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.

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