It Must Be True. They Told Us So.

It’s hard to think of a more unreliable source of information on teenagers’ sex life than — well, than teenagers themselves. Come on. We were all there. The strange brew of low self-esteem, peer pressure and raging hormones doesn’t exactly lend itself to a frank discussion about sexual habits.

Yet today’s papers were all steamed up with the revelations of the National Center for Health Statistics study that purports to expose a shift in the sexual proclivities of young people.

The big story is oral sex. Apparently, according to the study, over 50 percent of boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are having it. And of those, a quarter have never had intercourse.

The other news: a spike in the number of woman having same-sex encounters between the ages of 18 and 29, a phenomenon the New York Times refers to in its piece as “LUG’s - lesbians until graduation.”

Put aside for the moment the reliability of this information, and ponder something else: the sexperts waiting in the wings to draw wild generalizations from the study. Ubiquitous, in every article on the study, is a woman whose name is, incredibly, Dr. Jennifer Manlove.

Dr. Manlove, who works for Child Trends, a Washington research group on children and families, points out that the oral sex statistics have revealed surprising equality as far as who is giving and who is receiving. This is proof, to her, that “there is more gender equality than we expected,” she tells the Times.

James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a reproductive health organization in Washington, D.C., draws the conclusion even further out, telling the Los Angeles Times that this new sex parity “calls into question the stereotype of boys as hunters and girls as prey.”

Go ask your average pimply-faced, awkward, sixteen year old if he has ever felt like a hunter.

But Wagoner is the least of it. Sexperts, it seems, can’t resist bloviating as to why kids would prefer oral sex to intercourse.

— “Oral sex is far less intimate than intercourse. It’s a different kind of relationship,” Claire Brindis, professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco tells the Wasington Post.

— Bill Albert, communications director for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, puts it this way in the Post: “We used to talk about sex in terms of first base, second base and so on. Oral sex was maybe in the dugout.”

— And Dr. Manlove herself opines: “We’re not sure whether these teens who have not had sexual intercourse are engaging in oral sex because they view it as a way to maintain their technical virginity or even because they regard it as an easy method of birth control.”

None of the sexperts, alas, pose our question: Can a teenage boy be trusted when asked if he’s ever gone to the dugout with a young lady. We think not.

There is also the question, taken up thankfully by the Los Angeles Times of whether these new explosive statistics are just a function of a society more comfortable talking about sex, “rather than an increase in activity.” They quote a certain Dr. Claire Brindis of UC San Francisco, who says that kids may now “be disclosing information that had probably occurred for decades.”

An NPR segment also touches on this point, as well as explaining what efforts researchers took to get honest answers from teenage respondents. For this study, apparently, respondents received the questions through headphones and answered via laptops, to insure a feeling of total anonymity. NPR also warns that teenagers are likely to “overestimate and underestimate their experiences,” and that such a study’s results can’t be fully relied on until they are duplicated.

As for the tabloids?

They chose to headline the college-girl lesbianism angle, rather than the oral sex numbers. The New York Post (of course) takes the cake with this gem: “LEZ IS MORE IN SEX POLL.” The New York Sun chose to plunk the story on the front page next to a random photo of Ellen DeGeneris and actress Portia De Rossi posing together for a photo.

Editors. Go figure.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.