Play With Fire; Get Burned

Have you ever driven your car up to the window of a fast-food restaurant and been shocked to see your order being taken by a teenager who has imbedded rings, small diamonds, and other trinkets in his or her nose, ears, and lips? It is a common sight in the culture of the young. Some have even pierced their tongues with small spikes, causing them to slur their speech. Others have slashed or stabbed their arms and legs with knives, leaving ugly wounds and telltale scars.

Why would so many teens assault their bodies in these and other unfortunate ways? The answer, again, is self-hatred. It is an inward cry for help. A surprising number of those who deliberately harm themselves have been raped or otherwise sexually abused. The devastation of that experience often leads to promiscuity, the use of alcohol and drugs, involvement in petty crime, and other delinquent behavior. It is now evident that the use of alcohol and drugs can become a precursor to eating disorders. These expressions of emotional distress do not occur in isolation. They are usually linked together in a familiar pattern, and many of them have sexual overtones.12

If you have a youngster who is exhibiting these behaviors, he or she must be given professional help as soon as possible. I will offer specific advice to parents of these kids in chapter 19.

Another devastating consequence of early promiscuity is the contraction of one or more sexually transmitted diseases. It is almost impossible to overstate the scope of this problem. About 19 million new cases of STDs occur each year among all age groups in the United States.13 Those who "sleep around," even occasionally, will inevitably, and I do mean inevitably, be infected with a sexually transmitted illness or an array of them. Condoms may reduce the risk, but they are problematic too. They slip, they break, they leak, and they become brittle with age.

Furthermore, kids at the peak of passion often fail to use them properly, if at all. In some instances, all it takes to contract a fine case of syphilis or gonorrhea or chlamydia or herpes or another of the thirty common STDs is to make a single mistake with a carrier. The chances of becoming infected by an infected partner are as high as 40 percent per encounter.14 Thousands of kids roll the dice every day and come up snake eyes.

According to officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of African Americans and 20 percent of whites aged fourteen to nineteen are infected each year by at least one of four common sexually transmitted diseases.15 This finding extrapolates to 3.2 million teenage females per year. The viruses, bacteria, and parasites that they carry often have lifelong implications for fertility, marriage, and general health. Yet many of the victims do not even know they are infected.16

One of the four dreaded diseases mentioned above is the human papilomavirus, or HPV, which deserves special attention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 19 million people are infected annually with this disease.17 At least 50 percent of sexually active individuals will acquire HPV during their lives.18 By fifty years of age, 80 percent of women will acquire a genital HPV infection.19 There are more than one hundred strains of this infection, forty strains of which affect the genital area. Some of them cause cancer of the cervix.20 Most people do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus to a sex partner. Girls who contract one of these diseases will need medical evaluation regularly and may require special testing and treatment procedures.

As distressing as that is, studies continue to show that young children are experimenting sexually. An investigation conducted by researchers at the University of Texas and published in April of 2009 carried this headline: "Middle School Youth as Young as 12 Engaging in Risky Sexual Activity." The focus of the study was seventh graders. Here are the primary findings:

By age twelve, 12 percent of students had already engaged in vaginal sex, 7.9 percent in oral sex, 6.5 percent in anal sex and 4 percent in all three types of intercourse. Markham said, "These findings are alarming because youth who start having sex before age 14 are much more likely to have multiple lifetime sexual partners, use alcohol or drugs before sex and have unprotected sex, all of which puts them at greater risk for getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or becoming pregnant."21

Other studies indicate that oral sex among teens between ages fifteen and nineteen is more common than sexual intercourse.22 Seventy percent of those between seventeen and nineteen say they have had oral sex.23 Unbelievably, most teens view that activity as casual and non-intimate.24 Some of them apparently choose oral sex instead of intercourse to retain their "virginal status" and to prevent disease.25 What they don't know is that many of the sexually transmitted organisms they bring home, such as herpes and other viruses, are incurable even though they are treatable. Strains of the human papillomavirus can cause mouth and throat cancer and are spread by oral sexual activity. Those are the cold, hard facts. And discriminatory or not, girls usually suffer more from them than do boys.

It has also been confirmed more recently that men are contracting HPV by performing oral sex on girls or women who have the disease. This was the conclusion of Dr. Joel Ernster, who published his findings in The Laryngoscope, a prestigious medical journal for ear, nose, and throat specialists. The incidence of cancer in the pharynx and throat among males living in Colorado increased by 36.6 percent from the eighties to the nineties. That higher incidence corresponds with a similar increase in diagnosis of HPV.26

Dr. Ernster says, "Oral sex has implications that are way beyond what we first thought."27 He said that married men with families who engaged in this sexual activity decades ago can still be carrying the infection.

In study after study we are seeing confirmation of what many of us have known for twenty years but still seems to be a secret among most teens and young adults. That hush-hush fact is that there is no such thing as so-called safe sex. U.S. health officials estimated in 2007 that one-quarter of all women in this country between fourteen and fifty-nine are infected with a virus that causes warts and most cases of cervical cancer.28 Does that shock you as it does me? Twenty-five percent of the female teens, wives, sisters, aunts, and some grandmothers that you see walking around carry this disease. Some will die from cancers resulting from HPV.

Allow me to be redundant here. These epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases are swirling all around us, but kids still think they can play with fire and not get burned. Yes, and those who invest their precious money in the lottery still think they can win the jackpot against the odds of 200 million to one. When told of the infinitesimally small chance of winning, one not-very-bright man disagreed with the gambling commission on which I served. He said, "You're wrong. The odds are not 200 million to one, they are one to one." We asked how he came to that conclusion, and he said, "If I play the lottery, I have a chance. If I don't play, I have no chance. The odds are one to one." This man probably flunked third grade math. In his case, he only lost a few hundred dollars on the lottery. When the kids play the "safe-sex game," they gamble with their bodies and perhaps their lives.

12.Stephanie Dunnewind, "Teens, Drugs and Gender Roles: Markers for Cutting," Seattle Times

(September 24, 2003).

13.Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance, 2007, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The

full report is available at

14.E. Johannisson, "STDs, AIDS and Reproductive Health," Advances in Contraception (June 2005).

15. Ibid.

16.Lawrence K. Altman, "Sex Infections Found in Quarter of Teenage Girls," New York Times (March

12, 2008); "Teens Unaware of Sexually Transmitted Diseases until They Catch One, Carnegie

Mellon Study Finds," Medical News Today (January 3, 2006).

17.Genital HPV Infection: CDC Fact Sheet, 2009; see


18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21.Christine Markham, Ph.D, "Middle School Youth as Young as 12 Engaging in Risky Sexual 280 Notes Activity," Journal of School Health (April 2009); see

22.Duberstein Lindberg, Rachel Jones, and John S. Santelli, "Non-Coital Sexual Activities among Adolescents," Journal of Adolescent Health (July 2008): 231–238.

23.National Center for Health Statistics, 2005; Laura Sessions Stepps, "Study: Half of All Teens Have Had Oral Sex," Washington Post (September 16, 2005).

24.Teen Sex Survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, 2004; see

Book: Bringing Up Girls

By Dr. James Dobson

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