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Am I behind the curve with sex compared to other teens?

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Maya asks:

It seems as if girls at my school are very experienced sexually. They all talk about hooking up, giving head, getting head, getting fingered, and all that sort of thing. I, having never even kissed a boy or had a boyfriend, feel a bit left behind. I wanted to know if most girls my age, 15 (like on average), have had sexual experience like this.

Heather Corinna replies:

Maya,

I think it's so important to try not to get hung up on the idea that what other people are doing (or not) sexually has any relevance to what we do or don't do. I completely get wanting to have some idea of where we're at with where others are at, but with something as personal and diverse as sexuality, it's a good idea not to put too much stock in the sex lives of others when it comes to our own sex lives and how we feel about them.

One thing anyone who works in the study of sexuality or sexual health knows is that self-reporting (what people anecdotally say to others about themselves, rather than what we can find out based on measurable things like pregnancy or STI rates) when it comes to sexuality is notoriously unreliable, especially between young people. So often, young people are dishonest with each other about what they do and don't do, have done and have not done, and given how you're feeling yourself about this, I think you can see some reasons why.

A lot of young people -- and people of all ages -- feel strong pressures to fit in sexually with their peers or partners, and also feel strong pressures to have the "right" answers with given groups when it comes to their sex lives. If it seems like peers are more experienced, and like more sexual experience is the right answer, you're going to find more people self-reporting that they have had that experience. If it seems like peers are less experienced, and having less sexual experience is the right answer, more will tend to say they haven't done anything sexually. Often, the desire to fit in outweighs the desire to be honest. Few people stop to think about how being dishonest only muddies the waters even more, leaving pretty much everyone having no idea what anyone is really doing at all.

To give you an idea about what IS really going on from sound sources we can count on, and where studies are as reliable as they can be, let's take a look at this 2006 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a very reliable source of health and sexuality information.

• Fewer than half of all high school students report having had sexual intercourse, declining from 53% in 1995 to 47% in 2005. Males are slightly more likely than females to report having had sex. African American high school students are more likely to have had intercourse (68%) than Whites (43%) or Latinos (51%).
• The median age at first intercourse is 16.9 years for boys and 17.4 years for girls.4 There are differences in age of initiation by race and ethnicity, with 27% of African American high school boys, 11% of Latino boys and 5% of White boys initiating sex before age 13.3.
• Over half of males (55%) and females (54%) ages 15 to 19 report having had oral sex with someone of the opposite sex. Approximately one in 10 (11%) males and females ages 15 to 19 had engaged in anal sex with someone of the opposite sex; 3% of males ages 15 to 19 have had anal sex with a male.
• The percentage of high school students who report having had four or more sexual partners declined in recent years from 18% in 1995 to 14% in 2005. Males (17%) are more likely than females (12%) to report having had four or more sexual partners.

You can see, even in that last statistic how unreliable self-reporting can be: in most sex studies we'll see more men than women reporting sexual activity, even when they're reporting on sexual activity they apparently had together!

I also think this piece at the New York Times in January of 2009 does a nice job of shedding some light on teen sexual activity and the numbers we have about it versus what people's general impressions about it are. Here are some highlights from the piece:

While some young people are clearly engaging in risky sexual behavior, a vast majority are not. The reality is that in many ways, today’s teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations.

...“There’s no doubt that the public perception is that things are getting worse, and that kids are having sex younger and are much wilder than they ever were,” said Kathleen A. Bogle, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. “But when you look at the data, that’s not the case.”

...As for that supposed epidemic of oral sex, especially among younger teenagers: national statistics on the behavior have only recently been collected, and they are not as alarming as some reports would have you believe. About 16 percent of teenagers say they have had oral sex but haven’t yet had intercourse.

Being someone from the generation before yours, and someone who works as a sex educator for young people today, I'd agree with the writer of that piece that your generation actually seems to be more conservative about sex than mine was in our teens. However -- and this is no small deal -- my impression is and has been that your generation feels much more pressure to SAY, or behave like, you are more sexually experienced than ours did, even though you're often judged more harshly than we were if and when you are sexually active.

That probably has a lot to do with why we hear a lot at Scarleteen from young people worried they're behind when it comes to their peers. My sense is -- and in alignment with some of the sound numbers we do have -- that there are more young teens where you're at in terms of sex and relationships than those with greater experience than you, and that includes some of the teens saying they have more experience.

Given, in the teen years, sexual/romantic experiences do tend to increase by year fairly rapidly, so, for instance, while two years isn't that big of an age difference, we do tend to see many more 17-year-olds reporting 9and who are probably participating in, for real) partnered sexual activities than 15-year-olds. During adolescence, a lot changes with every passing year, far faster than it does in adulthood: the differences, in many ways, between someone at 15 and then at 18 are usually way bigger than those for someone at 35 and then 38. It's important to know that when we look at figures about teens and sex that lump a bunch of ages together, too: for instance, when we talk about 15-19 year-olds and what sex they're having, way more of those 19 than those 15 will be sexually active.

It might also be a comfort to you to know that as someone who works in counseling so many teens who are sexually active, I far more often hear from younger teens having any kind of sex who are not satisfied, who are freaking out, who aren't really enjoying themselves, who are finding sex makes more crisis for them than anything else than I hear from young, sexually active teens who are having the time of their lives.

While age alone isn't a sound basis for who can or can't have sex they enjoy, or sexual relationships of quality, the more life experience we and our partners have -- and this tends to be the case through our whole lives, which is why, so often, sex just gets better and better for people as we get older -- the better sex does tend to be, and more consistently. The more maturity we and partners have, the more we know about our own bodies and sexualities (some of which is about experience, but some of which is just about reflection and knowing ourselves as we get a better and better idea of who we each really are), the more assertive we become about what we do and don't want, all of which tends to take some time and some growth, the more able we and partners tend to be to connect sexually in ways that feel as good as they can, to our bodies, our hearts and our minds.

But let's go back to where we started, to the part where I'd encourage you to try not to be so concerned with what others are doing or say they're doing.

If and when sex or a romantic or sexual relationship is the right thing for a given person is a very individual thing. It depends on where that person is at themselves, what a given person's sexuality (all by themselves, not just with others) and sexual identity are like, on who (when there is one) their partner is, how they feel about them, and what those unique relationship dynamics and sets of wants and needs are like, on how able a person is to do things like take care of their sexual health and to manage things like birth control and the ability to say no and yes (and to say either when that is what they mean, rather than what they feel they're supposed to say), on how much of the risks of sex -- positive and negative -- a person is or feels able to accept and live with, all of what else is going on in a person's life, what our unique ethics and values around love and sex are, how supported we are or are not in our sexuality by our culture, communities and the people who love us most and a whole lot more. It's a list that can go on forever and ever.

But whether a given sexual experience or relationship is or isn't right or of benefit to someone often has very little to do with what a person's friends are doing or feel (if they do) are right for them.

I know that it can be so painful in your teens to feel like an outsider, but if it helps you out, know that no matter what choices -- about anything -- teens make, most do in some way feel like they don't fit in: it's a feeling that has more to do with being an adolescent in general than what choices you make. I also know that if you feel like you want a boyfriend, and/or want to start some kind of sexual partnership, it can feel very frustrating, and doubly so if on top of feeling like you don't have things you want, you also feel like you're behind the curve in having them as compared to your peers. Not having sexual or romantic partnership you want can feel lonely, and feeling left behind can make you feel even more alone.

What I'd like to inject into this, in the hopes of supporting you with wherever you're at with all of this, and also to do a little mythbusting, is to make clear that romantic or sexual partnership doesn't always mean we feel less lonely.

Sex and romance resulting in feeling included and connected really have more to do with quality than quantity: in other words, just having a boyfriend, or having some kind of sex, all by itself isn't what results in feeling less isolated. It's having good, mutually supportive and healthy relationships, and having a sex life that is really about mutuality and reciprocity that tend to leave us feeling connected. A whole lot of teens who have boyfriends or girlfriends, or who have been or are sexually active, don't have romantic or sexual lives with those components and don't find those relationships or experiences do make them feel less lonely or less isolated. Some find that they feel even more lonely or isolated with a boyfriend or with an active sex life. The wrong partner for us, or a given kind of relationship at the wrong time, can feel really lonely. Sex where everyone involved isn't being respected, isn't seen or treated as a whole person, or isn't really about both people sharing something, not just one wanting something for themselves can be one of the loneliest feelings in the world. It's not just about having these things, it's about what a person really has in them.

Like I've said, I'd not say that on average, most 15-year-old girls have had a lot of sexual experience right now. But even if they did or do, that wouldn't necessarily mean that you doing what others are doing would be right for you or be best for you. People are all so, so very different when it comes to sex and sexual partnership that the choices any one person who is like us in so many ways -- our same age, our same gender, our same race or nationality, our same social class, our same sexual orientation, our same level of life experience, our same degree of sexual development -- makes and which they find right for them may be totally wrong for us, or vice-versa. The only sound standard to base our sexual choices on is our own standards, based on our own unique wants, needs and circumstances.

Here's the most important thing I want you to take away from my answer: whatever it is, when it comes to sex and romance, that feels most right for you as an individual at this time in your life; that is most physically and emotionally healthy for you, that leaves you feeling -- no matter what the deal is with your friends -- best about yourself, sexually and otherwise, and would leave you feeling that way even if every friend you had disapproved of your choices, is what counts. If you were making choices that were crap for you but all your friends thought were the right ones, that approval or fitting in alone probably would not offer you much, in the short or long-term.

Sometimes, it takes people a long time to realize that, and sometimes, people make a lot of choices they feel bad about, during or after, or which impact them negatively, before they figure it out. If you or anyone else can be spared learning that the hard way, it's a serious win.

Mind, sometimes your peers also may not have the maturity to know or recognize that sexual choices tend not to be made best, or have the best chance of resulting in the really good stuff, when they're made under any feelings of pressure or conformity. If you can get ahead of the curve on that? Then no matter what kinds of sex or relationships you do or do not have at any age, you can rest assured that you're better set to have a sex and love life that's a great one -- after all, having a lousy one isn't what anyone really wants -- than most.

I'm leaving you with a few links I hope will give you some extra information, comfort and insight:

written 15 Apr 2009 . updated 22 Jan 2014

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