Good girls do

School counsellors, researchers and teenagers themselves say that girls as young as 12 and 13 are performing oral sex -- not just the class 'bad girls,' but students from every walk of life. They don't consider it real sex, but an act almost as normal as acne and cafeteria gossip. In today's oversexed consumer culture, reports SARA WILSON, popularity commands a high price

February 7, 2004
Globe and Mail
By Sara Wilson

Alexa is 15 now, but she first heard about it when she was 10. She remembers thinking, "Ewww." Disgusting.

The next time the subject came up, she was 13, an eighth grader at an affluent private school in Toronto, making out with her boyfriend in his bedroom. He asked if she was willing.

"He told me, 'You don't have to if you don't want to. It's up to you.' But I really liked him and this was my first, like, obsessive thing with a guy." He was a year older, 14. "I wanted to impress him. And we'd been hooking up for so long. Two months or something. I thought about it for about three seconds. I'm like, okay, it's my decision. I felt mature, like I made up my own mind. Obviously I was ready. But I don't even know if I was."

"It" is oral sex, and Alexa is hardly the only young girl who thinks she's ready for it (all minors' names have been changed). According to statistical evidence, as well as reports from social workers, educators and the girls themselves, oral sex is now a fact of life in middle-school culture.

And it's no longer the domain of the class "bad girl." Girls like Alexa who are experimenting sexually can hail from housing projects and tony suburbs, and attend schools public and private. In some circles, the act is even de rigueur, an admission ticket to the cool cliques of star athletes or honour students.

"Fooling around" and "hookups" -- terms kids use to describe everything from kissing to groping, mutual masturbation to oral sex -- happen when couples are alone, and when they're in peer groups. They happen at school, in stairwells, in bathrooms between third and fourth period, and in the playground at recess. They happen in parks, on class trips and in cabins at camp. They happen at home and at after-school or weekend parties, whether or not parents are out.

The phenomenon made news in Canada in December, when Cass Rhynes, a 19-year-old baseball star from Cornwall, PEI, was sentenced to 45 days in jail for inciting oral sex from two girls aged 12 and 13. Mr. Rhynes, who was one of four teenaged boys involved in the incident a year ago, claims he'd thought the girls were two years older (14 is the age of consent in Canada). The girls themselves testified that they had arranged the casual sexual trysts, often via the Internet, and willingly participated. They characterized the episodes as "no big deal." The court saw otherwise. Mr. Rhynes is appealing the sentence.

The case shocked many Canadians who harboured illusions that 12- and 13-year-old girls' sexuality was limited to fixating on the gyrations of the latest pop idol. Even Mr. Rhynes seemed bewildered, in an interview after his conviction, that girls that age would know what oral sex means, much less want to take part in it. "Obviously something's changed," he said. "Something's gone wrong somewhere."

The oral-sex trend, however, is not a temporary blip on the radar of adolescent sexuality. It signals a sea change in the way girls view themselves, and sends a wake-up call about the state of our hypersexualized culture.

Physiologically, girls seem to be hitting puberty earlier than ever. But developing breasts is one thing, and sexual and emotional maturity is quite another. What does it mean when 12-year-old girls are servicing boys on a lark? How do such hollow early experiences affect a girl's sex life and self-esteem, in a Sex and the City culture that telegraphs that all a girl needs to feel better in the morning is a pair of Manolos?

This turn among pubescent girls first came to light in 1999 in the United States. After president Bill Clinton drew his famous distinction between "sexual relations" and oral sex, U.S. media began to discover that middle-schoolers mirrored his opinion.

While there are no hard data to confirm the increase in oral sex, late last year Health Canada published the best evidence available in this country -- a state-of-the-union survey of about 11,000 students in Grades 7, 9 and 11 entitled "Canadian Youth, Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS."

The study was the first in more than a decade to examine adolescent sexual trends in Canada. However, researchers deliberately avoided asking Grade 7 students about intercourse or oral sex, for fear that controversy-averse school boards would have refused to participate, says researcher William Boyce, a member of the faculty of education at Queen's University in Kingston.

What the study did find is that in Grade 7, 35 per cent of girls and 46 per cent of boys said they had "deep (open-mouth) kissed" ("French" kissed); 34 per cent of girls and 46 per cent of boys said they had engaged in sexual touching above the waist; and 23 per cent of girls and 33 per cent of boys said they had engaged in sexual touching below the waist.

Students had the option of volunteering further specifics. One per cent of the Grade 7 girls who responded were willing to divulge that they had engaged in oral sex. But by Grade 9, it was one-third of all students.

"That jump didn't happen after they went to high school," Mr. Boyce says. "Some of it did, but some of it also happened in Grade 8, which frankly is the age that we are really suspecting a lot of this stuff is going on between kids."

Pinpointing where pubescent sexual mores began to change is trickier than wending a path through a teenager's clothes-strewn bedroom. It's not news that sexual stimulus abounds in today's media. Gone are the days when a boy might have sneaked his dad's tattered copy of Playboy; today, underwear ads in Good Housekeeping are nearly as explicit, and much raunchier stuff appears on music videos and the Internet. But kids today are also often the targets of a massive sexual sell.

If teenagers were a creation of the 1950s, "tweens" -- the eight-to-14-year-olds weaned on the Spice Girls, Clueless, Missy Elliot and The O.C. -- are a product of the new millennium. Never before has a group so young commanded such powerful market attention. An army of mini-me celebrities gaze out from the covers of publications such as Teen People, Teen Vogue, Cosmo Girl and Elle Girl, plugging junior-branded merchandise, movies and TV shows. It's fuelled an explosion of retail lines and outlets that cater to the legions that want to emulate them.

Products that used to be designated adults-only are now being peddled to kids, with not-so-subtle sexual connotations: tween-targeted cosmetics, courtesy of mini-branding giants the Olsen twins; paraphernalia with "Porn Star" and Playboy-bunny logos, sold in the juniors section at department stores; and even kid-branded lingerie. American retailer Abercrombie & Fitch introduced thong underwear to its Abercrombie Kids line last year, featuring phrases such as "Kiss Me," "Wink Wink" and "Eye Candy."

These products have helped create a generation of pseudo-sophisticated girls, advanced about sex but ignorant of its meaning and consequences. Kids inhale an atmosphere in which sex is a commodity to exchange for status, while overworked parents and school systems are often less than available to help kids interpret the messages they are receiving.

Of course, adolescents have always "fooled around," and they have always had an eye for sex appeal. If a fast-forward culture is making it happen a year or two younger, perhaps that's no reason to panic. But pretending it isn't true is increasingly not an option.

Kate is a stunning olive-skinned brunette, now in Grade 11 at a Toronto alternative school. On the day of our interview, she is wearing a Juicy Couture-style black sweatsuit, slung low on her hips to show off a flat midriff à la J.Lo. In her characteristic teenage drone, she explains that starting in Grade 7, about 15 boys and girls from her small, mixed-gender private school would gather every weekend, with no parents around.

Typically, all the kids would be watching a movie when couples would break off from the main crowd and disappear into another room. Other times, they wouldn't be so discreet. On one occasion, she remembers sitting only a few feet away from a girl who was performing oral sex on a boy when another girl approached them. "Wow, I can't believe you're doing that," Kate remembers the newcomer saying. "Do you want me to hold your hair back?"

At the time, she says, it did not seem particularly out of the ordinary. "I just didn't think anything of it."

Her attitude toward doing the deed was equally laissez-faire. One day in Grade 8, at a house where some friends were gathered after school, she was alone in a bedroom with a classmate she had known since Grade 5. He wasn't her boyfriend, but when her then best friend joined the conversation, the boy asked the two girls to kiss. After they complied, he requested oral sex. "We were like, 'Okay,' " she says.

The threesome took place in a separate room from the main party, but the teens were hardly sequestered away. "People were walking in and out of the room," she says. "But it didn't even matter. Nobody cared."

Because her school was so small, Kate says that at some point, everyone in her grade had "hooked up" with everyone else. "By the end of Grade 8," she says, people were doing "pretty much everything" except intercourse.

Sally O'Neill, a Toronto-based sexual-health educator, says kids as young as Grade 5 "always" ask questions about oral sex. And one social worker with the Toronto District School Board says things have changed dramatically in her 15 years on the job: Now, she frequently counsels girls as young as 12 who have been caught -- often on school property -- in "pretty compromising sexual positions."

Miriam Kaufman, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, is familiar with the trend as well. "We're hearing this from rich kids and we're hearing this from poor kids," Dr. Kaufman says.

A guidance counsellor at a Toronto private girls' school says she has heard confidentially from other staff members that "our girls are servicing boys from Grade 7 up." And servicing the guys appears to be exactly what's going on: From all accounts, oral sex is a one-way street -- boys rarely return the favour.

"It used to be that only the really slutty girls -- and there was one in each class -- would do this," says Eric King, a senior social worker at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, a government-funded children's mental health care facility in Toronto. In many circles today, he says, oral sex has become almost as normal as acne or homework or cafeteria gossip.

Vanessa, now a popular kid in Grade 9 at a private girls' school in Toronto, describes the weekend parties that she says took place about twice a month last year at various friends' houses. Sometimes parents were home, but more often they weren't. Boys and girls from schools across the city would show up. Frequently, drugs and alcohol were involved. Boys would approach girls, a pickup would ensue, and the couple would withdraw into another room, she says. Sometimes, the two knew each other. Other times, they had just met.

She remembers one girl who left the room with a boy she had met just 10 minutes earlier. When the pair returned, she says, "All the girls would just circle around and be like, 'What just happened? What just happened?' " The boy would "just walk off," while the girl would "talk about it openly." The two didn't have intercourse, she says, but they did everything else. Oral sex was a given. It happened at every party.

The girls' attitudes were remarkably blasé: They would say they were just hooking up with a given boy for that night, and shrug that "next weekend," they would be with another guy. Vanessa guesses that about 10 per cent of her all-female Grade 8 class performed oral sex on boys regularly.

Sometimes, she says, girls would arrange hookups by electronic instant messaging -- now kids' primary mode of communication outside school. Vanessa has observed her girlfriends exchanging messages with boys whom they knew or had recently met, laying out the planned sexual timetable in graphic detail, often including oral sex. The absence of face-to-face contact is a confidence booster: "It's much easier to be open," she says.

According to Dr. Kaufman, that comfort allows for increasingly explicitly sexual text conversations -- and concerned parents have sought her help after discovering them. In Mr. Rhynes's trial, evidence emerged that the casual sexual liaisons that ensnared the baseball prodigy were facilitated by instant messaging: After meeting and exchanging e-mail addresses with groups of high-school boys on school buses, the girls used messaging to arrange the meetings.

While educators stress that they don't believe that most girls engage in these activities, those who do are by no means anomalous. And even girls who don't would agree with their more precocious girlfriends that it isn't really sex.

"I'll say, 'Did you have sex?' " says a guidance counsellor at another Toronto private girls' school. "And they'll say, 'Well, not exactly.' And I'll say, 'What do you mean, not exactly?' And they'll say, 'Well, we had oral sex.' " If it's not sex, what is it? When a moderator posed that question to a roomful of teenaged girls at a Women's Health Matters conference in Toronto last month, the giggling reply was almost unanimous: "It's foreplay."

Why draw this line at all? The girls see oral sex as safer, both physically and emotionally. To an extent, they're right. Oral sex poses no danger of pregnancy. The chance of infection from most sexually transmitted diseases -- including HIV -- is lower than with "real" sex. Still, there are risks: Herpes, gonorrhea and chlamydia are frequently transmitted through oral sex.

Kim Martyn, a sexual-health educator with Toronto Public Health and author of All the Way: Sex for the First Time, says kids are often surprised to learn that they need protection. Dr. Kaufman encounters similar misconceptions in her practice. As they see it, she says, "it's not sex, so why would you have to protect yourself?"

The emotional aspect is equally important. As one 13-year-old says, "When you have sex, it's, like, 'the big thing.' " Oral sex is "way less sentimental."

Kate agrees. With oral sex, she says, "you're not gonna have that emotional attachment."

Two guidance counsellors at a girls' school have encountered the same attitude. "Often you'll say to kids, 'I'm worried about you being hurt,' " says one. "And they'll sort of look at you like you're crazy."

The trend-watchers behind Sex and the City have picked up on that current: In one episode, the promiscuous PR person Samantha is hired to organize a rich Manhattan girl's bat mitzvah, where she overhears a group of 13-year-olds talking dirty about boy bands. When she scolds them, they scoff: They've been having oral sex since they were 12 -- it's the only way, they say, to get boys to like them. Even the unshockable Samantha is floored. Their reply? "Talk to the hand, grandma."

"It's just something you do," for many girls, says the other school counsellor. "An act that you perform." In certain peer groups, it is a price girls pay for popularity. It alone can garner the social cachet that's needed to belong. It is, Vanessa says, "the cool thing to do."

In that sense, the pressures, fears and anxieties about fitting in that girls are dealing with today are no different than the ones they have dealt with since the beginning of time.

Only now, the stakes are higher.

Leslie, a petite, outgoing 16-year-old with curly brown hair who describes her junior-high years as "social warfare," says oral sex has become something of a "rite of passage" for 12- and 13-year-old girls. The thinking goes, "You're in Grade 7 and 8. This is something you should be doing."

Often, says Leslie, the pressure to cast off the label of "blowjob virgin" was so intense in her private Hebrew day school that girls performed oral sex just to get it over with. "It's about doing what's expected."

Vanessa agrees. "Girls just want to get past the stage of saying they did it."

In the process, this generation is bucking some age-old social and sexual norms. Ms. O'Neill, the sexual-health educator, says she frequently gets complaints from parents who believe that their sons are being harassed by girls. And Mr. King, the social worker, says that when it comes to voicing their sexual wishes, girls are more aggressive now than ever: "I know what I want and I can get it." One of the girls in PEI testified that Cass Rhynes was reluctant, and she forced herself on him.

Ever since the advent of "Girl Power," being aggressively sexy has practically become a political statement. Pop-culture figureheads such as Christina Aguilera or Beyoncé, who play out every bump-and-grind signal of sexual availability -- then fend off criticism by saying it is "just a performance," only entertainment -- reinforce the mixed message.

What started as a movement to invest girls with the power to be and do anything they wanted has morphed into a brand-new program: "Put on a push-up bra, expose your navel, shake your booty, and drive 'em wild."

According to Kate, "If you want a guy to like you, most girls will do anything to have him."

Vanessa agrees. Oral sex is alluring to many girls because "a guy's giving her attention. He's saying, 'Let's go . . . have some fun.' "

But the attention rarely lasts. In fact, Kate recalls, in the Grade 8 situation, the girls and boys often would never speak again. Sometimes, the girl was embarrassed. Other times, despite what he had led the girl to believe -- surprise -- the boy didn't really care about her.

Typically, Vanessa says, "the guy will just use the girl." She bears the full weight of a nasty double standard, being labelled a "slut," "whore," or " 'ho," while he gets praised by friends.

Still, those labels aren't as disparaging as they once were. For young girls, even negative attention can be extremely attractive. "Even if they're talking about you poorly," Leslie explains, "they're still talking about you." She adds, "To get the name 'slut,' at least that means . . . you're, like, older."

Whereas a girl's first period used to signal her entrance into womanhood, Leslie says, now "you're a woman if you go out there and you fool around with lots and lots of people."

Kate agrees. When she and her girlfriends performed oral sex, she says, "we were pretty proud."

Sara Wilson is a freelance writer in Toronto.


Shocking the unshockable: what to say if you're concerned about your tween and sex

Last week's story about how some 12-year-old girls are servicing their male classmates made many parents anxious. But as ALANNA MITCHELL writes, this generation is uniquely positioned to advise its children

Globe and Mail
February 14, 2004
By Alanna Mitchell

Oprah has had a show about it. The legal ramifications have come up in a much-watched court case in Prince Edward Island. And the phenomenon has been debated hotly in the Comment pages since a feature cataloguing it appeared in Focus last Saturday.

All this has left parents with the uncomfortable knowledge that some girls as young as 12 are delivering oral sex to boys as party tricks. And that some of the girls are utterly unsentimental about it, dubbing fellatio simply a rite of passage that every girl tween needs to perform to join the "in" crowd at her middle school.

What a challenge for today's parents, who grew up believing that our parents were the fuddy-duddies and we were the cool new generation with no sexual hang-ups. Sex was good, we told ourselves. Sex should be uninhibited, a cherished means of self-expression and pleasure. For women just as much as for men.

We were unshockable about sex practices that never crossed our parents' minds -- let alone lips -- and chuckled gently at the poor sods who didn't have the mental elasticity to appreciate the legendary excesses of the gay lifestyle. Now we find ourselves obsessed, at this late date, with why our girls are giving out oral sex as if it were an air kiss.

How the heck do we talk to them about this one?

The most important thing is to be as specific and explicit as you can be. If your child doesn't understand what you're getting at, drop it.

Miriam Kaufman, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, said one thing is for sure. It's important not to ignore the phenomenon, which she says has been growing over the past two or three years. And it's a good idea to start the discussions in about Grade 6, before your kids are faced with these tough decisions.

She advises to start off generally, maybe referring to something you've read or seen on television. As in: "Wow. It sounds like there's a lot of this going on."

Then ask your kids what they think about it and what they've heard. Make it clear that fellatio can put either participant at risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes, and that if they're doing it, they need to be using condoms.

In her view, it's important not to become disgusted by the topic, not to get angry, not to put your kids off fellatio forever, but instead to stress that it can be a wonderful and pleasurable act.

If you find out that your son or daughter is involved in the fellatio-on-demand phenomenon, "the first thing is, don't blow your stack. Instead, ask: 'How does it make you feel?' "

It's fine, she said, to explain to your kids that you think that 12 is far too young to be having sex, including oral sex. It's your job to let them know what your values are. Generally speaking, having sex before the age of 16 is simply too young, she said, citing All the Way: Sex for the First Time by Kim Martyn of Toronto Public Health. Some experts recommend that his book be read by 10- and 11-year olds.

Gabor Maté, a family physician and therapist in Vancouver, and co-author of recently published Hold on to Your Kids, said he would start off this way: "This may not be necessary or you may find it dumb, but as a parent, I've got concerns . . . and I want to know if you have any concerns yourself."

Ann Barrett, a member of the board of directors of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, who works with teens in Toronto, said the key is for parents to be honest with their kids. Explain how you feel. Don't lecture. And ask for your kids' opinion; they love to be consulted.

"I would say: 'Gee. I've been reading about this and it's new to me and honestly, I'm feeling a bit anxious. Are all teens doing this? What do you guys hear about this?' "

Ms. Barrett said parents don't have to have all the answers when they start the conversation. Part of the bonding may be to figure out what questions each of you has and then work together to find answers.

She said it's important to celebrate the fact that your teens or preteens are sexual beings. On the other hand, they need to know that there is no rule that says these acts are things that everybody needs to do. "You do not have to do something you do not feel very clearly you want to do," she said.

Throughout the conversation, the main message should be: "I care about you. I care about this. And it's my job to make sure you know what you need to know."

The big questions, though, the ones that cut to the heart of why young girls and boys are participating in the fly-by fellatio, and how this will affect them, are much tougher to answer.

A comprehensive research study on students in Grades 7, 9 and 11 done in 2002 for the Canadian Youth, Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS study, co-ordinated by the Council of Ministers of Education, offers a few hints. The study is all the more telling because many of the questions were asked of young Canadians in a previous study in 1989, so the comparison gives some information about where the trends are going.

The rationales for doing the study were twofold. The first was to get a read on not only sexual health, but also the degree of healthy sexuality of young Canadians. That means far more than trying to prevent sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies. It also means trying to foster the health of the human as a sexual being, including the emotional, physical, cognitive and social aspects of sexuality.

The second rationale was that first decisions about sexual activity are often made during adolescence and those decisions go on to affect sexual behaviour throughout life. In other words: It matters what teens and preteens do.

One of the survey's many troubling findings is that young people seem to display less confidence in themselves today than they did in 1989. As well, girls appear to have far less sense of self than boys. That can affect how they react to peer pressure.

In 1989, for example, the percentage of young Canadians who said they had confidence in themselves ranked in the mid- to high-80s. In 2002, the percentages had slid sharply. For Grade 7 girls, it was 78 per cent, Grade 9 girls, 67 per cent and Grade 11 girls, 69 per cent.

The survey also showed that students today are less worried than they were in 1989 about contracting a sexually transmitted infection, including HIV/AIDS. But they also know less about protecting themselves against those infections than students did in 1989. For example, in 2002, two-thirds of students in Grade 7 thought there was a cure for HIV/AIDS.

Added to this dangerous mix is the intense peer pressure on today's young people. Large numbers of students surveyed in 2002 said a key to being popular at school was to party a lot or engage in rebellious behaviour. Personality, good looks, hanging out with the right crowd and having a boyfriend or girlfriend ranked as highly important.

Other findings from the 2002 data show that Grade 7 students who have engaged in early sexual activity tended to have poor relationships with their parents. Other factors can include low achievement in school, negative attitudes toward school, low aspirations for education and learning disabilities.

Dr. Kaufman remembers hearing about a middle-school trip to Quebec City that included a cruise along the St. Lawrence. During the cruise, the girls were on their knees in the ship's bathrooms, servicing their male classmates.

"How does that affect your identity and sense of self-worth and power? I think there's a good chance it could be negative," Dr. Kaufman said.

On the other hand, she has heard of older teen girls who have male "friends with benefits." It means having a careful and fun sexual relationship with a male friend, but no emotional ties. Some of the girls describe it as liberating to fulfill their sex drive but not have to be romantically attached.

Dr. Kaufman can see how that would work for some teens. But the 12-year-old giving but not getting?

"I don't think that sex always has to be profound, or meaningful," she said, adding that what bothers her is the "humdrumness" of the fellatio the 12-year-olds describe. "But at a bare minimum, it should be enjoyable."

Ms. Barrett said last week's article spawned a great deal of talk among the older teens --15, 16, 17 -- she was teaching this week. They were concerned about the girl's self-esteem and whether she would have regrets if she did it just to please the guy or because she felt she had to.

Ms. Barrett said the boys in the class were upset at what they called the "double standard" of a girl performing oral sex on a boy but getting nothing back.

As for Ms. Barrett, she said the trend causes her some concern, largely because the image is so mechanical and joyless.

"We want to support our kids, not to end up doing things they don't feel good about," she said, adding: "I don't think that's what most parents would choose for their kids."

As to whether the kids will be emotionally scarred, she said it's unclear. And it's one of her worries.

Laura Wershler, a sexual-health advocate in Calgary and a member of Mad Moms Against Bad Sex Ed, said this generation of parents may be uniquely positioned to help their children navigate the complexities of sex. We probably have greater knowledge and experience than many previous generations.

To her mind, the trick is to push ourselves to be more candid. Explain to children that sex is not just about what you do with your partner, but about what you do with yourself too, and how you think about yourself. Explain that there is a broad, fascinating range of normal sexual behaviour and that people don't necessarily have the best sex with the partner they choose for life.

Part of the challenge is to face up to the fact that sex education is not working well, a point also made by the 2002 study. Ms. Wershler's solution to that is simple: In addition to focusing on the traditional "how" of sex and birth control, students should be exposed to a course of training in media literacy that might lead to the "why."

That way they could dissect some of the messages they get from the mainstream television programs that are lifting more and more from the pornography industry. They would see Janet Jackson's Super Bowl exposure and understand it for a marketing ploy. They could begin to understand who makes the images, who profits from them and whom they are aimed at.

"We live in a sex-charged culture," Ms. Wershler said. "And if we're going to live in that culture, we have to think about how we can help our kids interpret it."

Alanna Mitchell is a senior feature writer for The Globe and Mail.