- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On Valentine’s Day, another dispatch arrived from the front lines of the culture war: Boys and girls as young as 11 are pairing up, going too far and breaking up — sometimes not nicely. As usual, a cry went out to parents to pay attention to their children.

But, as usual, the issue isn’t that simple.

The hypersexualized media culture is a big influence, said Jill Murray, a California psychotherapist and author of three books about destructive relationships among the young.

“I think that what they listen to in terms of music, what they see in terms of video, what they see on television shows, movies, computer games, video games, is by and large very, very sexually suggestive and violent,” she said. “And when you pair those things together, you get a great opportunity for dating violence.”

Ms. Murray’s assertion was illustrated by the Tween and Teen Dating Violence and Abuse Survey, released Feb. 14 by the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) and Liz Claiborne Inc.

Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) conducted the survey of 1,043 “tweens,” ages 11-14. The youths — who volunteered for the survey without knowing the topic — painted a sometimes-shocking portrait of life as a sixth-grader and/or middle-school student:

• Almost half of tweens had been — or were in — a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

• While most tweens thought having a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship meant “holding hands” and saying “I like you,” nearly 30 percent thought it meant having oral sex or sexual intercourse, too.

• While physical violence occurred in very few (4 percent) of the dating relationships, hundreds of dating tweens said they had been called hurtful names, lied about and badgered by text-messages.

“How do you know, if you’re a kid, that when someone texts you 30 or 40 or 50 times a day or every hour, wondering where you are and who you’re with, and what you’re doing, that that is not a sign of love?” said Jane Randel, communications officer for Liz Claiborne, which underwrote the TRU survey.

Ms. Murray, who sees a lot of tweens and teens in her practice, wishes parents were more clued into their children’s lives.

“I think parents aren’t around as much, …or if they are around, I think, sadly, they would prefer to be pals, rather than parents,” she said.

A girl may be having intense conversations or a sexual relationship with a boy, and her parents “don’t know the boy,” she said. “They don’t even know of the boy.”

Instead, too many parents are subtly encouraging premature sexualization of relationships — for instance, buying their preteen girls clothes that say “be sexy” or “little hottie.”

“I think it’s become so normal that parents think it’s cute, rather than looking at the message they’re sending the kids,” Ms. Murray said.

Elayne Bennett, founder of the Best Friends character-education program, says the tweens and teens in her program are taught that “a friend is a person around whom you are a better person.”

“If someone encourages you to bully others, or pick on others, or be obnoxious or take on risk behaviors we all know are wrong — that’s not a friend,” she said.

“A boyfriend,” she added, “is a friend who is a boy, …and a friend does not hit you.”

Mrs. Bennett — whose program urges youngsters to reject alcohol, tobacco, drugs, pornography and premarital sex — says sex education is probably encouraging the 30 percent acceptance of oral sex in tween dating.

Sex education has encouraged sexual experimentation “as long as it wasn’t actual intercourse with penetration,” she said. “They did not come out against oral sex.”

“And this whole idea that children are sexual from birth — well, it’s just not true,” Mrs. Bennett added. “Children should not be sexual. They have a latent period where they grow up and mature.”

In their defense, comprehensive sex-education advocates say their messages are age-appropriate and “real” — as opposed to the “unreal” idea that teens will refrain from sex until marriage. Thus, sexual responsibility is taught as a part of a healthy lifestyle.

Meanwhile, youth researcher and author Mike Males wants the press to take a cold shower and stop hyping the “junior high sexual revolution.”

The data in the NDVH survey is interesting, “but I don’t see the grounds for calling this alarming,” he said. In fact, “it’s really encouraging” — most tweens don’t date, and of those that do, “very low numbers” have sex or experience violence, he said. “The fever needs to be turned down here.”

To Mr. Males, the three major risk factors for premature sexual activity in tweens are living in poverty, living with parents who themselves engage in risky behavior, and being preyed on by older teens or adults.

Yes, there are many more sexualized media images than before, said Mr. Males, who writes a column for Youth Today, a trade publication for child-welfare professionals. “But again, I say the survey is very encouraging. Very few [young] teenagers are actually engaging in these behaviors.”

Still, the backers of the TRU survey are worried that if tweens’ first dating experiences involve abuse and sex, they will be setting themselves up for domestic violence later in life.

“Parents need to raise these issues with their kids,” said Liz Claiborne’s Ms. Randel. “It’s not enough to talk about sex and where babies come from, and it’s not enough to talk about the things we know [to talk about], like drugs. …You need to go further and talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships.”

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