Recent Trends and Legal Issues for Teen and Tween Sexual Activity

America is one of the greatest nations in the world and is a leader in many areas. Unfortunately, we are also leading in teen sexual activity. Although U.S. teen pregnancy rates have fallen to their lowest levels in decades, American teen girls aged 15-19 still become pregnant at a rate far higher than their counterparts in any other industrialized country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says just under 50 percent of all high school students have had sex at least once. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that 80 percent of American teens have had sex at least once by the time they reach their twentieth birthday. Three of four girls report that girls who have sex do so because their boyfriends want them to.

Hooking Up

Teens are using the term “hooking up” with increasing frequency, but it leaves many parents in the dark. In the old days, it meant kissing someone you just met at a party, but nowadays parents are wondering if it refers to sexual intercourse or oral sex. In actuality, teens use this expression to describe everything from kissing to having sex, but the key element of this term is that the two individuals are NOT dating. The majority of teens are expressing an interest in “hooking up” instead of dating. Teens are actually choosing to avoid relationships and instead “mess around” or become “friends with benefits.”

About two-thirds of teens say at least some of their friends have “hooked up.” Nearly 40% say they’ve had sexual intercourse during a “hook-up.” There’s also been a rise in heavy petting and oral sex among younger kids in middle school.


Experts site a variety of contributing factors to the problem of teen sexual activity. Today’s busier, less attentive parents are not as attuned to their teens as previous generations. There is less time to communicate, get to know their friends, and to be aware of their activities. The media has a huge impact on how teens view sex. . Television and movies are frequently displaying casual sex and an increasing amount of sexual content. Younger and younger children are getting exposed to the idea that sex is something that everybody’s doing and that it is acceptable behavior. Teenagers that watch sexual content in the media are more likely to overestimate the amount of sex their friends and acquaintances are having. This leads to peer pressure, which is another contributing factor in a child’s decision to engage in sexual activity. Teens also have access to the Internet and text messaging, which impersonalizes relationships. Things that your child would never do or say in person suddenly seem acceptable because they are doing it in the “privacy” of their own home.

Legal Issues Related to Underage Sexual Activity

Statutory rape laws were established to protect children from abuse by older predators. However, because of the way they are written, any sexual activity involving teens under the age of consent is considered rape, even when the activity is entered into willingly by both partners. That means that two teens can actually get in considerable trouble for “hooking up” or “fooling around” or “sexting” if someone – a parent, teacher, or perhaps a disgruntled peer – chooses to push the issue. For example, a recent case in Georgia, where the age of consent is 18, sentenced a 17-year-old to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old. There have also been many cases where an 18-year-old has been convicted as an adult for sexual relations with their 17-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend. A statutory rape conviction as an adult can mean jail or prison time, and the requirement that they register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives, which could have serious consequences on their ability to build a successful life.

This is an important piece of information that parents must share with their child. The age of consent varies considerably among states, so take the time to find out your state’s law and communicate it, and the implications and possible consequences, to your teen.


The best way parents can help prevent teenage pregnancy is by building close, strong, open relationships with their children long before they reach their teen years. Here are some other tips to help guide your teenager’s sexual development:

  • Experts agree that parents should start the conversation about sex with their children BEFORE they hit the preteen and teen years, when they learn about it from TV or their friends, and they should talk about it often (one conversation doesn’t cut it). Although this is an awkward topic to discuss with your child, it is vital to their emotional and physical health. For tips on how to talk to your children about sex, visit our previous blog “Way Beyond the Birds and the Bees”.
  • Be involved in your teen’s life and know what they are doing. Always know where your teen is, who he or she is with, and what activities they’re planning.  Know your teen’s friends and their families.  Know who they are emailing and texting.
  • Encourage group activities instead of early or serious dating.  Strongly discourage your daughter from dating a boy more than 2 years older, and your son from dating a girl more than 2 years younger, which greatly increases the chances they will engage in sexual activity.
  • Consider the media to which your teen is exposed. Know what movies your teen watches, what magazines she reads, and what music he listens to. Limit your teen’s exposure to sexual content. However, when they are exposed, use any sexual messages as a jumping-off point to start a conversation about sex. Balance the media’s glamorous portrayal with information about the negative consequences of adolescent sexual behavior.
  • Be clear about your expectations for their behavior. It may seem obvious to you that if you told them not to skinny dip, they should also not text a sexually explicit photo, but teens are not good at making these connections. Be specific about what they are or are not allowed to do on a date, online, or at a party.
  • Finally, take into consideration what recent surveys of teens have shown. The primary reason that teenage girls who have never had intercourse give for abstaining from sex is that having sex would be against their religious or moral values. Other reasons cited include desire to avoid pregnancy, fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and not having met the appropriate partner.

Although we cannot be with our teens all of the time and we cannot control everything that they do, we can arm them with the knowledge to make appropriate decisions.

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