Teen Sex: The Silent Epidemic That's Killing Our Kids

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The Silent Epidemic That's Killing Our Kids

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The SARS outbreak makes daily headlines. Governments and the international medical community have mobilized to keep this disease from further spreading around the globe and causing an even greater epidemic.

But a silent epidemic more lethal and widespread is lurking closer to home—at your very doorstep. This epidemic spreads to another 8,000 American teenagers, and thousands more around the world, every day.

To put it in perspective, this epidemic infects as many American teens daily as the total number of recognized SARS cases reported in the first four months since that disease was first recognized in February of this year.

You would think that a problem of this magnitude would shout from the headlines each day, mobilizing the medical community and U.S. government to declare war on it. But no. Most of the population remains unaware of its magnitude, the victims maintain their silence, and government agencies and institutions dealing with the problem keep barking up the wrong tree. Sadly, those who are most likely to experience the ravages of this epidemic are among those most ignorant of its growing threat.

Sexual freedom’s terrible cost

The truth of the matter is damning: The Western world, and the United States in particular, has flaunted its so-called “sexual freedom” for decades. The results are disastrous, but as a nation we have not yet found the courage to admit just how wrong we were.

If you think your kids are not at risk, think again. A recent book by Meg Meeker, M.D., doctor of adolescent medicine, makes a compelling case based on solid medical research and firsthand clinical experience. Our teens are at risk, she says, and without substantive action casualties will continue to mount. Consider these facts from her 2002 book Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids:

Nearly one in four sexually active teens has at least one sexually transmitted disease (p. 13).
One in 5 children over 12 tests positive for herpes type 2 (p. 13).
A British study found that early half of girls become infected with a sexually transmitted disease during their first sexual experience (p. 12).
Herpes has skyrocketed 500 percent in the past 20 years among white American teenagers (p. 13).
For most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), especially viruses spread from skin-to-skin contact, condoms offer little or no protection (pp. 104-105).
One in five teens believe oral sex is “safe sex” (p. 144).
In June 2002 a 13-year-old sixth-grade girl who made good grades and led the cheerleading squad was strangled to death by a married man—one of many sexual partners she had met on the Internet (p. 163).

Dr. Meeker illustrates the magnitude of the problem this way: “Picture a football stadium filled with teenagers. Start counting. One out of five of those cheering kids has herpes (at least, that we know of). Every third girl in the stands has HPV [human papilloma virus, which can cause cancer], and one out of ten has chlamydia. If we pulled all the healthy kids out of there, leaving just those teens infected with an STD, the stadium would still be nearly full” (pp. 13-14).

Shocking? Perhaps, but backed by solid medical research—research that is not based on high-risk, inner-city kids. We are talking about the kid next door, the captain of the basketball team and perhaps your very own children whom you love and cherish. Bad things happen to “good” kids when they engage in irresponsible sexual behavior.

Dr. Meeker attributes this epidemic of sexually transmissible diseases to four things: birth control pills, condoms, popular media and high-risk sex. This is certainly not a politically correct position for a physician—or anyone—to take, but the facts speak for themselves.

Easy birth control changes everything

Dr. Meeker—herself the mother of four, including two teens—has not always taken this stand. Early in her career she was a proponent of birth control and held feminist ideals. She wanted girls to like being women and to make their own sexual decisions—to have control of their bodies. She prescribed oral contraceptives to “wage war” on unwanted pregnancies. But after years of experience she has concluded that this is not the right approach. Birth control does not equate to disease control.

“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated to prescribe oral contraceptives to teenage girls … As a young doctor swept away by the message of ‘safe’ sex, I didn’t know any better” (p. 98). But today, she thinks long and hard about prescribing birth control pills—for while they protect against unwanted pregnancy, they inadvertently encourage increased sexual activity and the danger of picking up a sexually transmitted disease.

The advent of oral contraceptives brought new choices and so-called freedoms—the freedom to choose to engage in sexual activity without the unwanted responsibility of children. This freedom, as we all know, sparked a social revolution that reshaped popular notions about sexuality and family.

“When birth control pills arrived in the 1960s, our generation felt we had just what we needed to take ultimate charge of our sexual lives and our decisions about reproduction,” Dr. Meeker writes. “But what we failed to see was the curse that accompanied it … Only now are we coming to realize that safe sex isn’t safe. In fact, it can be deadly” (pp. 89-90).

Stated another way, we thought we could have sexual promiscuity without the undesirable results. What we discovered was promiscuity produced far more than unwanted pregnancies—sexually transmitted diseases exploded. What was needed now was protection from the other consequences of sexual freedom, some of them quite deadly.

The not-so-magic solution

Enter the condom. The latex condom became the darling of the healthcare community and the proponents of safe sex. Millions of condoms are distributed to teens in schools each year. Sex education classes teach our teens how to use them to have sex safely. The message that is sent either overtly or implicitly is that sex is safe as long as you wear a condom. The problem? Neither the condom nor sex education works as advertised.

Consider these findings: “Less than half of adolescent boys (45%) say they use condoms for every act of intercourse, and older teens (age 18 and 19) actually use condoms less than younger teens (age 15 to 17). Remember, these are the same kids who forget to do their homework, brush their teeth, or take the dog out. Can we really expect them to use condoms each and every time they have sex?” (p. 116).

This illustrates an important point: Just because someone is educated does not mean that the knowledge will be applied—especially in something as impulsive and emotionally charged as sex. Isn’t the idea that sex education will result in teens following through and actually using protection dangerously naive?

Furthermore, as sex education fails to deliver the advertised results, so does the condom. Condoms do not always protect. They leak or break at least two percent of the time and do not offer adequate protection against many sexually transmitted diseases.

Human papilloma virus (HPV), for example, is spreading like wildfire and is a leading cause of cervical cancer in young women. Yet the latest studies conclude that “condoms have no impact on the risk of sexual transmission of human papilloma virus in women” (p. 108). Another study published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that when a man’s sexual partner has herpes, “using condoms didn’t help the men reduce their risk of getting the disease at all” (p. 109).

Teaching teens to use condoms and making them readily available gives teens a false sense of security that inadvertently exposes them to greater risk. They are receiving a fallacious message that sex is safe when, in fact, solid medical research shows it isn’t.

This incongruity points to a bigger problem: “As long as the idea of sexual freedom remains the driving force behind national sex education, the STD epidemic will continue … The only way to stop it is to curb the conspiracy of those who urge total sexual freedom and argue that it has no costs and causes no harm” (p. 28).

High-risk sex

Dr. Meeker also attributes the epidemic level of STDs among teens to their involvement in high-risk sex. They tend to act on the messages they receive from school and the media to engage in sexual activity that most teens several decades ago knew nothing about.

These high-risk activities include the increased popularity of oral sex. Teens feel a false sense of security because oral sex cannot cause pregnancy and they believe it to be safe. While oral sex does not result in pregnancy, the idea that it is safe is not true.

Says Dr. Meeker: “You can mince words all you like, but while oral sex may leave you a technical virgin, it won’t leave you disease-free … The sad truth is that HIV is spread through oral sex, as are herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, HPV, chancroid, intestinal parasites, and hepatitis A” (p. 147).

Particularly troubling is this observation based on many interviews with teachers and high school counselors: “Group sex is most popular with younger teens (particularly at the eighth-grade level)” (p. 156). How utterly society has failed when such activity is popular among those so young! Making matters even worse is the level of exposure to disease. Research shows that the earlier teens engage in sexual activity, the more partners they are likely to have—and hence the greater likelihood of contracting one or more diseases.

Most teens are blissfully unaware of the danger. If they think of risk at all, they believe their exposure is limited to their direct partners. But that is not true. In reality they have been exposed to everyone who ever had sexual contact with their promiscuous partners.

Let’s say that a teen has sexual contact with seven partners, which is a number not unusual for teens engaged in such activities. This means that he or she has statistically been exposed to 127 other teens—not just the seven immediate partners, but also all of their partners, plus their partners, ad nauseum—a frightening proposition. Promiscuity is not fun and games—it’s highly risky and potentially deadly.

Must-read books for parents

Dr. Meeker’s well-researched book Epidemic is a must-read for all concerned parents, but so is another best seller that reaches similar conclusions—the Holy Bible. Millennia ago one of its writers—famous for his wisdom and observations of human behavior —wrote words that echo Dr. Meeker’s sentiments.

“For at the window of my house I looked through my lattice, and saw among the simple … a young man devoid of understanding.” The writer describes how the young man meets a young woman and the predictable action and reaction follows. “… She caught him and kissed him … ‘Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love.’ … Immediately he went after her, as an ox goes to the slaughter … As a bird hastens to the snare, he did not know it would take his life” (Proverbs 7:6-23 Proverbs 7:6-23 [6] For at the window of my house I looked through my casement, [7] And beheld among the simple ones, I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding, [8] Passing through the street near her corner; and he went the way to her house, [9] In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night: [10] And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an harlot, and subtle of heart. [11] (She is loud and stubborn; her feet abide not in her house: [12] Now is she without, now in the streets, and lies in wait at every corner.) [13] So she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said to him, [14] I have peace offerings with me; this day have I paid my vows. [15] Therefore came I forth to meet you, diligently to seek your face, and I have found you. [16] I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry, with carved works, with fine linen of Egypt. [17] I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. [18] Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves. [19] For the manager is not at home, he is gone a long journey: [20] He has taken a bag of money with him, and will come home at the day appointed. [21] With her much fair speech she caused him to yield, with the flattering of her lips she forced him. [22] He goes after her straightway, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks; [23] Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hastens to the snare, and knows not that it is for his life.
American King James Version×

The Bible denounces sexual promiscuity and warns of the terrible consequences of the kinds described by Dr. Meeker. But it also offers a great deal of hope and encouragement to parents committed to follow its instructions.

The incessant bombardment of popular media notwithstanding, research consistently confirms that parents—even poor ones—still are the primary influence in their children’s lives. Concerned parents should draw encouragement from these findings, because they show that we are not powerless against the negative pressures our children face.

So what are parents to do?

We must take positive action and stand as advocates for our children. This task is not as daunting as it may seem, because we can avail ourselves of the power and principles of the God of the universe—the Author and Creator of all things, including family and children. Children are a gift from God, the Bible tells us (Psalms 127:3-5 Psalms 127:3-5 [3] See, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. [4] As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. [5] Happy is the man that has his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.
American King James Version×
)—and as such we can be sure that we have His attentive interest.

The first commandment that God gave man was “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth”—defining sex as a good thing, integral to accomplishing His divine plan (Genesis 1:28 Genesis 1:28And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
American King James Version×
). Family and children have been central to God’s purpose from the very beginning. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that the forces of evil consistently wage war against this time-honored institution.

When God codified His moral principles into what is known as the Ten Commandments, He included powerful antidotes for the current epidemic. Consider the impact should a full dose of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” be injected into every man, woman and teen in our societies. The application of just this one of God’s moral principles would bring the epidemic to a screeching halt! And although that will never happen in our world, the fact that it won’t happen universally should not discourage us from administering those laws individually.

The great principles of the Bible are most effective when administered from one heart to another in the context of our family relationships. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 Deuteronomy 6:6-7 [6] And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart: [7] And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.
American King James Version×
speaks to this concept: “… These words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

The content of this passage demonstrates the depths of wisdom in the Holy Scriptures. Articulated in just this one passage is a set of tools that equip committed parents to build a strong defense against the negative culture of our dying world. Ironically, but not surprisingly, these tools are consistent with modern research in family and sexual dynamics.

Commitment from the heart

God’s “words,” this passage tells us, must be in our “heart”—not a set of rules for teens taped to the refrigerator door. There is no room for hypocrisy, double standards or knee-jerk actions. Parents who are committed to consistent principles that they believe in their heart of hearts usually will foster respect, not contention, from their teens.

Commitment to the principles found in this passage provides a solid basis for positive action, because they produce conviction that taps the power of the Almighty God. There is no need to be timid. You can move forward with confidence, knowing that you are on solid ground. Nowhere can your dedication to the consistent moral principle of these “words” have greater influence than in your children’s attitude about sex. As Dr. Meeker puts it, “What’s really important isn’t what you say, but what you believe” (p. 215).

What you believe in your heart of hearts is what you will ultimately transfer to your kids—good, bad or indifferent. A good friend of mine, old enough to be my grandfather, once told me: “Don’t wonder how your children will turn out. They will become as you are”—a sobering, but constructive, admonition from the voice of experience.

Instruction must start with yourself

Notice that this transfer of values is to take place “when you sit in your house.” It is something that is “talked” about in this setting. Does this describe the typical scenario in a 21st-century household? Hardly. Dad and Mom are often away at work most of the time or otherwise uninvolved with their children. The kids are glued to a television or computer screen in their own rooms, or listening to music with their headsets on. No wonder the mass media has such a powerful influence.

Many believe there is simply no time for family in our hectic world. This is just not true. Simply reducing the amount of television or movie time by half would quadruple the amount of time for family in most cases.

How is this done? The sense of this passage is that it occurs in a natural and practical way. And remember the teaching must come from the heart, which means parental behavior and habits must change first, not the other way around.

Reducing your teen’s television or other media time without first going on a media diet yourself will not bring results. Says Dr. Meeker: “Parents who warn their children that teen sex isn’t good but spend a lot of time watching highly sexualized television or movies are muddying the waters … If a kid sees his parent ‘approving’ of sex between young sophisticated singles on television, why shouldn’t he be one of those young sophisticated singles?” (p. 220).

Changing your media diet first makes a powerful statement. It will create a natural environment where you can talk about these things in a family setting.

How? Teens are naturally curious. And when they see you change, they will often ask—giving you the opportunity to talk. Tell them why you have changed. Silence, especially on moral issues such as sexual activity, creates a vacuum that will be filled with undesirable behavior. Once your behavior is consistent with the moral principles of the Bible, then you have an obligation to set guidelines on the type of media that is allowed “when you sit in your house.”

This consistency is important, notes Dr. Meeker. “… Don’t, as an alternative, offer to sit and watch restricted movies with your child. Regardless of what is said afterward, the simple act of watching it will sanction the movie and its content in your teen’s mind” (p. 141).

Applying God’s instruction practically

According to this passage in Deuteronomy 6, another practical time for teaching is “when you walk by the way.” This has particular potential in our modern world where we seem to be running to and fro most of the time—especially when we have teens.

There are the trips to ball games, the dance studio, the piano lessons and the list goes on. Use these opportunities to talk about what is in your heart. Of course, talking about what is in our heart is what usually happens anyway —the problem sometimes is that either there is nothing in our heart or it is filled with negative things.

The inside of a car can be a tremendous classroom. Turn down or turn off the radio sometimes and let the heart speak. “If teenagers think you like them, they will communicate with you. If they think you dislike them, they will shut you out” (p. 197). This time is familial, practical and you may have just found hours each week that you did not know you had.

The beauty about God’s instruction in Deuteronomy to teach our children is that it occurs at natural intersections where our busy lives cross. Instead of worrying about creating “quality time” to do family things, which often ends up either not happening anyway or feeling unnatural, choose to stop and greet each other at these intersections when your busy lives cross paths—when you sit in your house, when you travel and when you lie down.

Bedtime is another opportunity. Spend time. Pray together and give them a goodnight hug. Dr. Meeker notes that “touch lets teenagers know that someone sees them, someone likes them. So when a parent—still the most important person in a teen’s life—touches them, it affects them deeply” (p. 202).

If this has not been your practice or tradition, it may seem awkward at first. But be consistent, patient and natural. You are filling a great need; your teen will respond in time if your actions are heartfelt.

The morning, “when you rise up,” is no less important. A heartfelt “Good morning!” with praise and affection goes a long way. “It’s really not so hard for parents to communicate self-respect to teens,” writes Dr. Meeker. “They want positive messages—about themselves, about life, and about sex.” Teens, especially girls, “want someone to tell them that their bodies are beautiful, so beautiful in fact that they should keep them protected and covered” (p. 214).

This is a need parents should take pains to fill—because if you do not, someone else will. The comment “Good morning, beautiful” is not trite when well-placed and heartfelt.

Admittedly, mornings can be challenging, but the intersection is there. Look for opportunities. I know some parents who drop their teens at school in the morning expressly to create another opportunity to “walk by the way.” Few young teens will pass up the opportunity to avoid the dreaded bus ride—and just consider the change of influence.

If schedules simply do not coincide, leave a note with a snack and juice to let them know you care. Teens in particular have an uncanny ability to know whether you really don’t have time, or if you just don’t want to make time. The former is acceptable; the latter is not.

Why not make a start today?

The challenges for families with teens are great. The risks of the epidemic described in Dr. Meeker’s book are real and the medical challenges are complex, but we are not powerless in facing them. There is much that you can accomplish if you determine to take such positive steps.

Simply applying these principles with consistency and patience will go a long way in containing the current crisis for your children, but there is a lot more. The Bible—the consistent international best-seller—is a source we should regularly read and cherish for its many timeless principles designed to help us enjoy happy, healthy and productive lives and pass on the same to our children.

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