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When It Comes to Sex, More Girls Are Calling the Shots

Adolescent males are staying virgins longer

WEDNESDAY, May 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- What do women want? For once, young men seem to be finding out.

A new study of the sexual habits of teen-agers suggests adolescent girls are gaining the upper hand, convincing more boys to wait for a relationship before they have intercourse.

Teen-age boys are staying virgins longer and "starting their sex lives with their girlfriends," says study co-author Barbara Risman, a sociologist at North Carolina State University.

While reviewing national surveys of 10,000 teen-agers, the study authors found the number of sexually active boys dropped by 5.7 percent from 1991 to 1997, compared to a smaller 3.1 percent drop among girls.

Among teens aged 15 to 17, the percentage who said they'd ever had sex fell from 54.1 percent in 1991 to 48.4 percent in 1997.

The researchers report their conclusions in the spring 2002 issue of Context, a new journal created by the American Sociological Association.

Risman and co-author Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington, think the "culture" of teen-age sex is changing, but not in ways that liberals or conservatives might expect.

"There's a public dialogue that says kids are out of hand, everyone's too sexual, or they're becoming abstinent and chastity is back in," Schwartz says.

However, the survey findings suggest that "boys' behavior is becoming more like girls' behavior," Schwartz says. "Girls have been able to create a sexual culture in high schools where the boys will be stigmatized if they're 'players.'"

The "bad girls" -- or "sluts" -- are becoming less important, too, Schwartz says. "Boys are less likely to have their first sexual experience with a prostitute or 'bad girl.' They're waiting until their girlfriend says 'OK, I'm ready.'"

There's one caveat: Schwartz, who frequently interviews high school students, cautions it would be wrong to consider teen-age relationships equivalent to those of adults. Among teens, a relationship frequently lasts just a couple of weeks, she says.

The survey results, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also revealed that blacks remain the most sexually active of all teens, although they, too, are having sex later. The percentage of sexually active black teens fell from 81.5 to 72.7 percent from 1991-97.

Among whites, the number declined from 50.1 to 43.7 percent; among Latinos, the drop was 53.1 to 52.2 percent.

The limitations of the surveys made it impossible to study the sex lives of homosexual and bisexual teens, Schwartz says. However, a kind of "bisexual chic" has become common on some high school campuses, she adds.

Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, says the conclusions of Schwartz and Risman make sense. The "pendulum" of American social mores swung from sexual repression to a "free-for-all" during the past few decades, and it's now moving back toward the middle, she says.

"There is increasing emphasis in our culture on having sex in the context of relationship, and not just among adolescents," Kaslow says. "There's more emphasis on men talking about their feelings, valuing relationships more. And all this concern about HIV and AIDS has made everybody -- adolescents and adults alike -- more cautious and less invested in sleeping around."

What To Do: For more on teens and sexuality, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Teen Talk. For more on the pro-abstinence movement, visit About.com.

SOURCES: Pepper Schwartz, professor, sociology, University of Washington at Seattle; Barbara Risman, Ph.D., professor, sociology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.; Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D, psychologist, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta; Spring 2002 Context
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