The Secret Sex Lives of Teens

Adults often think middle school is too early for sex education, but for some of Sacramento’s kids, high school is too late. Without guidance, they’ve come up with some surprising strategies for dealing with pregnancy and disease.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Marcia McGill’s special education classroom was crammed with young adolescent bodies. Nearly 40 McClatchy High students had poured in, ready for a sexy discussion about masturbation, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Varying in age from 14 to 18, they joked and tussled and squirmed in anticipation.

A tall boy lifted a shabby chair high into the air and then lowered it into the aisle, barely missing another student’s head. More kids stood by the door, waiting to weave toward seats stuffed between the desks and tucked along the walls. McGill sorted out students who were supposed to be in other classrooms. Amee Kubich, an educator from Planned Parenthood, stood in the front of the room, looking like a misplaced flower child in her long strawberry-blond hair and fuzzy scarf. She started by talking about puberty, but the students had questions on all aspects of sexuality, and they shot an inquiry at her every time she took a breath.

“When they terminate [a pregnancy], how do they do it?” asked a male student.

Kubich looked him in the face. Without hesitation, she explained how a doctor inserts a speculum, cleans out the vagina, numbs the cervix, stretches it open, inserts a plastic straw-like device with suction into the cervical opening, and then sucks out the contents of the uterus.

Her ease with the material telegraphed that nothing about the discussion was embarrassing or inappropriate.

“The whole procedure, when a woman has an abortion,” said Kubich, “is about 10 minutes long.”

This last fact pulled an audible shudder from the class. They seemed surprised that such a serious event could take such a short period of time.

A girl up front followed the question by asking if abortions were free at Planned Parenthood.

Though parents all over Sacramento would rather not believe it, a lot of the students in class had been having sex for years, some since the sixth grade, and their beliefs about sex were already deeply ingrained. Movies, television and billboards had provided some information, but little of it was medically accurate, and even less was meant to help them avoid pregnancy or the spread of disease. Much of what they thought they knew came from their peers, from rumors, or from talk radio. Some of it came from their parents and teachers, but even the adults didn’t know everything that Kubich knew. By the time Kubich got to McGill’s class, even she had a hard time breaking through the layers of misinformation.

“I don’t know the name of this,” said a girl, “but I heard that somebody died from having sex too much.”

A boy sitting against the wall had a different question.

“What if like, you don’t have HIV or nothing,” said the boy, “and the girl’s on her period or something. And they both don’t have it. Like, do they get it?”

Another boy wanted to know if girls had to get their stomachs pumped if they gave oral sex to too many guys.

Kubich had heard all the urban myths before. A lot of kids thought that jumping up and down or urinating after sex could prevent pregnancy, and the newest rumor is that if a boy puts his earwax into a girl’s vagina and it burns her, she has a disease.

When teenagers don’t have access to accurate medical information, superstition and myth apparently takes its place.

Though almost all the students in McGill’s class were familiar with the rumors that a girl’s vagina stretched out after too much sex, or that oversexed girls died from having too much, they knew very little about healthy female sexuality.

Kubich slipped in the idea that young girls don’t pay enough attention to what they want during sex, but a discussion about how to have fun in bed was outside the scope of her duties as an educator. She was mainly entrusted with the job of making kids safer sexual partners.

Students were also unclear about the laws regarding sexuality. Kubich warned older teens that they could be guilty of child molestation if they had sex with 13-year-old girls, and the class erupted in irritated protest. The consensus was that older boys liked younger girls and younger girls liked older boys. At age 13, they insisted, a girl was old enough to have sex with anybody she wished. If she was having sex with a 19-year-old boy, it wasn’t anybody’s business.

A young boy in the middle of the room suggested a potential loophole.

“What if it’s his daughter and the daughter don’t tell nobody?” he asked.

“You mean the daughter was having sex … ” Kubich said cautiously.

“With the daddy,” answered the boy.

Kubich tried to bring the discussion back to the law.

“But like, if the daughter allows it,” insisted the boy.

Another boy seated along the wall wanted to know what would happen to his 20-year-old girlfriend for having sex with him at 17.

Kubich noted that at least this time no one had asked her if drinking Mountain Dew would prevent pregnancy.

As an educator who works with middle-school and high-school students, Kubich offers to address classes all across the Sacramento area, and whether she’s talking to sexually precocious adolescents in high school or innocents in eighth grade who’ve never kissed a member of the opposite sex, Kubich prefers to give the same frank lectures on how women get pregnant, how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, and where to get free contraception, without telling their parents. That may seem like too much information for the 13- and 14-year-olds that you know, but if the students in this story are an indication, eighth grade is already too late. (Due to the subject matter and the age of those interviewed, the students’ names have been changed in this story.)

Though teenagers’ misconceptions are occasionally comical, even harmless in a theoretical context, they can be very dangerous when used as the basis for behavior, especially in the case of rumors about how to avoid pregnancy or disease.

In McGill’s special education class, learning disabilities and behavioral problems might make students more susceptible than usual to misinformation.

Trina, a popular 14-year-old girl with high cheekbones and full lips, asked Kubich if parents had to sign the abortion papers if a girl wanted to get one.

Kubich said that girls don’t need anyone’s permission, and Trina perked up.

“Oh, they don’t?” she said, incredulous. Then she slumped back down. “My mama lied to me,” she said, pouting. Her classmates cracked up, and Trina repeated the line with smoky attitude, “She lied to me.”

Trina was also amazed to hear that douching could actually be bad for her, and demanded to know why the stuff was for sale. Collectively, the class had to tell her that it was about money.

But later, when she wanted to know if girls in high school were too young to have orgasms, her peers were quiet. Kubich told her that even the youngest girls can.

“What if you’ve never had one,” Trina wanted to know. As an aside, she asked, “Does that mean he’s not hitting it right?”

After Kubich answered questions about the G-spot and emergency contraception, Trina raised her hand again and asked why some women can’t get pregnant.

In a private interview, Trina explained why she’d asked the question. She had sex for the first time when she was 11, and she’s never been pregnant. She’s always let her boyfriends decide about contraception, and they’ve always decided against it. “After all this long,” she said, “it has not happened. Even the times when I wanted it to happen, it still has not happened, so I believe I can’t get pregnant.”

Amee Kubich teaches at Sutter Middle School, one of the only middle schools in Sacramento that offers comprehensive sex education to eighth-graders.

Photo by Larry Dalton

At 14, the girl is one of the youngest Kubich is allowed to talk to about contraception.

In a subsequent phone interview, Trina was slow to warm up. Her best friend was downstairs, and family members wandered in and out of the room. At first, she answered most questions with “yeah,” or “uh-hmm,” feigning boredom. But as she became more animated, it was obvious that she was self-aware and mature beyond her years—which had not protected her from absorbing a lot of misinformation.

Though Trina was attentive in class, she was still convinced that pregnancy couldn’t happen to her, and she’d already developed a habit of having unprotected sex. Though she wants to go to college, travel and study voice before she starts a family, it may be difficult for her to fight against the patterns she’s already established. Still, she’s trying.

“That’s my New Year’s resolution,” she said. “No more sex.”

Trina said she was always big for her age. Her first sexual partner didn’t know she was only 11 years old, and a virgin. As she tells the story, there was nothing romantic or exciting about her first time. Her family was staying with close family friends when an older boy began to pressure her.

“I didn’t know,” she said. “That was my first time, and they wouldn’t leave me alone, so, I mean, I wanted to go to sleep very badly that night, and I didn’t know that being a virgin was that special. Now I know, I wish I could take it back but it can’t happen.”

A few days before we spoke, Trina had broken up with another boy she’d been dating for over a year. They’d never used protection, according to Trina, because her boyfriend thought condoms “took the feeling out of it.” At the time though, she let him make all the decisions. She liked him that much.

Not only was Trina sexually active at a young age, but at 13, she was actively trying to get pregnant. Once her boyfriend promised to take care of her and any child he fathered, she began to fantasize about being a mother, and a part of his family. A child would tie them all together forever, and if the boy changed his mind and decided not to support her after the fact, Trina knew his mother would make him.

By age 14, Trina’s romanticized reality had dissolved. The boy was seeing other girls, maybe as many as 10, Trina estimated. She’d also begun to realize that she was too young for all of this.

Now that she’s in high school, she realizes that unsafe sex with a boy who had multiple partners was pretty risky. She may already have a sexually transmitted disease, but she’s afraid to get tested. She’s concerned about the results, sure, but she also can’t get undressed in front of anyone anymore, not even a doctor, unless it’s dark.

“I don’t like to see myself naked,” she says. “I just don’t think it’s pretty.”

While she works up the courage to overcome her fears, Trina sticks to her resolution not to have sex, but she’s recently become interested in an 18-year-old who’s on his way to boot camp. “He treats me the way I’m supposed to be treated,” she says, and he doesn’t pressure her for sex. She thinks she’ll be able to resist him even if he tries it.

“It’s not doing me any good,” she said. “I’m not getting any pleasure. I’m too young. I could be at risk of getting a disease or getting pregnant, and I just don’t want to anymore. It’s not fun, it’s not cute, it’s not ladylike. I just don’t like it.”

Early sex education wouldn’t necessarily have made a difference in Trina’s life, but it would have given her an early warning about disease and pregnancy, and might have made it easier for her to get and use contraception, or to say no. She might even have understood earlier that sex couldn’t give her anything worth having at her age.

Across the school from McGill’s special education class, Victoria Star teaches health to freshmen and sophomores. Sexuality is such a common subject that at the beginning of the school term, Star gets signed permission slips from all the parents saying that it’s all right to talk about sex whenever it comes up in class.

With this tradition of openness, Star’s students were well prepared for Kubich, who spoke to McGill’s students in the morning and Star’s after lunch. These students didn’t hold so many misconceptions about disease and pregnancy, but some of them had internalized dangerous ideas about relationships.

In one exercise, Kubich handed out cards and asked students to imagine themselves in relationships where the potentially abusive behavior on the card was occurring. They were asked to evaluate that behavior and then choose to accept it, leave the relationship, or tell their partner why he or she needed to stop.

One card read, “I am on a diet because my partner thinks I’m fat.” Raquel, a petite 15-year-old brunette with a coy, childlike voice, looked up with surprise. “But that’s true!” she said.

At first, she thought she would accept the behavior, but with coaxing, decided to tell her partner to back off.

Laurel, a willowy girl with a long graceful neck and a vacant expression, put her head down during Kubich’s games, finding the whole thing tedious.

The girls, who were much more vocal than the boys, talked about why they often had sex even when they didn’t want to. One girl said her boyfriend might go elsewhere if she didn’t or he might think you’re with someone else.

Laurel lifted her head and said simply that loving someone meant putting his feelings ahead of yours. Her words had the ring of finality, and the pretty girl looked depressed as soon as she’d said them. She didn’t seem to consider whether someone who loved her owed her the same consideration.

As the class came to a close, Raquel took the last card, which said her partner was barring the door during an argument and not letting her leave. Raquel considered it, and with a grin, said she wouldn’t want to leave. She decided to accept the behavior, even when it threatened to lead to violence. People get slapped around, she said, acting like it was no big deal. She would just hit him back.

Kubich said later that she overheard a conversation in Spanish between Raquel and two male friends. They were telling her not to let anyone hurt her.

In a phone interview, Raquel had already forgotten much of the class, but she remembered that game. The spunky girl talked up her own toughness.

Her real-life boyfriend wasn’t allowed to hurt her, she said, “but to slap me? Oh well. I’ll hit him back,” she reiterated.

Raquel went on to say that she intentionally provoked him, sometimes yelling into the phone that he was ugly and stupid.

“The reason he’s not nice when he isn’t,” she said, “is because I bug him, and I know I do, because I like to. I do it on purpose.”

Though Kubich’s program taught her something about negative patterns in her relationships, Raquel still thought she might stay with her boyfriend, even if he did really hurt her. Her sister had been hit by a boyfriend before.

“It was a couple of times,” said Raquel, “and then she got tired of it, so she left.”

Raquel talked about how much she loved her boyfriend, but when asked why, she had trouble coming up with compelling reasons. “He’s not nice,” she said, but then her voice softened. “He’s handsome.”

She also admits to really enjoying sex. “He’s always fun in that way,” she said, laughing at herself for being so bold.

Raquel has been having sex with the same boy since she was 12. They were able to keep it a secret for a year, and then a cousin told Raquel’s mother. “She thinks he took advantage of me when I was small,” said Raquel.

In many ways, Raquel is a typical teenager. She’s bored all the time, so she provokes people by pestering them. She waits for her sisters to take her out. She waits for her boyfriend to take her out. She’s especially tired of him spending so much time with the guys in the neighborhood now that her mom says she’s finally old enough to date. When they’re together, the two of them stay at his house watching cartoons and soap operas. Raquel would rather be dancing.

In three years, Raquel says they’ve had the usual arguments. He kissed another girl and she paid him back by dating other boys, but that’s all history now. They’ve been together for so long that sometimes they use condoms, and sometimes they don’t.

By the time Raquel was 14 and old enough to learn about contraception in school, she’d already been having sex for two years. By the time Trina was 14 and deciding that she was too young to have sex, she’d already been active for three years.

In Star’s class, where students like Raquel were less likely to believe in rumors about earwax and Mountain Dew, students still had hard-core questions that needed answering, and Kubich was one of the first people they’d encountered who knew the answers. Even students who were in healthy relationships came up with questions that would have stunned other adults.

During a discussion about how a couple could still be sexual without getting pregnant, Kubich noticed a knot of girls whispering in the back of the room. Donna, the boldest, told everybody to shut up. Then the 15-year-old blonde lowered her voice and asked her question coolly, leaning back in her seat. The girl behind her braided her hair.

Kubich demontrates how to correctly put on a condom. On the table before her are other methods of contraception that she’ll explain to eighth-graders.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“If you have anal sex,” she said, “and they come in your butt, can you get pregnant? That’s what they’re asking.”

Kubich explained that a girl could not, but Donna persisted, obviously having considered the question.

“If it drips back out?” she asked. “I’m just saying … ”

The whole discussion made Kubich’s previous advice—that one person should keep their underwear on if they were going to “dry-hump”—seem almost ludicrously naive.

At 15, Donna was unique in that she handled sex with the same frankness and command that Kubich did. In a subsequent interview, she moved quickly from her interest in physics and marine biology to a declaration that she and her boyfriend were sexually active, and that she’d gotten both of them tested for sexually transmitted diseases at Planned Parenthood.

Donna’s boyfriend, like Raquel’s, had not finished high school. He’d been kicked out for fighting and was now being home schooled, which he preferred because it kept him out of trouble. Like Raquel, Donna was proud of the fact that her boyfriend had a temper. It seemed to say something about her ability to handle a man.

In contrast to other interviewees, Donna had been proactive, discussing with her family and her boyfriend what the plan would be should she get pregnant. Donna even explained how she called up the clinic, went to Planned Parenthood, signed all the paperwork and got emergency contraception the day after a condom broke. She knew what it was like to get up in the middle of the night to take care of a screaming baby, and she wasn’t interested.

The baby she referred to belonged to her brother, who had dropped out of high school years earlier and then got his 16-year-old girlfriend pregnant. Donna felt obligated to be more responsible, which is why she told her mom that she wasn’t having sex anymore, though sometimes she still did.

“The first thing I’d do is to tell his parents and mine,” she said, “and then immediately go see a doctor, because I’d want to have an abortion as soon as possible.”

Her ideas about sex came from an active awareness of the sexual messages in movies, videos and the news. She read about it all the time, and could always talk to her parents and to older friends. Currently, she knows one 17-year-old girl who’s already had three abortions, two who are currently pregnant, one who just had a child, and one who just got treated for gonorrhea. All these people, she says, are between the ages of 14 and 18.

At first, Donna couldn’t remember having a class on sex ed before Kubich’s, but then she remembered something in middle school, but dismissed it as a class that only talked about anatomy and didn’t really give her any useful information about contraception.

The grand finale for Planned Parenthood’s week at McClatchy was to offer all the students free contraception after school. Anne Wurschmidt, another educator for Planned Parenthood, parked her big white car across the street from McClatchy and pulled out her large bag of flavored condoms and samples of lubrication. She plopped everything down on the trunk and waited.

When the bell rang, kids came rushing out the doors and could see Wurschmidt from the front of the school. Students drifted across the street, and a few brave boys grabbed handfuls of condoms, shoved them into small brown paper bags provided for privacy’s sake, and put them in their backpacks.

Donna brought Laurel along so that she could ask for a card that would allow her to get free contraception and free testing. Young men too shy to talk to Wurschmidt or fill out cards snagged a condom or two and then laughed at the idea that they were chocolate or banana flavored.

One smartly dressed boy stood off to the side with two girl friends and asked if the condoms were free. With some embarrassment, he accepted one, and then agreed to be interviewed.

Derek saw himself as different from the other students at McClatchy. He was involved in a rigorous Humanities and International Studies program at school, and claimed that most of his peers got placed in the University of California at Berkeley—or better. “I really hate to say it,” he said, “but we’re kind of higher up on the hierarchy at the school.”

As a freshman, Derek was already burying himself in his studies.

Though he wasn’t having sex yet, Derek did have a girlfriend, but she seemed almost like an abstraction, an idea he carried around without much consideration. When he talked to other guys about anything sexual, it was mainly limited to “She’s hot … she’s got a nice ass,” or some version of, “Are you getting any?”

Though he was abstaining from sex, he remembers considering it seriously for the first time in the eighth grade, and he still acknowledges that, “amongst guys, they think if you get some, that gives you a status boost.” For that reason, guys would sometimes brag about the girls they slept with. He thought it was ironic that the girls were seen as sluts and the guys were seen as just regular guys.

When asked if he might engage in sexual activities besides intercourse, Derek was still adamant. “I just say no to sex,” he said, “same with drugs.” But what about oral sex or mutual masturbation? “No,” he said. “If you do that, it will eventually lead to [sex].”

But he still must have been tempted to have sex, right? Sure, and academic drive wasn’t going to change that. Derek was quick to point out that what kept him from having sex, was fear.

“No doubt, it’s those ads on TV,” he said, referring to scary images of body parts covered in sores and blisters from sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex was primarily still something to joke about for Derek. He loved to flirt, he said, with a dreamy expression, and he and his female friends talked about sex over the phone all the time. He gets teased about how girls dressed up like cats turn him on. “Fur bikinis,” he said, nodding.

Derek was concentrated on school, getting a car, becoming an adult. He might have protected sex once he got to college, he thought, but he wouldn’t have unprotected sex until he got married. Relationships right now were just for fun. “High school crush stuff,” he said, “nothing serious.”

Even though students like Derek are at less risk, they still have only a few places to find information on sex and some of it isn’t reliable.

“Love Line,” he said, referring to the popular radio show. That’s where he learned that if he didn’t ejaculate at least once every three weeks, he’d get cancer. “You get blood in your semen,” he said.

The idea that not masturbating could lead directly to cancer seemed entirely likely to him. The morbidity of it seemed to fit in with the tone of his other thoughts about sex. Altogether, it was a dangerous realm.

Kids like Derek who want to abstain from sex aren’t unusual in high schools, but they’re no longer the obvious majority, which makes Kubich’s job difficult.

“It’s only one week,” Kubich said of her class. Sex education classes are dull compared to movies that young people see every day about sex-drenched adult relationships. Even Kubich estimates that she only makes a difference for perhaps 10 percent of the kids she speaks to.

So why isn’t this information also taught in most middle schools, where students like Trina, Raquel and Donna would hear about it as they were becoming sexually active?

Often it’s because the parents aren’t ready.

In a cozy library at the center of Sutter Middle School, Kubich, Wurschmidt and Angie Hensley spoke with parents about their education program. Sutter was one of only three Sacramento middle schools willing to let the comprehensive high-school curriculum be taught to eighth-graders. The educators insisted that their program was not an encouragement to have sex, but parents were hard to convince. The parents seemed to think that if you give kids information about sex, and tell them how to do it safely, and do it behind their parents’ backs, you’re removing the fear factor that keeps kids like Derek from having sex.

The educators didn’t agree. They don’t give their program that much credit. They’re just trying to intervene at a critical stage where not enough information could have disastrous results.

Still, parents of middle-school students were skeptical. One concerned couple was amazed that their child would be hearing about sex as if it were a foregone conclusion. Our son, they said, is still into toys. Would the program be sensitive to kids like him?

The educators assumed that the parents wanted their child to abstain from sex, but abstinence meant totally avoiding temptation. Their son was too young even to be tempted, they insisted. All this information would be too much for him. Other parents’ faces revealed concern verging on mistrust. Will you be telling them about emergency contraception, one wondered? Will you be telling them they can get abortions for free without our permission?

Hensley, who looked like a teenager herself, had had her own son when she was 16 and was now running successful group sessions with teen mothers. As parents grew agitated, she tried to cut through it all.

“All of you guys who are here,” she said, “your children aren’t at risk for a teenage pregnancy. We’re doing it for the kids whose parents aren’t here.” She looked around the room at the concerned faces, perhaps 50 in all. “There are a lot of parents who are not here,” she said.

As the meeting broke up, parents drifted forward with more questions, or they addressed each other cautiously.

“Are you ready for this?” one mother asked another.

“No,” said the second in a world-weary voice, “but my son sure is.”