Tech & Science

Teens Are Having Lame Experimental Sex, And Adults Aren't Teaching Them How to Do It Properly

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A pile of condoms is visible on a table in Bridgetown, Barbados, at a Barbados HIV/AIDS Commission event on December 1, 2016. Chris Jackson – Pool/Getty Images

Updated | Young people are far more likely to have had oral and anal sex than they were 20 years ago, new research suggests. However, that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

According to a new study published Monday in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University College London found that among sexually active young people ages 16 to 24, one in five girls and one in four boys had vaginal, oral and anal sex—a far higher number than in the early 1990s, when that figure was closer to one in 10 teens.

However, sex education may not have kept up with the times. Given these data, “sex education may need to become more graphic because teenagers are increasingly experimenting with taboo practices,” the Telegraph concluded. The BBC noted the internet may be responsible for “breaking down taboos.”

However, are these practices—presumably, oral and anal sex—really “taboo?" And is the internet really responsible? Maybe, but it’s complicated.

After all, can something that got a significant and explicit spread in Teen Vogue’s print edition really be considered taboo? The magazine published a guide to anal sex in July, which sparked a vigorous debate. A Huffington Post contributor, for example, responded to one woman who threw the magazine onto a bonfire because the teen magazine’s coverage of sex offended her. An opinion writer for the Chicago Tribune also addressed the guide, writing that it “might actually provide a valuable service.”

"It seems misleading to refer to practices such as oral sex as 'taboo' when our study shows that this activity was already an established part of young people’s repertoires of heterosexual behavior [...] almost 30 years ago," Ruth Lewis, one of the authors of the study, told Newsweek. "By referring to sexual practices that many people engage in as “taboo”, commentators risk assigning a moral judgement to behaviors, and implying that certain forms of sex are in some way preferable to others. This can then contribute to a culture of shame around sexual activities such as oral and anal sex, which can be a barrier to sexual health promotion and education that is working to support young people maximize their wellbeing."

Teen Vogue’s guide acknowledged that much of the information about anal sex available on the internet is not geared toward a teenage audience.

Some of that information may be coming from pornography, though claiming the growth of online porn has caused the increase of these sexual practices among teenagers would still be a stretch, Ruth Lewis and her colleagues noted in their paper.

This dearth of real, non-pornographic information is something that Lewis and her collaborators also noted in their previous work, published in The BMJ in 2014. That study also noted, depressingly, that teens’ experiences with anal sex often involved coercion in some form. "Few young men or women reported finding anal sex pleasurable and both expected anal sex to be painful for women," the authors wrote.

One important caveat to this study: The survey was large, but only included British teens. American teenagers, for their part, have shown less and less interest in sex as a concept since the 1990s. Only 41 percent of high school–age teens surveyed by the CDC had ever had sex of any kind, which is more than a 10 percentage-point drop since 1991.

"Given evidence that some young people are engaging in a range of sexual practices, it seems sensible to therefore ensure that all young people have the opportunity to learn accurate information about a range of forms of sexual activity so that they can maximize their wellbeing," Lewis said, "whatever types of sex they are (or are not) currently having."

This article has been updated to include comments from the researchers.

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