How Boys (and Bill Clinton) See Sex

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Americans have a love-hate relationship with sex. We're surrounded by it — in the news we watch, the movies we see, the music we listen to — and yet we haven't quite figured out a way to talk about it in an honest, open and nonjudgmental way.

That pervasive inconsistency may prove to be more than a source of academic puzzlement; it risks compromising the physical and mental well-being of the nation's youth. According to a study released this week by the nonprofit Urban Institute, America's boys and young men are confused and uninformed about what constitutes sexually risky behavior. Young people, it seems, understand that sex can lead to pregnancy, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases — but aren't quite so sure what precautions to take when they engage in the sexual acts that are often substitutes for or precursors to actual intercourse. If we aren't having actual sex, the logic goes, we're abstinent; and as all of our sex education classes have taught us, there are no risks associated with abstinence. It's almost as if America's youth have been following the example of Bill Clinton, who engaged in oral sex with Monica Lewinsky but denied it was real sex ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman").

Misunderstandings about oral sex

That misconception, the study's authors fear, could result in a dangerous upswing in STDs. Every year, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 3 million teenagers (or about one in four sexually "experienced" teens) are diagnosed with an STD. "We've drilled into our kids the dangers of pregnancy," Linda Alexander, president of the American Social Health Association, told the New York Times. "We haven't talked much about activities that don't result in pregnancy."

While the federally funded study found that just over half of the 1,300 15-to-19-year-old boys surveyed had had heterosexual intercourse, a full two-thirds of respondents had engaged in other "non-coital" behaviors, like oral or anal sex — often without an understanding of the accompanying health risks. Considerable ethnic disparities emerged from the in-person surveys as well; white and Hispanic boys were about twice as likely as black boys to have performed oral sex on a girl, while black and Hispanic boys were twice as likely as their white counterparts to have engaged in anal sex with a girl. Both behaviors carry substantial transmission risks, experts emphasize, of diseases ranging from genital herpes to HIV and AIDS.

Confusion over the meaning of abstinence

What, exactly, constitutes the best protection against those diseases is a source of raging debate in this country. Many argue that abstinence (and the active teaching of its tenets) is the only safeguard against the scourge of STDs. As this study has demonstrated, however, there appears to be some confusion as to what actual abstinence requires. Sexual health educators argue that withholding information — even if its explicit nature makes us squirm — from teenagers is tantamount to granting them permission to engage in everything but actual intercourse, without understanding the potential consequences.