to the movies with a guy, you are obligated to at least make out in the theater," Carrie says. "I know so many [girls] who avoid going to the theater with a guy."

"Boys try and guilt you," Madison says. "They're like, 'I'll pay you,'" Jade adds, for blow jobs, for flashing breasts, for kissing another girl. Drugs and alcohol also play a part. It's more than just the classic girl-gets-drunk-and-has-sex story, though those are common. Guys also use drugs to coerce. As the girls hear it: You smoked my weed, give me head.

Teen-age relationships are evolving for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the unbridled access these teens have to the Internet, where they can learn about virtually anything. At the same time, they live in a world fraught with sexual imagery. You can't turn on the TV or radio without being bombarded by innuendoes with sometimes confusing messages. Take pop superstar Britney Spears: She sings, "I'm a slave for you," on stage but proclaims her virginity in her off-stage life. (In keeping with her generation's notions of sexuality, Spears' spokesman was quoted by Hollywood as saying that although Spears didn't have sex with ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, she did service him in "other ways.")

Truth is, by the time these girls hit 17, almost half of their peers will have had intercourse, and about 16 percent will have had four or more partners. Despite that reality, many parents, religious groups and school programs cling to the idea that preaching chastity is the solution to teen-age pregnancy, STDs and broken hearts.

"I think a lot of parents don't know anything," Jewel says. In this focus group only Carrie feels that she can talk freely to her parents about sex. For the rest, the very idea of discussing sex is taboo. And the double-standard is still the unspoken law: If girls give into their impulses, they're called sluts. For boys, on the other hand, virginity is a stigma to be shorn at the earliest possible convenience.

One recently divorced, devoted and Catholic father of two children in Orange County public schools fully admits that the rules are different for his 16-year-old son than his 14-year-old daughter. Recent-ly, he caught a young girl giving his son a blow job after she sneaked into the house after hours. He faults the girl: His son was just following his animal instincts.

"Either you're a whore or a good girl," he says. "As a male, my son's got no prob-

lem receiving a blow job. He doesn't have a real high esteem of women, anyway -- you'll find that in broken homes. The double-standard is very much still alive."

At the same time, his son, Nathan, says, "I watch my dad crack down on my little sister." He, too, assumes a role as her protector. The irony, which he sort of gets, is that he's trying to protect his sister from guys like himself.

The oral sex fad among teens has been become sensational media fodder in recent months. Magazines such as Time and U.S. News and World Report, as well as talk-show hosts such as Oprah Winfrey, Fox News' Sean Hannity and National Public Radio's Juan Williams have all touched on the subject, a conflagration of sociological, political, biological and economic influences.

Some conservatives like to trace the rising popularity of oral sex and the idea of it being no big deal to Bill Clinton, who famously hedged definitions of sex to avoid impeachment. Clinton's not the first man to get a blow job, but his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was front-page news most of 1998. While his liaison certainly raised the profile of the sex act, maybe the issue isn't so much what Clinton did but the fact that America shrugged it off: If society didn't see oral sex as real sex, why should teens?

And, to a teen-age mind, if it's not real sex, how can it be dangerous?

"Unfortunately, a lot of children have probably been infected by what could have been prevented with good information," says Kathy Bowman-Harrow, who prepares Orange County Public Schools' sexual-education curriculum. "It takes a year or two for the community to catch up with what science already knows."

During the last 18 months, she says, reports from officials at the Florida Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and teachers have confirmed oral sex's rising popularity. Kids are asking more questions, and right now, sex-ed isn't keeping up.

Over the summer, Harrow is tweaking Orange's curriculum to more directly answer questions about oral and anal sex -- behaviors that teens often don't consider "real sex," but that can give them diseases just the same.

Orange County has an "abstinence-plus" program, meaning teachers are allowed to answer questions about contraceptives and nonvaginal sex while promoting abstinence. While the policy allows for discussions of contraceptives, it's still far from comprehensive, in that talk of birth control and disease prevention are explored only in the context of the keep-your-clothes-on mantra. Here are some snippets: "Contraceptive/birth control needs to be presented, but not to the extent that the abstinence message is diluted. ... The curriculum's emphasis on abstinence should be reaffirmed in any discussion of teen-age pregnancy options." (Translation: You got knocked up? Well, too bad.)

Other area counties, including Volusia and Seminole, are even more conservative. Contraceptives are only talked about in terms of how often they fail, and questions about oral sex are largely ignored. In Seminole, teachers can only define what the term means, though the STD portion of the class mentions that "alternative" forms of sex can transmit diseases. In Volusia, students are told to ask parents.

"If you don't teach them, they don't know," says Linda Gilliland, president of the Florida Coalition for School-Based Health, which advocates for comprehensive sex-ed that looks at both abstinence and contraceptives, and better health care for poor students. "There seems to be a lot of ignorance, especially among younger kids. I don't think they have the information and that's the problem."

Where there's ignorance, there are also boys like Nathan who think they can judge who is disease-free: "You can tell [which girl are more likely to have STDs] by their friends and who they hang out with." His friend, Jason, 15, is more cautious. He's so scared of catching herpes that he won't share a Coke with a girl who has cold sores. Fearing the vicious high-school rumor mill, he thinks it's unlikely anyone would admit to having a STD.

Nathan's never been tested for STDs, though he's by his own description promiscuous. Jason, who's in a steady relationship, has. He's negative.

According to a 2000 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 55 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds have had oral sex. The Winter Park girls think the number at their school is higher: 75 percent. They estimate that 90 percent have engaged in mutual masturbation. The numbers aren't scientific, but it's noteworthy that the perception is that "everybody's doing it."

As Penelope Hitchcock, a former STD specialist with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Family Planning Perspectives newsletter in 2000, one-third of genital herpes cases in kids are transmitted through oral sex.

While the teen-age pregnancy rate drops in the United States -- among developed nations, we're still at the top of that list -- STDs are an increasing threat. In 2000, the Center for Disease Control labeled them the "hidden epidemics."

Sixty-five million Americans have an incurable STD, and each year 15 million more people will contract one. Chlamydia and gonorrhea impact young people most directly: In fact, 40 percent of chlamydia cases come from 15- to 19-year olds.

In Florida, the number of reported gonorrhea cases has leveled off in the last three years, even taking a slight dip in 2001. Chlamydia, however, has shot up rapidly since 1997, going from 24,949 cases to 37,625 in 2001. In 1999, Florida Department of Health numbers indicate that one in every 37 Orange County girls ages 15 to 19 reported a new case of chlamydia. One in every 111 had a new case of gonorrhea. Other STDs, including herpes, aren't tracked by state agencies.

Across the board, the realities are frightening: One in four sexually active teens will contract a STD, and though the teen-age birthrate is on a steady decline, one in five sexually active girls between 15 and 19 will get pregnant this year, according to the Kaiser Foundation. More than 40 percent of those pregnancies will end in abortion or miscarriage.

Last July, then-U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report stating that teaching abstinence doesn't keep students chaste longer, and that comprehensive sexual education doesn't encourage kids to have sex earlier. President George W. Bush quickly put distance between himself and the report, pointing out that it was commissioned during the Clinton era. Some conservatives sought Satcher's head. They got it, too -- Satcher left his post in February.

Now Bush wants to pour even more money into abstinence programs. Every year, Congress already gives $102 million to such programs. Bush wants to up the ante, and give $135 million in grants to abstinence-only groups that teach that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physiological effects." These groups would be prohibited from discussing contraceptives as a means of preventing pregnancy and can only reference them in terms of their failure rates.

The proposal is included in the renewal of the 1996 welfare-reform law, which is where much of the abstinence funding first surfaced. It recently cleared the House of Representatives and is making its way through the Senate. Conservatives nixed an amendment to the act that would require the government to fund only information that was "medically accurate" -- in other words, teach teens both about abstinence and how to prevent pregnancy and disease if they do become sexually active. Doing so, conservatives argue, would send a mixed message.

Quite simply, there's no proof that abstinence-only programs work. An evaluation isn't due until 2005, long after the renewed welfare bill goes through.

Forty-nine states -- all but California, which has state statutes mandating "medically accurate" sex-ed -- take the money anyway. Of the $50 million in matching funds available to the states, Florida takes and then disperses $2.2 million, which is then matched by $1.65 million from the community groups that get the money. Those groups include Boys and Girls Clubs, county health departments, private organizations and an advertising firm that runs a statewide no-sex media campaign. The state augments that money with $3.5 million to $4 million from its own coffers.

Because many of the funded groups are religious -- including Catholic Charities Diocese of Palm Beach, Abstinence Between Strong Teens and Mary's Shelter from Altamonte Springs -- a lawsuit alleging violations of church-state separation is on the horizon.

Louisiana is already being sued over its abstinence program. In December, that state tied its chastity message to the virgin birth -- a no-no. While Florida isn't so overt, South Florida attorney Barry Silver thinks that because the message of abstinence is so rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethic and because it excludes both kids that are sexually active and gay (in Florida, homosexuals can't marry, so the state is telling them to never have sex), it may not survive constitutional muster.

Though the federal government funds abstinence-only groups, the type of sexual education still varies from school district to school district. Nationally, 51 percent of all districts, including Orange County, require what's termed "abstinence-plus" education, which allows for discussions of contraceptives while making chastity the goal. Thirty-five percent have the "abstinence-only" programs Bush likes.

Just 14 percent of all school districts have what's termed comprehensive programs. Southern schools are the least likely to have these programs -- they're mostly in the Northeast.

The teens interviewed for this article all agree that their human sexuality class, -- which comprises three weeks of a semester-long, state-required Life Management Skills course -- is a joke.

"They show you pictures of people with puss oozing out of their eyes and swollen vaginas," Carrie says. "It doesn't do much but scare us."

"It's like, shut up, I've already heard this," Jade says. "We're gonna do whatever we want anyway."

"It's boring and an easy 'A'," Nathan says. "As far as preventing sex, zero."

Occasionally, they admit, they do glean some useful information. Groups such as Planned Parenthood make presentations about the proper ways to use contraceptives and they help separate fact from fiction. And while Orange schools can't use actual condoms as visual aids, at least some of the LMS classes instruct students on the 12 steps to properly putting one on.

Sex-ed is undeniably important. But when it gets preachy, students zone out. As Carrie says, "There's a fine line between sex-ed helping you and annoying you."

The ideal situation would be for schools to get out of the morality business: Give students medically accurate information on sex, diseases, prevention and contraceptives -- ever-updated information that some parents don't keep up with. That leaves teens to make up their own minds, balancing the facts with their own value system. That's where parents, religious leaders and peers come into play.

"Teen-agers really do want to hear from their parents," says Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "Kids that feel close to their parents are more likely to delay sex or [make sure they use contraceptives]. Parents have an extraordinarily big role to play." Especially when dealing with the acutely uncomfortable and potentially dangerous topic of oral sex.

"Everyone thinks oral sex is something you can do safely," Carrie says. "Everybody just kind of denies the danger. It doesn't sink in at all. The people that need to know the most, they don't listen. Nobody thinks about it."


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