Sexually Active Girls’ Lament: Why didn’t I Wait? By Laura Vanderkam

19 09 2013

Teens searching for beach reading this summer may have trouble finding Judy Blume’s young adult novel, Forever, about “the first time.” For 28 years, Blume’s novel has landed on library watchdogs’ lists of most-banned or challenged books.
Its sin? Not the laughably clinical descriptions of the teenage heroine’s sex life. Rather, young Katherine has the gumption to have sex without getting pregnant or diseased. Worst of all, she generally enjoys it.

Blume never intended to write of sex without consequences, however. Katherine suffers plenty when her love affair ends in a mess of tears, screaming and the knowledge that “I’m not ready for forever.” In fact, Blume later published a letter from a 17-year-old girl named Kim saying that “After reading Forever … I only wish I had read it sooner. Maybe I would have held off when it came to sex.”

Such thoughts should give parents pause, particularly this time of year, according to a study last year in the Journal of Marriage and Family, is the most common month for teens to lose their virginity. Warm weather and free days turn thoughts horizontal. Now the Heritage Foundation leaps into this mix of fumbling and hormones with a new study claiming that sexually active teens, particularly girls, are far more likely to be depressed or attempt suicide than their virginal friends.

Correlation is not causation, but there’s enough of a link between teen sex and depression to draw nods from most young women I’ve shown this study. Savvy girls know about avoiding pregnancy and diseases, but many have no idea of the emotional minefield they are stumbling into. Lost in the debate on abstinence-only sex ed vs. “comprehensive” contraception information is the idea that girls should hear about sex’s possible emotional consequences. It may not change many minds, but even decisions made with the lights off are better made with one’s eyes open.

America’s wars over what to tell teens about sex have raged for years. The Bush administration has lined up on the side of abstinence-only programs, which try to frighten teenagers into self-control by hyping the risks. But any teenager with half a brain knows how to purchase condoms or visit Planned Parenthood for birth-control pills. Some more liberal groups, on the other hand, seem to believe that all the teenage soul needs is a list of contraceptive failure rates and a box of condoms on the school nurse’s desk.

Heritage touts an abstinence-only agenda, but its study hints that there’s another side to the issue, apart from morality or physical health. Its analysis of thousands of survey responses found that a full quarter of sexually active girls ages 14-17 said they felt depressed a lot or all of the time in the past week, compared with 7.7% of virgins. (Only 8% of sexually active boys reported much depression.) More than 14% of sexually active girls had attempted suicide in the previous year, compared with 5.1% of their non-active peers.

Perhaps depressed teen girls have sex to feel better. Other risk factors, such as drug use or broken homes, may correlate more closely with depression than sexual status. And some particularly healthy girls weather sex without a hint of the blues.

But many researchers who study adolescent depression speculate that something about dating is toxic to girls’ health. “It puts girls in an inherently low-power situation,” notes Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, author of Women Who Think Too Much.

While adult women may have sex solely for pleasure, few teen boys are considerate-enough lovers to guarantee their partners a good time. So when teen girls have sex, it’s because there’s a relationship, or so they think. And boys with surging hormones will say nothing to dissuade them. Consequently, girls become more emotionally invested than their partners.

“They ruminate on ‘what did he mean by that’ or ‘am I making him happy,’ ” Nolen-Hoeksema says. “This churning of thoughts is associated with depression.”

And that’s before the love affair fizzles like a summer firecracker. If girls are more invested, they have a harder time healing. Sex just deepens the wound.

Sex-ed programs rarely tell girls about rejection, depression or about the isolating and enraging after-effects of adults dismissing their pain as “puppy love.” Because I switched schools frequently as a teenager, I sat through five different sex-ed curriculums. Eventually, I noticed a theme. People would say, “Don’t have sex; you’ll get pregnant,” but no one said, “If you have sex, you may wind up with your heart broken.” People said, “Don’t have sex; God doesn’t approve,” but they never said, “You’ll have a lot of sex in your life, so why risk depression by sleeping with a teenage boy who, let’s face it, won’t have the love-making skills of Don Juan?”

Instead, adults focus on mechanics or commandments, leaving girls searching through the popular media for information about the possible emotional consequences of their decisions. And because pop songs, chick flicks and magazines sell copies by toying with the teen desire for intimacy, they seldom show its down side.

Girls deserve to hear there is one. They deserve to hear that their psyches will suffer more than their boyfriends’ from rocky relationships. And while they may believe as Judy Blume’s heroine does that their love affairs will last forever, chances are that they won’t.

Such news won’t change many minds. Hormones, the melodrama of adolescence and the desire for intimacies to ponder during the tedium of math class trump the boring things parents and teachers say.

Still, young women facing the eternal stretch of summer should hear that a National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy survey found that nearly three-quarters of sexually active teen girls wished they’d waited longer — even if love songs and the beach blanket are calling.

Laura Vanderkam, a New York-based writer, is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.



7 responses

25 09 2013
Erica Marcum

I read the story. I even reshared it to others in another one of my communities. However, that has nothing to do with this article. (comparing apples to oranges)

This article is exploring why teens sometimes don’t wait to have sex. More so it specifically focuses on teen girls. Of which there is a medical explanation for this. Hormones. Brain Development, Puberty.

The above academic article also explains why teens take lots of risks at this age. Drugs, Rebellion, Tattoos, Piercings, etc. The only thing that seems to make much of a difference is if the child has a really good support system that will correct him/her without too much judgmental condemnation. And if the child surrounds him/herself with other optimistic peers who are also doing positive things.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t totally disagree with the whole article. I just think that b/c a girl decides to have sex during her teens it’s not the end of the world. And while I do think that it may negatively affect a few, I think the article highly exaggerates the number of girls who actually do become depressed and suicidal over a teenage love affair.

In fact, I think GROWN WOMEN are actually more invested in a man with whom they think they have a relationship with (especially men who commit adultery) but then later on find out that they were just a “booty call”. And the rates of depression, maniacal behavior, and suicidal thoughts are probably MUCH, MUCH HIGHER than those of young teen girls.

25 09 2013

+Erica Marcum thanks for this article, its balanced and well written. I will share it. Though I will like more emphasis on Teen innate abilities to control, and master themselves. Hormones have a part, but it is not all to blame. Prime time soap operas are awash with plot lines that glamourize , lust, adultery, fornication, deceit, avarice, vanity, covetousness,and greed. Steady diet of watching these shows only feed the appetite to pursue these base things and are no help to virtue of Teen and they must be warned. More emphasis should be placed on the innate ability to control and be masters of themselves by education their character and strengthening there will power. These more than pills, will help them become successful leader tomorrow.

25 09 2013

+Erica Marcum my comments upstairs concerns the content of the link you sent. Now regarding your comments. Is it “judgmental condemnation ” to tell Teen girls of risk of sex when there bodies aren’t ready yet. I think not. True, like you say, not all cases are the same, some Teens with more stable family structure and supportive parent will fair more than others, but there is a growing trend of dysfunctional family institutions in UK, US and elsewhere. This article say I million children are growing up without Fathers Under normal circumstances, an adolescent girl’s first real contact with a man is her father and much more learn from him or by observing him, learn to deal with boys, later men in relationships. Studies show girls with absentee fathers to be insecure and susceptible to exploitation when this is not the case. I agree with everything you say about the support structure, but i hope to have you see that it has largely eroded in many parts of world. Are teenage girl able to handle broken sexual relationship more than Adult women? I will argue that this is not true.Adult women have more resources and experience to draw from to weather their broken dreams, much more than a girl child, and really, the sex organs are more developed, resistant to disease, infection. According to this article from Heritage foundation, studies found that A full 14.3 percent of girls who are sexually active report having attempted suicide. By contrast, only 5.1 percent of sexually inactive girls have attempted suicide. Thus, sexually active girls are nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide than are girls who are not sexually active. 

25 09 2013
Erica Marcum

I understand the title and I did read the article. I agree with SOME of it. And by some that means very LITTLE of it.

I was just observing how you always post articles and stories that have to do with sexuality. Be it teen sex, abstinence, virginity, single parenting, homosexuality, same sex marriage, or gay rights.

These controversial articles always have a condescending tone and they normally only address the problem (some are not even problems, more like bias) but do little as far as providing solutions. The articles normally are only about blaming people who they perceive as having a problem. In this case teen girls….

25 09 2013

+Erica Marcum I thank you for your candidness. It is refreshing. Teen sex, gay rights, infidelity in marriage and pornography is Mainstream . Media and popular culture glamorize these and never reveal the hidden cost, the heart breaks, the diseases and the broke hearts that such lifestyle bring with them . When I come across article that tell the other side of the story, I like to share it with people. I never blame those who are in these situation, I only hope by reading they will come to know that someone shares there pain and perhaps find a way out of there own troubles. Solutions? I do not have solution to all of life’s problem but as the saying goes a problem shared is a problem half solved. Coming back to what you said earlier about America’s SEXUAL FREEDOM. At What Cost? We call sexual freedom what really is sexual slavery. Take for instance pornography. Millions are addicted and lives and relationships are destroyed . Here is the story of Jenny, steeped in porn, but later found a way out. Many find her story compelling 

24 09 2013
Erica Marcum

I often see where you write stories about American immorality especially when it pertains to young women. What country are you from? And how come you never share data about young women who are married off to older men and then deprived of an education and forced to ALSO become young teen mothers?

You seem to always want to show us how detrimental our sexual freedom is here. But I never see you talk about some of the downright sexual repression that goes on back in the MOTHERLAND (Africa). That is all…

24 09 2013

+Erica Marcum thanks for your comments. The world is my Country and I believe that. I understand your views,no doubt, all forms of sex abuse should be condemned, whether in Mother-land Africa or New York. But shouldn’t you be more concerned with the veracity of the article, if it is true or not rather than where I come from ? Why so touchy?

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