Jill, 18, had never met anyone like her boyfriend. He was older — he said he was 21 — and different from the others, more patient. Her girlfriends had all had sex before, and had constantly pushed her to join their club.
She gave up her virginity, and with it the last vestiges of childhood.
“He would say, ‘We don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,’” she says. “But he kept saying it. He would say it, and then act like he wanted to leave.”
She felt his patience was a guise, and soon began to feel like he might stray if they didn’t have intercourse.
Jill wishes she could have changed the way it happened. She wishes she hadn’t heeded her friends’ insistence that she would learn something from it. She wishes she had talked to her mother before going through with it. Mom had asked her to do that.
They had sex the day he got mad. He didn’t threaten her, but she consented to intercourse to settle matters, including her own curiosity, and ease the pressure.
She was the last among her circle of friends to lose her virginity. She is the first mother.
Jill’s life consists of morning classes at Wayne County Community College and a job in the afternoons. But it all revolves around her primary job: raising her 8-month-old daughter.
Her friends who urged her to have sex now complain when she brings the baby along on outings.
One friend tells her that the father of her child “is not the one” for her, that he will leave. Jill says the same friend dated a guy for two years, only to get dumped abruptly.
“He said he just wanted to see how she did it [had sex],” Jill says.
Jill’s boyfriend is an involved father, but he keeps encouraging her to leave the Lula Belle Stewart Center, where she lives, and move in with him. The center is a support and service agency for teen parents. Jill’s parents contacted the agency when she voiced a desire to be on her own with the baby. She has an apartment in one of the agency’s northwest Detroit residential buildings.
She won’t leave the center. She benefits from the services of an on-site social worker, counseling in parenting and job-skills training.
And, soon after getting pregnant, she discovered that her boyfriend had lied about his age. He’s really 25. She says he’s “more street” than she thought. He sells drugs. She won’t have her baby living in his environment.
Sitting in a meeting room at the Stewart Center, Jill waxes reminiscent about serving on the student council at Detroit’s Finney High School. Her pregnancy prompted a transfer to the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for parenting teens, where she graduated last year.
Everywhere young people turn, she says, they see messages glorifying sex. Much of the influence on kids in her immediate environment, which is predominantly African-American, is channeled through hip-hop culture.
“Rap, slow songs, like R. Kelly,” she says. “It’s how they just show it, dancing, half-naked people doing all this stuff. [Teens] thought it was real, ’cause they bring it out and try to make it happen.”
Jill says her former classmates interpret much of the sexual imagery they see in pop culture as acceptable, mainstream.
She is concerned about what she sees as a shift in attitudes — teenage girls compromising their integrity by being promiscuous or overtly alluring in their behavior, adolescent boys who openly objectify females, the near-absence of intimacy.
She says her peers don’t see the risks involved in their behavior.
“The only ones who see the risks are the ones it happened to, like me,” she says.
Jill is not alone is expressing alarm about teens who take increasingly bold sexual risks.
Motivational Educational Entertainment Productions, Inc., a Philadelphia-based research group that tracks trends among African-American youth, released a study in January that explores attitudes of black urban youth toward sexual and reproductive health issues. The report, This Is My Reality: The Price of Sex, is based on interviews with 2,000 African-American urban youths from low-income families. Though the MEE project focused on African-American youths, hip-hop music, clothing and other cultural influences are highly ingrained among youths of every race.
And non-hip-hop stars of other races — Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, for example — are hardly shy about pandering to prurient interests in lyrics and, especially, music videos.
MEE, which is funded by the California Endowment and the Ford Foundation, conducted more than 40 focus groups in nine cities, including Detroit. (The others were Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland/Richmond.)
In videotaped discussions, people aged 16-20 gave graphic accounts of their sexual experiences, perceptions and influences.
These are not the Huxtable kids. According to the report, they are sexually advanced beyond their years, and they say many of their risks are linked to increased exposure through media.
“Overall, it’s the whole media environment,” says Ivan Juzang, president and founder of MEE. “Young people see sex with no consequences. But hip hop has the most credibility because it emanates from the culture itself.”
Pamela Weddington, vice president of communications for MEE, tells Metro Times that her colleagues noticed something unique about Detroit.
“Of all the cities we were in, Baltimore and Detroit teens seemed to have the most graphic experiences,” she says.
Many of the teens who spoke to MEE researchers did not see themselves at risk for HIV/AIDS or other STDs, and had little concern about pregnancy.
Juzang is concerned that the attitudes of lower-income black teens reflect increased risks in their sexual behavior. “We’ve made progress, but we’ve still got a ways to go,” he says.
But statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control do not suggest that the sky is falling for black youths. In fact, according to the CDC, the rate of pregnancies among Hispanic U.S. teens far outpaces African-Americans. In 2002, there were 66.2 births per every 1,000 black women age 15-19, compared to 82.9 per 1,000 Hispanic females. Birthrates in African-Americans in the same age range dropped 41.3 percent from 1990 to 2002, a statistic supported by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
In fact, a 28.4 percent drop occurred among teens of all races during that 12-year period.
So, if teen attitudes toward sex seem alarming, the statistics don’t bear that out.
Juzang says his organization does not dispute the numbers, but says the kids MEE talked to displayed unhealthy views about sex that are still a cause for concern.
“The point is, we’re trying to help get young people to healthier positions and attitudes,” he says.
Asked whether the statistical trends suggest that teens are developing healthier perspectives than they are given credit for, Juzang says, “It’s hopeful, but because it’s going down, we shouldn’t find out what young people are doing? How do we figure out what kinds of healthy messages they need to continue developing healthy attitudes?”
Among the starkest changes mentioned by teens in the MEE study is an apparent decline in the level of respect black males show black females, and an arguably related increase of open lesbian relationships. (A Detroit teen who participated in the MEE study proclaims that a girl can “blow a girl’s mind” just the same as a guy. She goes on to boast of personally “turning two girls out.”)
Research for This is My Reality suggests an imbalance between education and pop influences. Sexuality and violence are rampant on TV, in movies, music videos, even video games. Many kids say there are fewer educational outlets, or at least fewer outlets that capture their imaginations to compete with the onslaught. Many say they are not comfortable talking to their parents about sex.
Poverty and an element of hopelessness can intensify pop imagery’s impact on social and sexual perspectives of teens, says Weddington.
“One teenager told us that he doesn’t expect to live to see age 25,” she says, “so he’s trying to have as much fun sexually as possible.”
Under the influence
In light of MEE findings, Metro Times talked to metro Detroit teens of various races and demographics, seeking opinions on the impact of sexual messages in media on their behavior and outlook. Adults who work with teens were also consulted.
While some teens agreed with the MEE study’s conclusions, many tended to discount the influence that popular media have on their lives. The adults who work with them as teachers and counselors do not.
According to a 2003 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly three out of four teenagers say the portrayal of sex on television influences the behavior of kids their age. One in four admit that it influences them personally.
Local teens say sex is a big part of their lives. It can also add more pressure than they care to deal with.
“I went to a house party, and I didn’t know what was going on,” says Dee, 17, a high school senior who lives in Farmington. “A lot of guys were screaming. Not screaming like, ‘Help me,’ but screaming like they were excited. And I went down into the basement, where the sounds were coming from. They’re all in this circle, and these girls are rotating, giving them head.”
Dee is of East Indian heritage, and a virgin. She says the pressure to have sex is strong in her environment. Her circle of friends, she says, includes virgins and vixens. They listen to mostly to rap and pop, and take many of their social cues from music videos. Most teenagers do, she says.
She mentions, as an example, pleated miniskirts, which are popular among teenagers.
“Girls wear those skirts because they say it’s easier to have sex,” she says, suggesting that they don’t have to be completely undressed.
“Whatever happened to just masturbating?”
Dee is among the teens who agree that media — music and television, particularly — affect their view and approach to sex.
Michelle Davis, a teacher at Detroit Northern High School for the past nine years, says she has taught several students who found themselves in Jill’s predicament — teenage motherhood.
“Sexuality has changed a lot, with what the kids have been exposed to in the media,” she says. “They’re bombarded with messages that say sex is OK at any age.”
3 Floors of Fun
At “3 Floors of Fun,” a hip-hop event at St. Andrew’s Hall in downtown Detroit on Fridays, the music played throughout the night seems to carry five themes — drinking, smoking, sex, money and fighting.
The dance floor is sexually charged. A male dancing in a corner raises his shirt, exposing an abdominal six-pack, and puts on a mock strip tease for a young woman. She responds by slowly grinding her butt against his pelvis. The scene plays out like a mating dance.
Every time a new song promises to “knock ya ass out,” “make love to me” or “crank it up,” the crowd responds in kind.
“I feel like it influences them a lot,” says Paula “Miz Korona” Smiley, one of Detroit’s most popular female rappers. “A lot of the videos, these guys have the females half-naked. [In real life] they’ll approach a female on stuff like that. They’ll see a girl dressed a certain way, like the video girl, and talk to her like that.”
Korona, who is African-American, says the problem with hip hop’s influence, in particular, is that there is “no barrier, no guideline to anything. Everybody wanna live like what they see on TV.”
“With all the rap videos and eye candy, they see it and glorify sex,” says Clem McIver, a social worker with Detroit Public Schools, and a retired probation officer. “They don’t know most of the stuff on the videos is rented and leased, and the girls are models, known as video ho’s. They see it as real world, and they don’t see how it affects their generation.”
Late-night music programs like “BET Uncut” and “MTV After Hours” are popular with many teenagers because they show uncensored videos. Vick, 18, an African-American Detroit high school senior, says these shows are easy to watch for a lot of his friends because “parents usually go to bed early.”
That means the parents miss the likes of “Tip Drill,” a controversial video by rap artist Nelly that has come under significant fire, even prompting Nelly to cancel a charity concert at the all-female Spelman University in Atlanta, Ga., after students protested the clip’s content. In question is a scene that depicts a credit card being “swiped” between the butt cheeks of a “model” bent at the waist.
In Nelly’s parlance, a tip drill is doggie-style sex with an unattractive woman who has a nice body.
The message: tip (or bend) over, get drilled.
The lyrics: “It must be ya ass, ’cause it ain’t your face.”
“I love that video,” Vick says, grinningly slyly. Then, pausing, he says, “Yeah, I think music does [influence] a lot.”
A separate MEE study found that black teenage boys prefer hip hop by a 2-to-1 margin over their female counterparts, who list rhythm and blues as their favorite genre.
Medium or media?
People point too quickly to hip hop, says Rick, 19, a Caucasian Farmington resident. A fan of rap and punk, he says it’s not hip hop that influences the people around him the most.
Rick cites the popular television show “Friends,” which he says poses a challenge to a balanced perspective on sex.
“[‘Friends’ characters] Monica and Rachel, they just go out and have one-night stands,” he says. “Little kids watch that.”
Abbie, 17, an African-American Detroiter, says music doesn’t influence her half as much as HBO. She says prime-time viewing on the cable network exposed her to homosexuality and more sexual innuendo and nude imagery than any movie or music video she’s seen.
“HBO, and Skin-amax [Cinemax],” says Dan, 19, a former Farmington student who now lives in Detroit, laughing. “That’s what we call it.”
Other shows mentioned are MTV’s “The Real World,” one of the first reality shows to put cameras on young adults who live in the same apartment.
Dan, also African-American, says it’s not lost on him that the show, in its first season, featured characters like Kevin Powell, a former Vibe magazine staff writer who went on to become a noted author and social critic.
One of the current season’s most popular characters is Brad, who has no laudable credentials or talents but is known for cheating on his girlfriend and having a one-night stand with another woman.
Like young people interviewed by Metro Times, teens in the MEE report mention other forms of media as influences. Both Vick and one of the Baltimore teens from This is My Reality cite a shampoo commercial in which women get so turned on washing their hair that they begin shouting in orgasmic ecstasy, “Oh, yes! Yes!”
Both teens say the commercial seems more intent on selling sex than shampoo.
Dee says exposure to sex through media has also prompted many girls she knows to relax racial boundaries that were once strongly upheld.
“Girls will do it with any race,” she says. “If they’re white, they’ll do it with a black person. Race has nothing to do with sex.”
She says white girls believe the stereotype about a black man’s “bigger package.”
Dee says the rules of this game change, however, when intimacy becomes a factor. “When you’re actually settling down with someone,” she says, “you’ve got to come home with someone who looks exactly like you.”
All teens interviewed say access to pornography and other mature information via the Internet influences them and their peers.
Vick says the bombardment “makes most people feel like it’s all right.”
All the teens interviewed for this story agree that increased exposure has given many of the kids they know license to expand their boundaries.
“It’s bad, I’m kind of ashamed,” says Mary, 16, a white teen from Warren, when asked about the age at which her classmates are becoming sexually active.
She says most of the kids she knows at her high school lose their virginity “by age 14 or 15.”
“To the average teen, it’s just for pleasure,” she says. “Not love or nothing. It’s spreading like crazy.”
Davis, the Northern High instructor, says she’s taught kids who started having sex as young as 11.
Jill echoes that view, but says she feels that the girls who seek sex for pleasure are covering up unhealed wounds from relationships gone bad.
Regardless of the rationale, these teens agree that, as the boundaries widen, activities that were once questionable are now widely accepted as the thing to do.
Group sex and homosexual relationships, according to many of the teens interviewed, are becoming more common. They says they hear more of orgies involving multiple males and a single female, however, than multi-female affairs.
Vick and Dan say boys refer to such encounters as “running bustos.”
Dee and Jill both suggest that group sex involving mostly if not all girls does happen. Dee says girls brag to other girls about participating in orgies.
“Girls do it because it’s the new thing,” she says. “So many girls will say, ‘Everyone else is doing it.’”
“I love a bisexual girl,” says Jack, 16, a Caucasian Detroit teenager. “They’re more open-minded.”
Dan says that lesbians at his school are more widely embraced than gay men. The latter group, he says, still suffers ridicule.
“It’s every man’s dream to sleep with two lesbians,” he says. “Women are feminine. They’re soft and feel good. Two dudes? That’s quite disgusting. That’s how we look at it.”
Jill says some teen mothers in her environment develop lesbian relationships. She says that at a summer school excursion to Canada, a group of girls secluded themselves and had an orgy.
Annie says most girls who engage in lesbian sexual activity at her school are not gay, but experimenting.
Vick opines that most teens who engage in group sex live with just one parent.
“It’s not a lot of structure,” he says, “’cause these single parents are out working while their kids are in the streets.”
One counselor suggests that Vick’s assertion may not be far-fetched.
Roberto Enriquez works with teens at Latin Americans for Social & Economic Development (LASED), but says his views do not reflect those of the agency. In his opinion, single parents have unique struggles in raising teen children.
“Things change,” he says. “Mothers are now working. There’s not as much time for the children. It is a big issue.”
Some teens say the notion of oral sex as the un-sex is almost standard among their peers. It’s been described as the new good-night kiss. But such descriptions are largely anecdotal. As with a number of sexual activities, and particularly among teens, there is “a dearth of information.” That’s how the Alan Guttmacher Institute described the situation in one of its journals. That doesn’t stop teens and others from generalizing.
“Sex is sex, and oral sex is head,” says Dan.
“I’ve heard too many girls say, ‘I won’t kiss you, but I’ll give you some head,’” says Billy, 19, an African-American from Farmington.
The Warren teens disagree with this view.
“It’s still bodily fluids transferring,” says Annie.
“Yeah, it is sex,” says Mary. “That’s why it has the ‘sex’ after it.”
Mary Margaret Sweeten has taught in the Detroit Public School system for 35 years, and now works as a counselor at the A. Philip Randolph Career & Technical Center.
The adolescents she works with usually have career goals upon enrollment. Parents tend to be involved in their children’s development here, more than at other schools she’s seen.
“We see a different kind of kid,” Sweeten says. “They’re here to strengthen a skill that they recognize within themselves.”
Asked to what degree structure plays a role in the teens’ sexual development, Sweeten describes it as “absolute. I see a lot of them postponing some of the activity that other kids get into.”
A majority of the metro Detroit youths interviewed for this story say they feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex, and consider them an influence on the their lives.
Their positions disagree with many of the teens surveyed in MEE’s This is My Reality, who say parents are unapproachable. They say most kids are not comfortable, or the parents themselves set bad sexual examples.
Abbie and Carmen, a 16-year-old African-American from Detroit, feel they can talk to one of their parents, but not the other. Abbie, her father; Carmen, her mother.
“If I ask about sex, my father would just say, ‘Go talk to your mother,’” Carmen says.
Moe, an 18-year-old African-American Detroiter, says his mother made communicating about sex easier because she made a point of broaching the subject with him.
Dee and Annie say their families are religious, and their parents’ faith has instilled a fearful respect of the consequences that accompany premarital sex.
“My family gave me this talk,” says Dee. “I dreaded the talk. I used to be such a curious little girl.”
Dee says her mother’s spiritual beliefs weighed heavily on her.
“That pretty much traumatized me,” says Dee. “They made it sound like it was the most unholy thing you could ever do in your life. It seemed so disgusting.”
Enriquez says he talks to parents all the time who have a hard time talking to their children about sex.
“When a mom comes to my office and says her daughter is having sex, I’ll say, ‘Do you talk to her about sexual issues?’ Mom will say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ Parents have to be aware of the situation in the house,” Enriquez says.
Carl “DJ Invisible” Hollier, DJ for Los Angeles rapper Xzibit and Black Bottom Collective (a group of which this reporter is a member), and father of three boys, says his profession makes it imperative that he constantly talk to his sons about sex. It’s a trait he says he learned from talks his parents gave to him and his younger siblings.
When Eminem’s Anger Management tour came to Detroit last summer, Hollier took to the stage with Xzibit. It was an adult affair, he says, given the content of the music, but the audience was composed of mostly kids.
“My parents brought my little brother and sister to the show, but that’s only because I was in it,” he says. “But afterward, they got debriefed. My mom analyzed several songs. My dad had tissue in his ears. But they had to say what was wrong with this concert, what people did.”
Dan and Ryan say they feel fortunate to have open communication with their parents, even if, in Dan’s case, his father’s approach was simplistic and coarse.
“The way my daddy explained sex to me?” he says, “He said, ‘You’re gonna stick your [gestures to crotch] in a girl. You’re gonna move it around for a little bit. It’s gonna start to feel real good. And when you’re done, you’re gonna bust a nut. You’re gonna pull it out, and hopefully, if you didn’t wear a condom, you’re gonna hope you didn’t get her pregnant or catch AIDS.’”
Jill shakes her head when asked about her parents. She looks at her daughter, and says, “My mother told me, ‘If you ever decide you want to have sex, come talk to me first.’ I just couldn’t do it. When I got pregnant, she said, ‘This is what I’ve been trying to tell you.’”
Asked about the most common reasons some parents avoid talking to their children about sex, Enriquez says, “It goes back to cultural issues, taboo issues with parents. It happens with all parents.”
And then there’s dysfunction. McIver says he sees it all the time. Poverty and drugs, he says, often play into this.
“A friend of mine who was coach for a little league football team and a parole officer went to pick up a boy for a game. When he arrived, the player’s mother was giving a man head on the couch, for money. How the hell can you talk to your mother about sex?”
No issue is more unanimously agreed upon by all the teens interviewed than the frivolity of sex education in schools. Regardless of who says what, the bottom line is the same.
It’s a joke.
It’s not interesting.
People laugh about it.
You get free condoms.
Jill says she never heard students at her old high school talk about using protection when having sex. Males, she says, were much more concerned about getting girls pregnant than catching an STD.
MEE’s Ivan Juzang says young people, particularly African-American youth, who are more concerned with pregnancy than disease have their priorities mixed.
“The main reason we’ve been working with this group for years is because this group [African-American teens] is overrepresented in terms of STDs and HIV,” he says.
The AIDS Partnership of Michigan reports that one in four new HIV infections in the United States occur in people younger than 22. The information does not appear to resonate.
“I think health class is like another gym [class],” says Vick. “You just lounge in it.”
Mary says that many students at her Warren high school are already sexually active by the time they take their first sex-education class.
Annie adds that teenagers do generally care about contracting sexually transmitted diseases, even more so about pregnancy, “but it’s not really on their mind. When you’re at that moment, that’s all you’re thinking about, sex.”
Jill recalls that she helped organize a school assembly on sex education when she was on the student council at Finney.
“Kids didn’t respect it. They fell asleep. They didn’t want to hear it,” she says. “They were probably mad because they had sex already, and it bothered them. Or they thought it wouldn’t happen to them.”
“When you’re young, you believe you’re invincible,” says McIver. “When you get older you say, ‘I should have used protection all the way through.’ It takes only one time. That’s what they don’t realize.”
What will make teenagers take messages about precaution and awareness more seriously?
Annie and Mary say it’s too late, unless schools start teaching sex education in middle school.
Some of the teens say it’s not the message, but the messenger, who is to blame for their disconnectedness.
“They have the right idea,” says Billy. “Safe sex, STDs, latex condoms. But they need younger teachers, or they should ask graduating seniors to come back and tell us about their experience after high school.
“You don’t want to sit there, as a freshman, and listen to a 35-, 36-year-old. They’ve got children. They’re married. No! You want to hear from someone who can relate to being in their place.”
Dee adds, “They need to talk about what you should do in a situation where you’re curious about sex, but don’t know what to do about it.”
Vick says the bottom line for his friends, many of whom echo kids surveyed by MEE, is hope and support. Once they have that, they’ll have a reason to protect themselves.
Jill’s daughter crawls behind a chair. She’s concerned that the infant might hurt herself if she tries to grab something and stand up. Ultimately, Mom decides to let her daughter take the risk.
It’s part of teaching her to stand on her own, she says. She watches her, saying she’ll retrieve her before she strays too far.
Then Jill goes with the analogy of her curious 8-month-old, saying she wishes more teenagers could be retrieved before experimenting with sex. Or have someone watching over them.Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org