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Parents! Teen sex hookups hit many snags

A new school year brings new challenges, the least of which involve reading, writing and arithmetic. The greater choices facing some students today aren't academic, but social and sexual - even in middle school, where tweens meet the hookup culture head on.

Studies tell us that somewhere between childhood and the teenage years, many kids become sexually active. As early as fifth and sixth grades, tweens start hooking up, which can mean anything from making out to intercourse.

News of 17-year-old Bristol Palin's pregnancy and engagement to 18-year-old Levi Johnston may have shone a spotlight on teenage sexual activity, but research shows that kids much younger than she are sexually active, and their encounters increasingly take place outside of boyfriend-girlfriend relationships.

While this is a topic where kids might be tempted to lie, studies seem to concur that almost half of students leaving middle school have been sexually active, with oral sex becoming more common than parents might think.

Mary Alaina Jeffrey of Manhasset, who's now a sophomore at Georgetown University, says, "Sadly, hooking up has leaked into the middle schools and even elementary schools, where kids feel they are mature enough to be sexually active. In college, hooking up is even more common, simply because students are older and without parents to set boundaries."

The lure to hooking up is the ability to unhook immediately after sexual satisfaction. No strings, no promises - just carefree, casual encounters that avoid consequence and commitment.

Like so many people my age, I was taught that sex was serious and reserved for marriage. A generation later, kids have come to understand that sex is just fun. "Does sex without consequence exist?" I asked a group of high school sophomores from East Meadow. "Well," one 15-year-old girl replied, "a few years ago, someone caught my hookup on his cell-phone camera and put it on the Internet, but other than that, it's all good."

"Dating is outdated because the emotional entanglements just aren't worth it," said one sophomore. "I hook up and walk away. It's as easy as hitting the delete button."

Those of us who are raising teens or working with them (I'm doing both) know that the adolescent brain is not yet fully developed. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex thinking, understanding cause and effect, and controlling impulses, is a work in progress. To think that the emotional intimacy and biochemistry of sex can be easily undone is the result of immature cognitive functioning.

Despite societal shifts in sexual standards, human development remains pretty much the same. Kids are still emotionally vulnerable and volatile - more so if they are sexually active. Oxytocin, the hormone that affects social bonding and trust, is released during sexual activity, complicating the already complex physical and emotional changes responsible for the roller coaster ride of adolescence.

Studies tell us that both boys and girls report feeling used after years of hooking up, although the toll taken on girls seems to be greater. Depression, anxiety and increased stress accompany the abuse of alcohol and drugs also observed in sexually promiscuous teens.

But kids don't always make the connection between sex, stress, low self-esteem and sadness. It's up to well-informed parents to connect the dots for them.

Physical attraction and sexual desire are powerful feelings that deserve examination and discussion, but teaching kids to love, cherish and honor their bodies is also important - and key to helping kids make sound decisions. They need to know that safe sex doesn't exist.

Health programs provide information about avoiding pregnancy and preventing disease, but that's not the same as saying sex is without risk. It can take a toll on the soul, dehumanizing unsuspecting students who tumble too soon into the world of hooking up, not knowing enough about sex or themselves to avoid getting hurt.

Parents need to know what information is being distributed in schools and within their children's social circle, so that important issues can be addressed honestly and openly. Know where they are, who they're with and if adult supervision is a genuine presence when they're out with friends. Know what they're watching and what Internet sites they visit.

And remember that today's teens were toddling when TV news hailed every detail of the Oval Office hookup that took place between President Bill Clinton and a young intern. Monica Lewinsky was catapulted into notoriety - appearing on "20/20," "Saturday Night Live" and eventually hosting a reality show on dating. He got impeached but stayed in office. She got famous. Our kids got all the wrong messages.

When the sacredness of sex is no longer safeguarded by society, it's easy for kids to become strangers to chastity and self-worth. That's where parents come in. Like all good things, chastity begins at home.

Related topic galleries: Ethics, Medical Specialization, Schools, Saturday Night Live, Television Industry, Values, Teaching and Learning

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