Today
NBC's Katie Couric takes on this sensitive subject of young teens and sex in her hour-long, primetime NBC News special.
By 'Today' anchor
NBC News
updated 1/31/2005 11:24:49 AM ET 2005-01-31T16:24:49

We swore we wouldn't be as uptight about sex as our parents were. But then we became parents ourselves and discovered that talking about it isn't so easy. We've all heard the horror stories of kids growing up way too fast, having oral sex at ridiculously young ages. As a parent, I'm as confused and overwhelmed as you might be. And like so many of you, I want to lay down the foundation that will help my children make the right choices. When they're 30 -- just kidding. Of course, it's your decision, but ideally we'd like you to look through this special report with your teens. Who knows? It could jumpstart a conversation that might be long overdue.

On a tranquil Saturday morning in Florida, teenagers from across America traded stories that would send any parent into a tail spin.

Erin: “I heard girls when I was in sixth grade like the first day. I'm behind these girls in lunch line. They’re like, you're not a virgin? There’s no way you're a virgin. I was in sixth grade. I was like, are you serious?”

Kameron: “The most horrific one at my school was supposedly during gym class, a bunch of guys were in the bathroom for a long time and they were in a line and the girl was in the bathroom.”

Natalia: “I was in a journalism classroom and we could hear through the bathroom vent and so every time anybody was having sex, we like run in there and say caught or whatever.”

They converged from all over the map, from the suburbs and rural communities, big cities and small towns. Their destination was the sun-drenched island of Key Biscayne. There, at a waterfront home, NBC News brought together 20 teens, kids between the ages of 13 and 17, with diverse economic backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and viewpoints.

They all had one thing in common. They were willing to tackle the controversial and sensitive question that makes adults, especially parents, fumble: What's really going on with teens and sex?

Courtni: “I'm 17 from Utah. Most of the kids I know, they don't make it past their 16th birthday without losing their virginity.”.

Galen: “I'm 16 years old and I'm from New Jersey. I think oral sex usually starts younger than sex.”

Amie: “I'm 15 years old and I live in Louisiana. You don't want to just have sex with the first person you think you're in love with. You need to wait to find out what is love before you can have sex.”

In 48 hours, amidst the lights, cameras and raging hormones, the kids got to know each other and we got an earful. Of course, there were ground rules for this weekend in paradise: no drinking, no drugs and no hanky panky. The teens were constantly supervised and at night, they bunked with their parents at a hotel.

But they were under strict instructions to have innocent fun. A few had come with friends from home. Most were complete strangers, though you never would have guessed it. Within hours after meeting they had made themselves at home. We were surprised at how comfortable they were in front of the cameras, how quickly they bonded, how swiftly sexual tension filled the air.

It was a glimpse at the mysterious world of teenagers, a world that seems like a secret society -- at least to most parents.

Garon: “I'm 15 and I'm from New Hampshire. I wish I could talk to my parents about how hard it is to be a teenager because it's a lot harder than they think. And they think school is like that. But I don't think my parents could walk a day in my shoes.

To walk in their shoes, you need to learn their language, terms like "hooking up," "friends with benefits" and the bases these days are a whole new ball game.

Maia: “I'm 14 and I live in Oregon. First would be like kissing; second base would be like making out; third would be, like oral sex.”

Almost every parent has heard some shocking story but we wanted to get the truth behind the rumor mill. So along with PEOPLE Magazine, NBC News commissioned an unprecedented national poll of 1,000 teens between the ages of 13 and 16. Using scientific methods, the survey provides some of the first real numbers on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of young teens.

14 percent of 13 and 14-year-olds say they are sexually active, which means they have gone beyond kissing. That number jumps to 41 percent when kids reach 15 and 16.

Kierstin: “Our generation is supposed to be known as the wild one, anyway. I mean it's been the wild one.”

We not only questioned 1000 teens, we also polled their parents. And not surprisingly, the generation gap still exists. In fact, it may be wider than ever.

27 percent of young teens say they have been with someone in an intimate or sexual way.

But according to our poll, half of the parents of those teens think their kids have done nothing more than kiss.

Kierstin: “It's everybody else but your own child, that's the denial part of it.”

Katie Couric: “I think you'll probably agree with me that most parents like myself are pretty much clueless.”

Clueless and, in the case of our parents, concerned.

Amie, Beth's mom: “I worry about them emotionally, too. I think they're too young. You know the 60's and the free love. That was college-aged kids. It wasn't junior high kids.”

If grown-ups are freaked out by what's going on now, these teens say the stuff that did or didn't go on way back when is "so old school."

Natalia: “I mean you watch shows from like the 60s and stuff and they had separate beds.”

Couric: “Oh yeah, Lucy and Ricky.”

Natalia:: “I mean, like, you know the Beavers or whatever.”

Couric: “The Cleavers. Beaver was the son. What do you all think when you see movies like that and TV shows like that? And things that portray sex like that?”

Garon: “Love wasn't tossed around as much. Like in my high school, everyone's like, ‘oh I love you,’ and two weeks later you see them breaking up. But in the 50s they say I love you and then they get married and they have little Betty running around.”

Couric: “You don’t see many little Bettys running around do you anymore?”

What they are seeing today are sexual images everywhere, on the Internet, in music videos, at the movies, on television. But some teens say the images are so ubiquitous, they don't even faze them.

Natalia: “It's become so common that you don't even think about it anymore in the music. It's just like you find yourself singing along to it, but not really understanding what you're singing.”

Erin: “I mean you get used to it. It's on TV so often. It's everywhere. Every TV channel has commercials with like half-naked women nowadays.”

Couric: “So have you become desensitized?”

Group: “Yeah.”

But are they really that unaffected? When pressed, many of these kids admitted they are shaped by what they see and hear.

Garon: “I think the kids like the image of rap, to be like the hot dude with the nice tims and the stuff and the bling bling.”

Kameron: “I personally think if you're going to call someone a ‘ho’ then, that your respect for them drops down to nil, in my opinion. You know young men who are going to look up to these rappers as role models, are going to start, in my opinion, treating their girlfriends this way.”

Amie: “Every girl nowadays stands in front of her mirror and tries to look like these girls on TV. Even if you don't think you're influenced by it at all. Everything you look at has sex has either girls or sexy thing, sexy clothing. It's going to subconsciously affect you in some way.”

And if it has seeped into their subconscious, apparently, it has also influenced their dance moves. No one really knows the impact today's culture is having on the way today's teens behave, but one thing is clear, at least from our group. They're definitely not shy about talking about sex.

Kierstin: “I'm 16 and I'm from Georgia. I don't think oral sex should be expected in a relationship, but unfortunately, I think it is expected in a relationship.”

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