BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. – She was a 13-year-old with a cellphone and a Tumblr account. She used it only to share funny photos and brief animated videos with her friends. Still, the pornography was inescapable.
Each time she opened the app, there was a snippet – a quick “gif” or video – reposted for her to view: breasts, genitals, action. “It’s like you weren’t even watching the porn – you were watching three seconds of it on a loop and trying to scroll past it as fast as you could,” said Tori D’Amico, now 19.
On a website called Wattpad, she devoured “fanfiction” about her favorite British boy-band singer, Harry Styles. There, she encountered graphic descriptions of a young woman’s emotional and physical abuse. It was too much – but she read every word.
“I learned those really negative ideas or … unhealthy ideals of sex very young,” said D’Amico, a college student. “I wasn’t old enough to, like, actually comprehend them, but I was internalizing them.”
In 2019, exposure to explicit sexual content through social media starts early for teenagers, when few have the maturity or education to understand that the images don’t represent real life. The internet, with its infinite offerings, both positive and negative, fills the void left by school sex-ed curricula that focus primarily on avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases rather than the ingredients of a healthy sexual relationship.
For some young people, this explicit content – often aggressive and misogynistic – sets the standard. It provides the script for sex between partners, with a repertoire of “vanilla” and “non-vanilla” options. There is spanking. There is anal sex. And there is choking, a high-risk practice that left a 19-year-old woman dead last month.
By the time they reach 19, many young people have been bombarded by this easily available, explicit content and think they should be “good” at sex – well-practiced, with years of experience, said D’Amico. It’s that – or risk unfavorable disclosure on social media of their most intimate moments.
“What happened,” asked D’Amico, “to the awkward, fumble-y stage, where everyone was OK with it?”
Fewer teens report having sex
And yet, for all the crotch-grabbing, bust-down dancing on Blueface rap videos, the drugged-up sexual violence among high schoolers on the HBO series “Euphoria” and the 40 million daily U.S. clicks to PornHub, there’s this:
The latest generation of teenagers is having less sex than its predecessors.
More than half of high-schoolers – 60% – have not had sex at all.
Every other year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys teens about how frequently they engage in behavior that may put them at risk. The 2017 survey – the most recent available – found the lowest rate of sex among high school students (39.6%) since the question was first asked in 1991. The decline occurred across all races and ethnicities.
Teen births also reached a record low last year, in part because of more widespread availability of contraception, but also because fewer teens are having sex to begin with. The birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds last year was half the rate in 2010, the CDC reported last month.
The popularity of hook-up culture, it appears, is exaggerated. Fewer than 10% of high school students had four or more sexual partners during the previous year. Among sexually active 18- and 19-year-olds, three-quarters had had only one partner,the CDC survey found.
“They’re not as sexually active as people sometimes think,” said Bryant Paul, an Indiana University Media School professor who teaches a course on “Sex and the Media” and is an expert on how people consume pornography. Teens, he said, are “having less sex than they’ve ever had.”
How can an increasingly sexualized culture co-exist with less sex among the consumers of that culture?
The “sex recession,” as the Atlantic Monthly dubbed it last year, doubtless has many causes. But researchers admit it’s a conundrum.
Paul suggested that one explanation may lie in the supply to the brain of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure. Sex produces a big hit of dopamine, but getting to that release can be complicated, he said.
Other sources of dopamine come from non-sexual pursuits. The proliferation of games and phone apps that stimulate the pleasure response is “providing little mini-dopamine hits all the time,” he said. “It’s not the same as the big one we can get from sex, but you know what? It’s enough.”
Another explanation: feeling scared during sex – which is also the title of a study by Paul, Debby Herbenick, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, and others. They found that one in eight sexually active adolescent girls has had a sexual encounter that frightened her – her partner didn’t stop when she asked, forced her to do something she didn’t want to do or assaulted her, among other things.
“I have to wonder,” said Herbenick, “if something happens and it’s fearful for you, why would you go back for seconds right away? Or why would you return with somebody you don’t know well? Wouldn’t you just say, ‘Maybe I need to get to know somebody a bit better’?”
Herbenick, a leader in the study of American sexual behavior,led a separate, large study in 2017 that was based on a nationally representative survey of Americans’ sexual habits. It found this about18- to 24-year-olds:
- A majority have had vaginal intercourse and given and received oral sex.
- While more than 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men has experienced anal sex, the data suggested it might have been exploratory or a one-time trial, rather than an ongoing practice.
- Nearly half of women, and fewer than 1 in 5 men, said they’d spanked or been spanked.
- Other “kinks,” such as being tied up, were not as common and didn’t appear to be ongoing behavior.
That survey did not ask specifically about choking during sex. But it found that among men and women of all ages, about 40% found “rough sex” appealing.
And what did men and women find to be the most appealing sexual behavior?
Cuddling and kissing.
Teen sex education is evolving
Students are supposed to learn about sex in school. But kids say they really don’t. Porn, however, is ubiquitous, free – and private.
“Sex ed did not teach me a thing that could be actually useful,” said D’Amico. “It was a list of vocab words.”
“They said if you have sex, use a condom so you don’t get pregnant or just don’t do it at all,” said Brenna Fitzmaurice, a 21-year-old college student who identifies as bisexual. “I only ever heard the word bisexual once in my entire K-12 (years). Not everyone is a textbook definition of a heterosexual.”
Natalie Tsur, now 19and a Ramapo College student, said she attended a high school that offered a sex ed class set up as a question-and-answer session for freshmen to ask seniors candid questions about sex.
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“My friend had a question (for) one of the seniors about lesbian sex,” Tsur said. “He couldn’t answer it, but neither could (a) girl or the teacher.”
Instead of porn or teachers, research shows that teens turn to their sexual partners and friends most often for information about sex, said Emily Rothman, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. But “the problem with turning to peers is they don’t always know a heck of a lot more than you do,” she said.
Rothman helped develop a “porn literacy” course for high school students. It teaches that pornography is neither a documentary nor a how-to manual– it’s a business. It’s “made to make people money who are trying to sell it,” said Rothman.
Porn stars are actors, the course teaches. Concepts such as consent, respect and emotional connection – important parts of healthy sexual relationships – are mostly absent in pornography. And only a minority of content presents a woman’s point of view.
Better starting points for online sex education can be found at a variety of sites, including:
One student, who said her immigrant mother never discussed anything pertaining to sexual or reproductive health with her, said she learned how to insert a tampon online. Dozens of YouTube “sexperts” also give advice, not all of it fact-checked.
The internet can be a positive source of information, especially for young people who feel socially isolated or prefer privacy as they seek answers to their questions. Through the internet, some who feel they don’t “fit in” find peers of similar sexual orientation or gender identity, connecting in a way that’s not always possible in some communities.
When it comes to pornography, internet access has made the biggest difference among girls.
For boys, the age of first exposure to porn has changed only slightly in the internet era. It’s usually between their 13th and 14th birthdays – the same as it was in the early 1990s.
Griffyn Leeds, now 19 and a college student, was 14 when he saw his first breasts – online. He’d searched “lesbian porn,” he said, because he was afraid to see penises.
Girls, on average, first see pornography these days at 14 – three years younger than they did in the pre-internet age, according to research by Paul.
On the one hand, girls’ exploration of their own sexuality has seldom been talked about, even though they likely have as much curiosity as boys. But, disturbingly, Paul said his research showed that more than 90% of girls’ first encounters with pornography were inadvertent. They stumbled across it, or it was sent to them without their asking.
“They were finding it without wanting to see it,” he said.
Parents, you should still have ‘The Talk’
Awkward as it can be, conversation – even a minimal one – between parents and their teenage children about pornography and sex is for the best, experts say.
“Schools and parents don’t want to talk about it, but part of sex is communication,” said Fitzmaurice. “If you can’t talk or communicate or express what you feel or what you’re comfortable with, that’s going to lead to a lot of problems.”
Parents need not rely on textbooks, multimedia aids or a professional sex therapist’s stamp of approval. But ideally, the conversations will be based in fact – not intended to shame – and should continue, intermittently, for years.
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The message? “Good sex involves a lot of trust and respect in being comfortable enough to tell somebody what you like and don’t like,” said Rothman, the Boston University professor. Healthy relationships involve consent and respect.
When Paul studied teens who’d viewed pornography, those who had never talked to their parents about sex and porn were more likely to have “condom-less sex,” he said. That is, they were more likely to engage in sex that put them at risk of a sexually transmitted infection or becoming pregnant or causing a pregnancy.
But kids who had any kind of basic communication with their parents about what they were seeing online – “even the parents who said, ‘That’s gross!’ or ‘It’s not real,’ or ‘I don’t approve of that kind of stuff’ – the effect was completely gone,” he said.
That points to the importance of parent-child communication. And not only about sex.
The romantic aspects of relationships – finding love, keeping love, dealing with break-ups – are subjects young people hunger to hear about from their parents, according to Harvard’s “Making Caring Common” project. These were questions that 70% of 18 to 25-year-olds wished their parents had discussed more with them.
Yes, it’s awkward. Yes, it’s difficult, said Rothman – but do it anyway.
“The main message to parents is they shouldn’t panic,” she said.
“They should gently and non-judgmentally open a line of conversation,” she added, that helps young people understand “the importance of consent and healthy relationships and respect.”