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April 2, 2000, Sunday
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The Face of Teenage Sex Grows Younger


ON the Upper West Side, Dr. Marsha Levy-Warren, a psychologist, said she is seeing more and more preteenagers who are going on junior versions of dates in fifth grade, at 10 or 11 years old. By seventh grade, they have graduated to sex.

''I can't tell you how many girls come in who are bereft about having had sex too soon,'' she said. ''They went to a party, met a cute guy, he seemed to like them, they hooked up and did what they assumed everyone was doing. Then, they feel awful.''

On the Upper East Side, Dr. Cynthia Pegler, a specialist in adolescent medicine, sees girls brought in by their mothers when they outgrow the pediatrician. These sophisticated young women may not be having intercourse at 13, but they are having oral sex. ''They tell me oral sex is no big deal,'' Dr. Pegler said. ''They don't see it as sex, but as safe and fun and a prelude to intercourse, where before, it used to be the other way around.''

And in the suburbs, on Long Island, Dr. Wayne Warren, a psychologist, said groups of seventh and eighth graders rent limousines to take them to clubs in Manhattan, where they get drunk, grind on the dance floor and have oral sex in dim corners.

In a society that is always pushing the envelope, the age at which sexual experimentation begins is speeding up, too, say psychotherapists, health professionals and school officials, who are concerned about the health and emotional ramifications for young teenagers.

''There are significant numbers of youngsters who are engaging in sexual activity at earlier ages,'' said Dr. Robert W. Blum, a physician and the director of the division of general pediatrics and adolescent health at the University of Minnesota, which analyzes data on teenage sexual activity for the federal government. ''Besides intercourse, they are engaging in oral sex, mutual masturbation, nudity and exposure as precursors to intercourse.''

In data published by Dr. Blum and his team in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997, 17 percent of a national sample of thousands of seventh and eighth graders had had intercourse. Other, smaller studies put the percentage even higher.

''I see no reason not to believe that soon a substantial number of youths will be having intercourse in the middle-school years,'' said Dr. Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center. ''It's already happening.''

Experts of all political and philosophical bents give many reasons for this phenomenon, including the rising divorce rate, inattentive parents, the availability of condoms and the earlier onset of puberty. But the most frequent explanation is that today's culture sends a very mixed message to its young.

On the one hand, bombarded by warnings about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, adolescents are taught abstinence, the sole contraception method taught at one-third of all public schools across the country, according to a ecent poll by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a private research organization.

On the other hand, teenagers are confronted daily with a culture that has become a very sexy place indeed in which to live. ''Sex is everywhere, and it's absolutely explicit,'' said Dr. Allen Waltzman, a psychiatrist with practices on the Upper East Side and in Brooklyn, who sees many adolescents. ''There's hardly a film that doesn't show a man and a woman having sex. There's MTV, lurid rap lyrics, and now we've got technosex on the Internet.''

None of this is lost on young adolescents, Dr. Waltzman said. ''Kids always push to the limit of what's permitted in a society.''

One 13-year-old boy at a junior high school in Manhattan said he first had oral sex at 12 and has had it about eight times at parties and in the hours between 4 p.m. and 7, before parents come home from work. The sex was never with a steady girlfriend, because he has never had one. ''It's something to do with someone,'' he said. ''I think it's curiosity. I don't think that's bad.''

An eighth-grade private-school boy said that he and his friends know that oral sex ''is not perfect,'' but that they believe there is less likelihood of picking up a sexually transmitted disease than with intercourse. ''The schools tell us to refrain, they tell us you get S.T.D.'s from both, but no one believes it,'' he said.

Dr. Warren, who practices in Manhattan as well as in Suffolk County, said: ''Before, the dialogue was, 'I love you and care for you, so let's experiment.' Now, the dialogue is, 'This is safe and fun and O.K., and you have nothing to worry about.'

''I see girls, seventh and eighth graders, even sixth graders, who tell me they're virgins, and they're going to wait to have intercourse until they meet the man they'll marry. But then they've had oral sex 50 or 60 times. It's like a goodnight kiss to them, how they say goodbye after a date.''

There are no in-depth studies showing national trends in sexual activity in middle school, ages 10 to 13. No one will finance such studies, Dr. Blum said, because of fear of the outcry from politicians who embrace an abstinence-only message and from parents wanting to protect their children's privacy.

The studies of national trends that do exist look only at high school students. These show a striking drop decade by decade in the age at which teenagers first engage in intercourse. A December 1999 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University noted that in the early 1970's, less than 5 percent of 15-year-old girls and 20 percent of 15-year-old boys had engaged in sexual intercourse. By 1997, the figures were 38 percent for girls, 45 percent for boys.

In the wake of AIDS and of abstinence advocacy, statistics from the 1990's analyzed by the Guttmacher Institute show that the age by which a majority of teenagers had engaged in intercourse has not continued to fall. The teenage birthrate has been falling since 1991, in part, experts say, because of decreased sexual activity. (It is still the highest for the developed world.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reports that among high school students of all ages, those who have had sex declined from 53 percent in 1995 to 48.4 percent in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available.

But Dr. Gallagher said that the apparent diminishing of high school sexual activity masks a more insidious development: some older teenagers may be extending their years of virginity, but some younger teenagers are having sex earlier.

''You can get 16- to 18-year-olds who will be very conservative sexually,'' Dr. Gallagher said. ''And then you can get right below them a group of 14- to 16-year-olds who say those older students are too conservative, let's party.''

Despite the paucity of data about young teenagers, educators say that the anecdotal evidence points to increased sexual activity, often of a detached, unemotional kind.

''The kids are overwhelmed with sexual messages, and we're seeing a younger and younger display of not only precocious sexual behavior but also aggressive sexual molestation, like holding down a student and forcibly pulling down his or her pants,'' said Dr. Frederick Kaeser, the director of health services for District 2 of the New York public school system, covering much of Manhattan.

''We do a terrible job of teaching sex education,'' he added.

One boy, 13, who attends a private school in Manhattan, said his interest in sex began in the third grade, watching ''Beverly Hills 90210,'' the television show that portrayed teenagers from well-off families in the boom economy behaving like adults. ''I was interested,'' he said. ''The people were cool. I wanted to try what they were doing on the show.''

He, along with half a dozen of his friends, described a timetable for sexual initiation. By third grade, they knew the slang for activities from masturbation to oral sex. By fourth grade, they had girlfriends and were playing kissing games. By fifth, they were going on dates. In sixth, they were French kissing and petting. In seventh and eighth grades, they tried oral sex, and some had intercourse.

By ninth grade, one boy said, ''it's just one big spree of going all the way.''

The head of their school said she thought they were accurate in their timetable.

Asked if they felt things were going too fast, the boys shrugged. ''It has to happen sooner or later,'' the 13-year-old said. ''Sex is pleasurable. Why not now? Sometimes people get hurt. Sure. I've been hurt. But that's going to happen at any age.''

Psychiatrists and psychologists, however, say that most young teenagers cannot handle the profound feelings that go with early sex. ''Developmentally, they just aren't ready,'' Dr. Levy-Warren said. ''They're trying to figure out who they are, and unlike adults who obsess first and then act, kids do the opposite -- they act and then obsess. They jump into this, and are left with intense feelings they're unable to sort out.''

What's most troubling to Dr. Levy-Warren and others is a new casual, brazen attitude about sex. ''I call it body-part sex,'' she said. ''The kids don't even look at each other. It's mechanical, dehumanizing. The fallout is that later in life they have trouble forming relationships. They're jaded. ''

While New York middle-school educators and counselors say they are increasingly concerned about earlier sexual activity, particularly oral sex, no one is clear on what to do about it. After Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez was fired in 1993, in part for introducing a condom-distribution program, the New York public schools have settled into a sex education curriculum that's a mixed bag of preaching, basic anatomy and, in high school, condom distribution, though parents can choose to keep their children from participating.

Even at New York's private schools, not concerned with federal guidelines, which since 1996 have allocated millions of dollars to sex education programs that teach only abstinence, ambivalence reigns. At Friends Seminary in downtown Manhattan, parents were called to a meeting two years ago after students in a fifth grade class began pairing off and breaking up, and ''the misery factor was high,'' said Pamela Wood, the head of the middle school. There was no consensus among the adults. Half were appalled at the prospect of 10-year-olds dating. The other half thought it was cute.

''In elementary school, everyone pretty much has the same agenda,'' Ms. Wood said. ''By middle school, no one agrees on what is appropriate. As for parents, their egos can get entangled. They want their kids to be liked, and if dating is what it requires, then they're for it.''

The sex education curriculum at Friends includes practice exercises in how to put on a condom for eighth graders and free condom distribution in high school, but there is disagreement about distributing condoms with fruit flavoring, for use during oral sex.

At the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, concern about the precocious sexual climate led this year to starting a sex education program for the fifth grade, where none had existed so early before.

Dr. Glenn Stein, the middle-school psychologist, said that the program is mostly anatomy. ''A little inoculation, I would call it,'' he said. ''It's not enough, but it's a start.''

What the fast-sex scene means to girls, as opposed to boys, is of particular concern to school psychologists, who mentioned holding discussions and seminars on gender issues. Deborah Tolman, a director at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, points out that anecdotal evidence indicates that when it comes to oral sex, ''the boys are getting it, the girls no.''

''It's the heterosexual script that entitles boys and disables girls,'' she said.

Most psychologists say that what is needed is not just to supply youngsters with facts and information about anatomy, but also to provide them with forums to explore their feelings and to digest the proliferation of sexual messages they receive. As Francesca Schwartz, a school psychologist at the Brearley School, a private school for girls on the Upper East Side, put it: ''Do I really like this person? Or am I just doing this to be popular? These are the questions the kids need to learn to think about and ask.''

Such discussions should come sooner rather than later, educators say. ''Preteens in our culture are 8 and 9,'' said Dr. Ava L. Siegler, a psychologist and the author of ''The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence.'' ''We shouldn't wait to talk to them about AIDS, sex and violence until they are 12.''

Dr. Waltzman added: ''To kids, their crushes and loves are the most important thing. Adults may see it as silly or irrelevant, but the kids don't. It does no good to leave them to figure it out on their own.''