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Teens Don't Know Enough About Love, Sex or Misogyny, Study Finds

Young Americans are fascinated by "hooking up" and think it's OK to call girls "ho," a new report finds.
Image: teenager romance
Teenagers hold hands.cyano66 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Young Americans are fascinated by "hooking up" and think it's OK to call girls "ho" — but they also wish they knew a lot more about true love and healthy relationships, the team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found.

Couple kisses while riding the subway in New York
A couple kisses while riding the subway in New York.(C) Lucas Jackson / Reuters / REUTERS

What teens and young adults don’t know about love and sex can put them at risk, and their lack of knowledge is feeding a pervasive culture of misogyny in which 87 percent of teenage girls have been harassed, abused or assaulted, they found.

"Unfortunately, we also found that most adults appear to be doing very little to address these serious problems,” said Richard Weissbourd, who led the study team and who directs Harvard’s Making Caring Common project.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that 41 percent of high school kids said they had ever had sex, down from around 47 percent over much of the last decade. Other studies show that casual sex is not common among U.S. youth.

“Yet according to our research, teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate the percentage of young people who are hooking up or having casual sex,” the Harvard report said.

That’s in part because it’s fascinating.

Related: Sex, Smoking, Sexting Hit New Lows Among Teens

“On college campuses at night, even those students who don’t participate in the party culture, can see or hear—or hear about—parties where hooking up is common, and all the competition and drama around sexual relationships among teens and the young can become, of course, an endlessly fascinating topic of conversation: the hook-up culture is theater,” the report reads.

“This overestimation can make many teens and young adults feel embarrassed or ashamed because they believe that they are not adhering to the norms of their peers. It can also pressure them to engage in sex when they are not interested or ready.”

Related: Teens Tell All About Sex

The team surveyed 3,000 people aged 18 to 25, and spoke to teachers, parents, coaches and counselors for the report.

Although schools are doing more sex education, and the internet has made information widely available, young men and women still don’t know much about love and intimacy, they found.

"It can also pressure them to engage in sex when they are not interested or ready.”

“We as a society are failing to prepare young people for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life—learn how to love and develop caring, healthy romantic relationships,” the researchers wrote.

“Second, most adults appear to be doing shockingly little to prevent or effectively address pervasive misogyny and sexual harassment among teens and young adults—problems that can infect both romantic relationships and many other areas of young people’s lives.”

And perhaps surprisingly, the survey found that 70 percent of young adults wish their parents had talked to them about matters such as how to break up, how to avoid being hurt and how to have mature relationships.

And while nearly half of those surveyed seem to think women are no longer treated more poorly than men, the survey found almost all girls had been harassed or abused.

Related: Birth Rates Plummet Among Teens

“In our national survey of 18 to 25-year-olds, 87 percent percent of women reported having experienced at least one of the following during their lifetime: being catcalled (55 percent), touched without permission by a stranger (41 percent), insulted with sexualized words (e.g., slut, bitch, ho) by a man (47 percent), insulted with sexualized words by a woman (42 percent), having a stranger say something sexual to them (52 percent), and having a stranger tell them they were ‘hot’ (61 percent).”

This goes on at universities, also.

“A 'bros over ho’s' culture now prevails on many college campuses and in other settings,” they wrote.

“Casual sex is often narrowly focused on male pleasure and words like ‘bitches’ and ‘ho’ and terms for sex like ‘I hit that’ are now pervasive.”