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America has long wrestled with the tension between its Puritan and pioneer heritages, and its attitude toward sex has often seemed muddled. Victorian parents, fearful of their children's sexuality, would try to delay the onset of puberty by underfeeding their children. By 1910 exploding rates of syphilis drove the crusade for sex education in much the way AIDS does today. In 1940 the U.S. Public Health Service argued the urgent need for schools to get involved, and within a few years the first standardized programs rolled into classrooms. But by the 1960s came the backlash from the John Birch Society, Mothers Organized for Moral Stability and other groups. By the early '70s they had persuaded at least 20 state legislatures to either restrict or abolish sex education.
"There's something wrong," sex educator Sol Gordon once said, "with a country that says, 'Sex is dirty, save it for someone you love.' " But families at least agreed on a social standard that preached, if not practiced, the virtues of restraint and of linking sex to emotional commitment and marriage. "It used to be easy to say it's just wrong to have sex before marriage. You could expect churches to say that, adults from many walks of life to somehow communicate that," notes Peter Benson, president of Minneapolis-based Search Institute, a research organization specializing in child and adolescent issues. "We went through a sexual revolution since the '60s that poked a major hole in that. And nothing has come along to replace it. What's responsible sexuality now? Does it mean no sex unless you're in love? No sex unless you're 21? No sex unless it's protected?"
Nothing approaching a consensus has emerged to guide kids in their decisions. A TIME/CNN poll of 500 U.S. teenagers found that 71% had been told by their parents to wait until they were older before having sex; more than half had been told not to have sex until they were married. The teens were almost evenly split between those who say it is O.K. for kids ages 16 and under to have sex and those who say they should be 18 or older.
Some social scientists argue that there is nothing wrong with increased sexual expression among teens. "Feeling, thinking and being sexual is an endemic part of being a teenager," says UCLA psychologist Paul Abramson. "Let's say a couple has paired off, wants to be monogamous and uses condoms. I'd say that's a legitimate part of their sexual expression as a couple in the '90s."
There are many factors, besides increased permissiveness, that make the trend toward increased casual sex among kids seem almost inevitable. Since the turn of the century, better health and nutrition have lowered the average age of sexual maturity. The onset of menstruation in girls has dropped three months each decade, so the urges that once landed at 14 may now hit at 12. At the same time, the years of premarital sexual maturity are much greater than a generation ago. The typical age of a first marriage has jumped to 25, from 21 in the 1950s.