For the next 30 minutes, the group's mission is to construct models of male and female reproductive organs using cotton balls, zippers, Styrofoam, tape, rubber tubing and other odds and ends. The teenagers divide into small groups and elbow out workspaces. Although no one has said this is a competition, they keep eyeing each other's replicas and racing to get more supplies. There are plenty of baffled looks as they try to piece things together. It's like a twist on the scene in the movie Apollo 13, where the engineers are told they have to make life-saving repairs to the spacecraft using a collection of dusty spare parts.
"Ohhhh look," quips Billy, a student at a city magnet school in Durham. "Our penis is sooooo big! C'mon you guys. We have to show off our penis."
Tracey, an elfin-faced sophomore at a local private high school, holds up her group's completed female model and points to a tiny ruffle of material along one edge.
"I love our clitoris because it's really sparkly," she says.
"Also a note," adds her teammate, Lee, in her best AM radio announcer's voice. "Our labia unzips."
Not to be outdone, Ryan jumps up to display his team's handiwork.
"I'd like to point out that our penis is erect," says the tall, magnetic 17-year-old, spinning so that the whole room can see the model. "And it also serves as a salt shaker."
My listening post was Teen Voices, a teen sex-education program run by Planned Parenthood of Orange and Durham Counties. The program trains high school students to become "peer educators"--experts on how to help their friends and acquaintances prevent unwanted pregnancies. Within just a few weeks of the start of their training, this group was casually tossing out terms and debating fine points of behavior that I could never have mentioned in mixed company at their age--or in any company, for that matter.
I wasn't expecting such candor when I started observing the 10-week program. My assumptions about adolescence had me braced for a room full of bashful, shuttered faces every week. I'd guessed that workshop leaders would have to spend most of their time cajoling participants to speak. I hadn't counted on how eager teenagers are to talk about sex--as long as they know they're being heard instead of judged.
The degree of openness wasn't the only surprise. The Teen Voices program may be all about pregnancy prevention, but some of the most powerful shared moments in the sessions I attended had nothing directly to do with sex.
Like many adults, I find the truth about teenage sex hard to pin down. The hormonally saturated images of young people I'm exposed to every day say one thing (how many bare-navel shots of Britney Spears have I seen in the supermarket checkout aisle recently?). But my encounters with actual teenagers hint at something more complex.
What memories I can dredge up from that edgy time in my life seem downright quaint compared to the cutting-edge world of Internet chat rooms and HIV public-service ads that teenagers now occupy. It's not that my generation of adolescents didn't face many of the same threats: Family violence, drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases aren't exactly new. But the consumer culture that surrounds young people has grown increasingly sophisticated and inescapable, making their lives seem less carefree, more adult.
One thing that hasn't changed is that grown-ups are still sending mixed signals about youthful sexual behavior. A growing number of school sex-education programs seem fixed on the premise that teenagers shouldn't have sex lives. But the hot-and-heavy TV talk shows, Sisqó videos and jeans commercials aimed at teenagers send the opposite message.
North Carolina is one of 48 states using federal funds for abstinence-only programs in public schools, and state law requires Tar Heel schools to teach abstinence in addition to other information about sex. Currently, the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition of North Carolina reports only 12 of the state's 117 school systems offer comprehensive sex education, despite widespread parental support for such programs.
The result of these contradictions? Young people in the new millennium suffer the same confusion and lack of useful information about sex as previous generations--and their conduct shows it.
Take the virginity-pledge movement launched by the Southern Baptist Church a few years ago. Supporters have been touting a new federal study showing that teenagers who pledge abstinence until marriage delay having intercourse for 18 months longer than those who don't (researchers only asked about vaginal intercourse, by the way). But another, less-publicized survey result revealed that when pledgers broke their vows, they were more likely to have unprotected sex.
Ryan, one of the peer educators in the local Teen Voices program, sees the problem this way: "Sex gets talked about a lot," he says. "But not in an educational way."
Maybe that's why, as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy reports, the United States still has the highest rates of teen pregnancies of any Western industrialized country. Nationally, North Carolina ranks sixth for pregnancy rates among teens ages 15-19. The state pregnancy prevention coalition estimates that more than 20,000 Tar Heel teenagers become pregnant each year, at a cost to state taxpayers of $832 million in public assistance and support programs. And studies show families started by teenagers face fewer educational opportunities and greater health risks than those headed by adults.
Peer education programs are a popular, though untested, model for turning that situation around. Since the local Planned Parenthood launched Teen Voices last year, 40 students from public and private high schools in Durham have "graduated" and are now out in their communities, providing advice and support to hundreds of their peers. Word about the program is also growing. Twice as many students applied for the winter 2001 training as there were slots available. A new session will start up in Durham in May and another in Orange County in July.
One reason young people are attracted to Teen Voices is that Planned Parenthood treats the training like a job. High school students are interviewed, "hired" and paid for their work: $200 for the training sessions and another $100 after they complete a set number of peer contacts. Another plus is that the program covers a wide spectrum of topics that bear on sexuality, such as how to be more assertive with friends and romantic partners, and how to recognize signs of depression.
Teen Voices asks young people to take a hard look at the yawning distances between the images and realities of their lives--an approach I found helpful as well. Viewing teenage sex through a wider lens, I was able to see group members as individuals who are influenced, but by no means defined by, their composite cultural reflections.
Here are some of the other key lessons I learned:
Sexual double standards are alive and wellDuring a session called "Sexuality: The Facts, The Acts, Our Feelings," feelings are running high--especially when it comes to how the sexual power scales tend to favor boys.
"If my daughter had sex, I'd be like, 'That bastard! She's my little girl,'" says Billy, who's 15.
Samantha, a sophomore from one of the city's majority African-American schools, cuts in sharply. "Why would you be acting different with a girl? I'm just asking."
"A male, if he has protection, he doesn't have to worry," her classmate Brandon starts to explain.
"It's like, the way society is, it leads you to think that it's girls who are really careless," sighs Marlene, an aspiring hair-salon owner from the same school. "A guy can go out and sleep with 50 girls and he's considered a man. But if a girl does that, she's considered something different."
The group discussion suggests that even the current teenage obsession with oral sex has left girls on the outs.
While many of the young women in the group seem well-informed about the mechanics of using condoms and giving oral sex to boys, they are clueless about how female orgasm takes place.
One reason is that boys don't seem all that interested in girls' pleasure. During the training, none of the boys express any opinions or ask any questions about how to give girls oral sex.
Being young doesn't always mean being open-minded
The Teen Voices program tries to get young people to define their values and act accordingly. But the training sessions reveal those beliefs aren't always the most forward-looking.
One evening, the group plays a game in which they complete sentences about gays and lesbians. It's clear from their language that, though they see themselves as accepting, they still put plenty of distance between themselves and those "other" teenagers.
The first sentence is, "Growing up lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender would be ... "
"Abnormal, shocking and scary," says Laura, who's 14.
"Very difficult in my family because of my mother," says Lee.
Another sentence is, "One thing I don't understand about gay people is ... "
Marlene answers the question with a question: "How can they stand the media? Like when they go on talk shows and everyone doubts them?"
"How do they get sexual happiness? What do they feel?" Laura adds.
"Why should they be ashamed of it? If they're gay, why keep it a secret?" Sandra wants to know.
The discussion hints that when it comes to sexual identity, peer influence can be pretty negative.
Miriam says when she immigrated to the United States five years ago, students in her middle school thought she was a lesbian because she liked to give hugs. "Did they see something different in me?"
Samantha says she "gets along better with guys than girls"--a fact that's sometimes viewed with suspicion by her classmates and her parents.
"The thing is, you always assume people are straight unless they say they aren't," Billy muses.
"It's like our justice system," says Karen, a senior at a local public school for gifted students. "Innocent until proven guilty."
Parents do have sway
But they have to be willing to talk about tough issues, group members say, and face their own contradictions. That's admittedly hard to do. At the end of one training session, a mom who's come to pick up her son confides in me as the only other adult within earshot: "I'm so glad somebody's doing this. I could never do this."
How should parents talk to their kids about sex? Here's what some group members came up with when the topic was sexually transmitted diseases.
"I'd try to be their friend. Don't lecture them," says Laura.
"I'd tell them the truth," Brandon says.
"I wouldn't give them a book," says Ryan, who's sprawled on his favorite spot on the rug in the middle of the room. "I'd probably try to have a conversation with them in stages. You know, every once in a while in the car: 'Hey boy! Let me tell you about syphilis.'"
Lee sticks her hand in the air, waiting to be called on. "You can't just start talking openly about this at age 16," she says. "You have to be communicating way before that."
"I don't know why adults think that if they talk about these things, people are more likely to have sex," adds Tracey, another private-school student. "The more I hear about sex, the more I don't want to have it."
Isolation is a dangerous thing
The emotional climax of the training comes three-quarters of the way through, during a guest lecture on teen suicide. Kathy Poole, a local public school teacher and coordinator of a suicide prevention group, is describing the events of the day her 15-year-old son, Torian Graves, shot himself to death. Poole is convinced he suffered from undiagnosed depression.
In the middle of one of Poole's sentences, Miriam suddenly covers her face with her hands and leans forward in her chair. Poole stops speaking and all eyes focus on the auburn-haired girl. For the next five minutes or so, Miriam talks and cries nonstop, in a monologue that seems fairly torn out of her. Through her sobs, she tells the story of her painful decision to leave her family to come to the United States to study. She also describes a time in her past when she used drugs and lived on the street.
Although it's hard to grasp all the details of Miriam's story, the bruise on her soul is visible and it silences the room.
"Sometimes I feel so alone," she says. "I don't know even what I'm thinking about."
When Miriam's finished, she leans back, exhausted, against Laura's shoulder. Laura shifts to put her arms around her new friend and carefully brushes a lock of hair from her face.
It's not clear whether Miriam's actually considered suicide, and nobody in the room asks her that question. The specifics don't really matter. What's important is that the sadness she's buried for so long has finally come to the surface.
Miriam lifts her head from Laura's shoulder and her eyes widen to take in her surroundings, as if she's awakened in an unfamiliar place.
"It's good to talk about our feelings and not let them get bottled up," says Poole, as the room remembers to breathe again. "Maybe if my son could've sat in a session like this, he would have been able to tell me, 'Mama, I know what's wrong.'"
Peer pressure can be positive
By the end of the 40-hour training, the group hasn't answered everyone's questions or bridged all of its divides. Race, class and religious differences still make it hard to talk openly about some issues. But participants have become surprisingly comfortable sharing their thoughts and challenging each other to think again when they disagree. The boundaries of what constitutes their peer group seem to have expanded--stretched by their exposure to people from different neighborhoods and schools.
Some group members are already acting like official peer educators. Michelle, a graduate of the first Teen Voices training who is now an assistant to the program, is pushing her school to expand the policy that allows teachers to distribute condoms when asked. She favors having trained students doing the dispensing.
Samantha recently helped a friend who'd been considering suicide. "Since a person she cared about was gone, she was like, "I want to go too,'" she says. "I made her promise to call me."
At one of the last training sessions, group leader Robyn Schryer, who started the Teen Voices program, talks about being haunted by recent news headlines about a California boy who shot and killed two classmates and wounded 13 others.
"It reminded me of how important it is that we talk to our friends," she says. "And that we really know how to listen."
"True that," echoes Laura.
At graduation ceremonies a week later, Billy--who enjoys playing the role of the rebel punk--has never been more poised and expressive as he describes what he's learned from Teen Voices.
"I thought I knew everything about these topics, but I'm finding that I don't," he says. "The other thing? I've made a lot of friends."