I can usually put aside the scary and spooky after Halloween and let the witches, goblins, and devils sort through the mounds of candy they collected door-to-door. But this year I am haunted – no pun intended – by a recent book and accompanying documentary film and website about young teen sexual behavior.
Oral Sex Is the New Goodnight Kiss: The Sexual Bullying of Girls, by Sharlene Azam, is about the precocious sexual activity of young teen girls in Canada and their willingness to give oral sex to boys in or outside their schools.
They "prostitute" themselves, says the author based on her interviews, because they are bullied by peers, have been sexually assaulted, or want money to buy material goods and drugs. (This is a book based on anecdotes of a small percentage of teens and in no way purports to be a scientific study.)I am often skeptical of books and reports that use scare tactics about teen sexual behavior to frighten parents, educators, and policy makers. Supporters of abstinence-only-until-marriage education use these tactics particularly effectively with legislators to persuade them to vote for and fund programs supporting their unrealistic, narrow point of view.
But the teen sexual behaviors described in Oral Sex Is the New Goodnight Kiss have a ring of truth and are genuinely frightening.
Azam – who is also the founder and present editor of Reluctant Hero, a magazine by and for Canadian teens, states in her book that the girls are from white, affluent, middle class, intact families. They engage in oral sex in school hallways and bathrooms during lunch breaks, in the back of cars, and wherever young teens gather. Some as young as nine perform oral sex, but the behavior most often occurs among 12- to14-year-olds.
She adds, "What compelled me to write this book was the realization that this is rapidly becoming a middle-class problem."
"All boys want is sex," the girls told Azam when she asked why they engage in this type of sexual activity. If they perform oral sex, they get a lot of attention and are considered popular by their peers. The going rate in most schools for one act of oral sex is "$100."
The desire for money drives teens at the older end of the spectrum, who need to pay off credit cards, and buy drugs and clothing. Perhaps most frightening is that these girls and boys are recruiting their friends to perform oral sex for money and do not see "sex for money" as a possible form of early prostitution. None seem to be afraid of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
While trying to come to terms with my feelings of shock about these young Canadian girls prostituting themselves to buy "more stuff," I remembered a book I read some years ago about the appalling behavior of a group of teen males in an affluent New Jersey suburb: in Glen Ridge, to be exact.
The book, Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, by Bernard Lefkowitz, a writer and journalist now deceased, told a horrific story that occurred in 1989: the gang rape of a mentally-challenged high school girl by four teen males in the basement of one of their homes.
Although the central part of the book is about sexual assault and rape, it also includes many references to indiscriminate incidents of oral sex among the town's teenagers.
The book, which won several prestigious awards and was made into a TV movie, also recounts the failures of educators and parents to take disciplinary action, because the boys came from the town's most affluent families and were members of the football team – a seemingly privileged group beyond the law. (Although it took a long time and hard legal work, some of the boys were eventually found guilty of aggravated sexual assault and served jail time.)
Again, as in Canada, many teen girls also gave these "guys" pretty much what they wanted: oral sex at parties where no adult was present. One scene stands out in my memory: the girls waiting in line to enter an upstairs room to give oral sex on demand to one or more of the football players.
Writing about Our Guys in a New York Times book review, the noted author Russell Banks said: "This is an important book, one that should be read by parents and educators alike," calling it "an extraordinary chronicle."
Yet the school principal's reaction to the book still puzzles me. When I met Lefkowitz at a conference a year or so after Our Guys had been published, I asked how teachers and school administrators in Glen Ridge were going to use it. He told me that the high school principal was planning to have the faculty read and discuss the book, but had no plans for the students to read and discuss it in class.
In amazement, I asked Lefkowitz why, as I thought that teens should read the book in order to learn from it and discuss personal and community values about sexual behavior. He told me that the principal did not want to "offend" the students' parents, who quite obviously intimidated the educators.
To her credit, Azam does not shy away from parents and offers some helpful advice on how they can use her book and film. She says parents "need to find a way to communicate your values while also talking about the possibility of a relationship that includes sex before marriage."
Further, she says that it is up to parents to talk about what an intimate relationship requires: "open communication, trust, and friendship." She warns that unless parents step up and talk much more openly about sex with their kids then the void will be filled by "graphic depictions of sex on the Internet, questionable information from peers, and pop culture."
Azam ends her book with perhaps the most important advice of all: "Girls give themselves away because they are desperate to hear the words, ‘I love you.' Tell your daughter that you love her, every day..."
Perhaps this is the best way for parents to help their daughters-and sons-from engaging in or demanding scary, inappropriate sexual behaviors at far too young an age.
For, from my perspective, if even one preteen engages in oral sex, it is one preteen too many; if older teens are engaging in it indiscriminately, and outside of a meaningful relationship, then it is one older teen too many.