How Should We Teach Our Kids about SEX?

Bombarded by mixed messages about values, students are more sexually active than ever, and more confused

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School cutbacks and working parents have left teens with a looser after- school life. Many use that time for afternoon jobs, but less to pay for college than for a car, for freedom and the chance to socialize more with peers, who may pressure each other into ever greater sexual exploration. Sandra, 17, in Des Moines, Iowa, pregnant and due in November, says she has slept with 33 boys. She keeps count and doesn't think her behavior is all that unusual. "A lot of girls do the same. They think if they don't have sex with a person, that person will not want to talk to them anymore."

In the inner cities the scarcity of jobs and hope for the future invites kids to seek pleasure with little thought for the fallout. "You'd think AIDS would be a deterrent, but it's not," says Marie Bronshvag, a health teacher at West Side High School in upper Manhattan. Their lives are empty, she observes, and their view of the future fatalistic. "I believe in God," says student Mark Schaefer, 19. "If he wants something bad to happen to me, it will happen. Anyway, by the time I get AIDS I think they'll have a cure."

Nor is fear of pregnancy any more compelling. "The kids feel," says Margaret Pruitt Clark, executive director of the Center for Population Options, "that the streets are so violent that they are either gonna be dead or in jail in their 20s, so why not have a kid." Most striking, she adds, is the calculation that young women in the inner cities are making. "They feel that if the number of men who will be available to them as the years go on will be less and less, the girls might as well have a child when they can, no matter how young they are."

Finally, there is the force that is easiest to blame and hardest to measure: the saturation of American popular culture with sexual messages, themes, images, exhortations. Teenagers typically watch five hours of television a day -- which in a year means they have seen nearly 14,000 sexual encounters, according to the Center for Population Options. "Kids are seeing a world in which everything is sensual and physical," says Dr. Richard Ratner, who this week takes office as president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry. "Even in this era of feminism, rap songs preach, 'Take this bitch and f--- her.' Everything is more explicit. It's the difference between wearing a bathing suit and walking around nude."

The content of popular culture has been a favorite target among politicians caught up in the culture wars, but kids themselves have their own criticisms of what they see. Many recoil at the sexual pressures they feel from Calvin Klein ads, MTV, heavy-breathing movies, all the icy, staged or oddball sex they see in books by Madonna and rock videos. "If you turn on TV, there's a woman taking off her clothes," says Marcela Avila, a senior at Santa Monica High, who was among a group of students who sat down with TIME's Jim Willwerth to discuss the sexual landscape they face. "It makes you doubt yourself. Am I O.K.? You put yourself down -- I'll never be able to satisfy a guy." Her classmate Elizabeth Young agrees. "The media doesn't make it seem like it's really about love," she says. "Nowadays sexuality is the way you look, the way you wear your hair. It's all physical, not what's inside you."

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