WHILE the nation remains focused on the sex scandal in the White House, the American public is ignoring what could be an even more serious sexual scandal -- the young ages at which boys and girls now engage in sexual intercourse, often risking pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including infection with the virus that causes AIDS.
Millions of American children are at risk of having unsafe sex, and it is critical that they learn, first, how to resist pressures to have sexual intercourse at such young ages and, second, how to protect themselves from unwanted consequences if and when they decide to go all the way.
While there has been a decline in the teen-age pregnancy rate resulting from the increased use of contraception and a leveling off of sexual activity among teen-agers, there are still too many girls and boys engaging in reckless sexual activity. Teen-age pregnancy rates are much higher in the United States than in many other developed countries -- twice as high as in England and in Canada and nine times as high as in Japan.
'I Should Have Waited'
American teen-agers, their parents and teachers should be aware of the findings of a study conducted in New Zealand among more than 900 21-year-old men and women. As studies have found in the United States and Britain, the New Zealand study reported that half the men questioned reported having intercourse for the first time by age 17 and half the women by age 16. In New Zealand, nearly a third of the women and 28 percent of the men were 15 or younger when they first had sex. But looking back, many who became sexually active in their early or mid-teens had regrets about starting so young.
Now older and wiser, 54 percent of the women and 16 percent of the men said they should have waited longer before engaging in sexual intercourse, and among the women whose first sexual experiences occurred before age 16, 70 percent said they wished they had waited.
According to the study's findings, which were published in January in the British Medical Journal, 13 percent of the men who first had intercourse before age 16 contracted a sexually transmitted disease, compared with 6 percent of those who waited longer to initiate sexual activity. Among the women, the comparable figures were 28 percent and 12 percent.
Although the New Zealand researchers did not ask about the use of contraception and unwanted pregnancies, studies in this country have shown that 22 percent of girls ages 15 through 19 fail to use contraception the first time they have sex. And among 1,510 Americans ages 12 through 18 questioned in 1996, fewer than half reported consistently using contraception.
As might be predicted, each year in the United States, about three million teen-agers acquire a sexually transmitted disease, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. One-fifth of the people diagnosed with AIDS are in their 20's, and most were infected as teen-agers. The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that studies reproductive health, also reports that each year nearly one million teen-age girls, including 20 percent of the sexually active girls ages 15 through 19, get pregnant.
One-fifth of the unmarried teen-agers who get pregnant do so within the first month of first intercourse and one-half within the first six months. With little instruction at home or at school on how to resist the pressures to have sex and with even more erratic access to effective contraception, such consequences are hardly surprising.
Resisting the Pressures
The New Zealand researchers, from the University of Otago Medical School in Dunedin, cited familiar reasons for the falling age at which first intercourse occurs. "Children are exposed to sexual images through the media," they wrote. "Social and peer pressure may arise from the portrayal of sex as glamorous, pleasurable and adult, while negative consequences and the responsibilities involved in sexual relationships are seldom portrayed."
That's putting it mildly. In a currently popular movie, "Slums of Beverly Hills," a precocious 13-year-old decides to have sex with an older boy "just to get it over with."
Is this the message we want to convey to American youth -- that sex is something you try, like rollerblading or water skiing, to see what it's like or to add to your roster of achievements? Dr. Ann Davis, an adolescent gynecologist formerly at the Floating Hospital in Boston, said, "Often when I ask a young teen whether she is sexually active, she will seem ashamed to admit that she is not."
Virginity may no longer be the prize it once was. Nor does having an abortion or bearing a child out of wedlock carry the stigma it used to. Still, these are hardly desirable options for young people, whose primary goals should be to get an education and acquire skills to be able to support themselves.
Lest you think that girls who have sex do so because they find it irresistible, in a 1992 national survey, 25 percent of them said that their first experience was "voluntary but unwanted." The percentage of unwanted sexual activity, as well as the failure to use contraception, rises with the gap in age between the boy and the girl.
Experts in the field say that age 9 is none too soon to teach girls how and why to say "no" and what to do should they say "yes."
The problem admittedly is not easy to tackle. A study published this summer in the journal Family Planning Perspectives disclosed that girls who have intercourse at an early age, as well as those who fail to use contraceptives and those who have children, tend to be depressed, have low self-esteem and possess little sense of control over their lives. Thus, reducing the incidence of early and risky sexual activity may involve much more than instruction about sex and contraception. It may require giving girls a reason to be hopeful and an opportunity to believe in themselves and their ability to make something of their lives.
When a girl's home life fails to instill such hope, it falls on the shoulders of schools and after-school activities to fill in the gaps.
Programs like two developed by Girls Inc., Growing Together and Will Power/Won't Power have proved effective in delaying sexual activity among young girls. Growing Together involves five two-hour mother-daughter workshops designed to foster communications about sexuality and other sensitive issues. Will Power/Won't Power is an assertiveness training program to help teen-agers refuse to become sexually active without jeopardizing their friendships with peers of both sexes. Both programs explore the opportunities life holds and help girls realize what they may lose by becoming pregnant. The programs' techniques used could be adopted in communities and intermediate and high schools. For details, contact Girls Inc. at (212) 509-2000 or see the Web at www.girlsinc.org.