If you have no access to the secret world of adolescence, you might imagine that AIDS, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are propelling American teenagers toward a new era of sexual caution. Think again. For the generation now on the verge of adulthood, the trends are alarming. Eight years ago, according to the National Survey of Family Growth, only 19 percent of girls under the age of 15 were sexually experienced; today that number is nearly 50 percent higher, and some seven of 10 teenagers have had sex by age 18. Five years ago the teenage birth rate was declining; now 9 percent of American girls become mothers before turning 18, and another 9 percent have abortions. The Centers for Disease Control report that one in four sexually active teens will contract a venereal disease before finishing high school.
In some respects, of course, not much has changed: For many teenagers, that first kiss, the first crush, those first gropings toward mature sexuality are still intoxicating. And for some, sex is less a treacherous reality than a thwarted ambition. But for everyone who will come of age in the ’90s, the confusing process of growing up is more perilous than ever. In the conviction that one person’s story is worth a thousand statistical studies, PEOPLE last month sent our reporters to spend 24 hours with teenagers all over America. From dawn to dawn on Sept. 14, we talked to dozens of young men and women—teenage mothers and restless virgins, kids eager for experience and those who have found more than they bargained for—about the daily realities of their sex lives. Here are their stories—full of hope, bravado, wisdom and foolishness, and the thrill of self-discovery.
Friday, 6 A.M. Houston.
Daybreak is still an hour away, but 15-year-old Christy Pollard has been up for an hour. Every weekday it is the same: At 5:15 she tiptoes through the darkened house to the bathroom, past the silent bedrooms of her parents and her 13-year-old brother, Keith. At 6, she awakens her 10-month-old son. Jonathan. At 6:40 the bus comes to take them to Wunsche High School, where Jonathan stays at an on-campus daycare center and Christy, a ninth grader, takes her first class of the day.
This morning they have a visitor: The baby’s father, Johnny Rivera, 18, has spent the night in Christy’s waterbed. Johnny, an unemployed high school dropout, insists he loves Christy and wants to marry her—but not yet. “I want to know her better.” he says. Though he sees his son daily and baby-sits often, he explains that he didn’t want to become a father when Christy got pregnant in the seventh grade. “I gave her some money and told her she could get an abortion,” he says. “But when we told our parents, they said, ‘Don’t do that.’ So we didn’t.”
Christy’s father, J.T., and her mother, Jo Ann, believe the pregnancy may have been for the best. “We didn’t want her to have a baby,” says Jo Ann, a hostess at a hamburger restaurant. “But if I had to choose, it’s better this way than when she used to run away from home. She started running away when she was 12, and when she was 13 she almost died of a drug overdose. We were very fortunate.”
At Wunsche, Christy and the other young mothers in her parenting class have been assigned to make a video showing their peers how dramatically pregnancy can alter their lives. But Christy has little time for such concerns: After school she will spend an hour with her baby, hurry off to her night job at a fast-food restaurant, then fall into bed at midnight. Johnny is sanguine about the schedule his child’s mother keeps. “She’s a strong girl,” he says as she rushes out with her textbooks and diaper bag. “She’s a tough girl.”
7 A.M. Berkeley, Calif.
“We were watching cartoons, then we went to his bedroom,” says Xochitl Rios, recalling her first sexual experience, at age 12. “I knew it was going to happen. We were kissing on the bed, and he went to get a rubber. I wasn’t scared. I was excited, ’cause it was him. Afterwards, I walked out of the house with a big grin: I f——- Jonathan.”
The conquest, along with several others, is recorded in a notebook that Xochitl, 13, keeps in a cabinet by the bed she shares with a teddy bear named Strandi. Names and dates are listed in round, girlish handwriting: 6-26-90: “G.” Sex on living room floor with a blue rubber. 10-31-89: “A.” Behind a church. 4-28-89: “J.” Rode him like a horse. I was drunk. There are eight boys in all. One gave her chlamydia, a venereal disease that, untreated, could lead to sterility. Another beat her up when she told him to get checked for the disease. None of them took her anywhere but a fast-food restaurant. Xochitl keeps the list because, she says, “I like to remember.” Since mid-summer she has been celibate. “I’m trying to get good grades so I can go to college,” she says.
Xochitl’s mother, Joanna Uribe de Mena, considers herself partly to blame for her daughter’s adventuring. “I kept blinders on,” says the 43-year-old health planner, who enrolled Xochitl in a Catholic girls school this fall to cut down on “temptations.” Tonight Xochitl will announce that she is going to a Catholic boys school dance; instead she will search the campus of the University of California for a party. “The world is different today than it was,” the unsuspecting Joanna will say with a sigh before she bids her daughter goodbye. “No place is safe. You take chances when you let your kids out the door.”
8:15 A.M. Modesto, Calif.
Breakfast time at Tera Torres’s house is enough to convince even cynics that this town is still the innocent place it seemed to be in American Graffiti. It isn’t, of course: Tera estimates that about 90 percent of her friends at Modesto High are sexually active. But then, they aren’t lucky enough to be going steady with Tony Goulart. “Tony’s not like the other guys I know, who always want to have sex,” Tera says proudly.
Tera and Tony, both 17-year-old seniors, have been together for most of four years—long enough so that having sex would never earn them what’s known around here as “a bad reputation.” But Tony, the oldest son of Catholic parents, would not dream of having what Mrs. Torres calls “relations” with Tera. “I might lose respect for her.” he says.
For now, romantic rituals of their own devising fill Tony and Tera’s days and nights. This morning, as usual, Tony parks near Tera’s house, knocks on the door and drives her to school, two blocks away. This evening there will be the weekly football game. (Tony is a fullback, Tera is a cheerleader; he thinks her uniform is too short.) And tonight, Tera, in purple satin pajamas and hair ribbon, will be waiting for Tony to tuck her in to bed, as he does most nights. She will sigh as he kisses her goodnight, then ask him, ¦”Will you call me?” “Sure,” he will say, and then leave her there, smiling, in the dark.
9 A.M. Middlesex Superior Courthouse, Cambridge.
The court system calls her Mary Moe, the name the Commonwealth of Massachusetts uses to protect the privacy of all minors seeking judicial approval for an abortion without parental consent. She is only 13, but this will be the second pregnancy she has terminated. The first time, when she was 11, her mother signed a permission form. This time, she says, she cannot bring home the form because her mother would “kill” her.
With the help of volunteer attorney Laura Stewart, referred to the case by Planned Parenthood, the girl’s petition is approved in minutes. (Her abortion was scheduled for the next morning.) Afterwards, Mary Moe concedes that she never used birth control with her 15-year-old boyfriend, who suggested she keep the baby. “I thought I would never get pregnant again,” she says with a shrug. Most of Stewart’s young clients share such illusions of invulnerability. “They think nothing can happen to them,” Stewart says. “A teenager is hormones with feet.”
11:45 A.M. Berkeley.
Ian Hintzen has some extra cash today, so he is treating himself to lunch at Lox, Stock & Bagel. Near the salad bar, some girls are giggling, and a couple of jocks with tree-trunk necks are discussing the upcoming game. Ian is sitting alone with a copy of The Scarlet Letter. Sex isn’t on his schedule—only on his reading list.
Not that Ian, the 15-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants, isn’t interested in sex. “I think of it about five times a day,” he says. “I might even start thinking of girls in class. That’s why I don’t get up to sharpen my pencil.” But though the flesh may be willing, the spirit is meek. “I have an insecurity thing,” explains Ian, who once spent four hours just gathering the courage to ask a girl to dance. He also believes that sex should be meaningful. “It should be shared by two people who love each other,” he says, “even though my fantasies drift away from that point.”
For the moment, Ian’s passions are confined to cartoon superheroes. Tonight, as on most Fridays, he will sprawl across his bed and pore over copies of Spiderman and The New Mutants. He might think about inviting a girl to the prom—a daydream he half hopes will never come true. “The concept of asking somebody out scares me out of my wits.” he says. “If she said yes, I’d be in deep trouble. I’d be the boy who had a heart attack in the middle of the gym.”
3 P.M. New York City.
“In fifth grade my friends would talk about “faggots,’ ” says Henry Diaz, a 17-year-old drama student at Fiorello La Guardia High School of Music, Art and Performing Arts. “When I learned what a ‘faggot’ was, and all those characteristics matched mine, I tried to deny it. But by seventh grade I was being called ‘faggot.’ One night I thought of slitting my wrists.”
It has been four months since Henry “came out” by signing a pamphlet that was distributed on the La Guardia campus by a gay and lesbian activist group called Queer Nation. For him it was a moment of relief. But for his ex-girlfriend Karen Marder—the girl Henry dated during his final months of confusion “so people would say, ‘This guy isn’t really gay’ “—it was a shock. “I felt so used,” says Karen, 15. “And it kind of gave me a bad reputation. The guys were like, ‘Oh, you probably turned him gay.’ ” The one consolation is that Karen, who still cherishes Henry as a close friend, finally understood his lack of sexual interest in her. “I mean, I wore my sluttiest outfits for him!” she says. “I had the other guys drooling, but he wasn’t paying attention.”
Tonight, Henry will go to a party and amateur drag show in a stuffy, cramped downtown apartment, checking the crowd for “cute guys.” He will not go home with any of them. The threat of AIDS makes promiscuity dangerous, but Henry is more concerned about the kind of emotional damage he suffered after a one-night stand with a handsome stranger who never called him again. Now he is looking for a permanent partner, one who might someday adopt and raise children with him. “I want somebody to love,” he says. “Somebody to share my life with.”
4 P.M. Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Gene Lee and Lesley Young consider themselves an anachronism at Pacific Palisades High, a low building overlooking the ocean in this southern California community of $500,000 bungalows. Gene and Lesley are a couple—by all appearances, the only couple at this afternoon’s pep rally, which they are attending because Gene plays offensive tackle for the Palisades Dolphins.
Both 17-year-old seniors at Pali, Gene and Lesley have an active sex life and faithfully use birth control. As first-generation Asian-Americans, they are acutely aware of the chasm that separates their own adolescent experience from that of their parents. Lesley, the firstborn child of a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, complains that her parents’ attitudes about sex have made her life miserable. “My mother didn’t get married until she was 28, and I’m sure she was a virgin,” she says, rolling her eyes. “She won’t let me close my bedroom door when Gene is there. She thinks I have no morals.” Gene’s Korean parents accept his sex life but think their son sees too much of his girlfriend. “They believe you study, study, study, get your job. then get married and have kids,” Gene says. “They push me to marry a Korean woman, but I tell them I’ll marry who I want, whether it’s white,’ black, Chinese, Japanese.”
After the game, Lesley and Gene will go to a party at a friend’s house, where they will duck into an empty bedroom for a half hour, then leave early: Gene has a 10 P.M. curfew because he came home stoned on marijuana one night. Lesley will have nothing to do but pout and ponder the trials of teenage love. “Sometimes I don’t think Gene stands up to his parents enough,” she says. “But then sometimes I think I stand up too much to mine.”
6 P.M. Elletsville, Ind.
Dinner is over, and Shelley Kelley is getting ready to go “cruising and scoping,” the main weekend recreation for teenagers in this community set amid rustling cornfields. Roughly translated, that means getting into a car with some friends and driving a 10-block strip that nearly every other kid in town is driving, or it means hanging out in the parking lot of Rac ‘N’ Cue Family Billiards in nearby Bloomington. For Shelley, 17, it is a form of window shopping; she will not sleep with any of the boys she sees. “To me, sex is a very personal, private thing, not a weekend thing,” she says.
That sets her apart from her friends, all of whom are having sex, she says, and many of whom are pregnant. But what really makes Shelley different is that she has talked to her mother, Jane, about sex. When Shelley’s first boyfriend deserted her after they slept together, Jane was among the first she told. “I figured she was going to be exposed to sex no matter what I did, so I’d better be honest with her,” says Jane, 41, a janitor and part-time sociology student at Indiana University.
Jane concedes that such frankness makes her a little uncomfortable. “But,” she says, “I’d rather have it this way than the way I was brought up. I was ignorant.” Too timid to join the sexual revolution when she was a teenager, Jane wonders these days whether her contemporaries were as liberated as they seemed. “They weren’t talking to their parents in the ’60s,” she says, “and now they’re not talking to their children.”
9 P.M. Quincy, Fla.
In this city of tobacco farms on the outskirts of Tallahassee, a star football player can get as many girls as he likes. But as tonight’s postgame crowd gathers in the parking lot of Kelly’s Jr. 24 Hour Deli, Eric Brown, star tackle for the Shanks High Tigers, isn’t looking for action. For the past year he has been dating 17-year-old Clinita Kennedy, who was a virgin until she finally consented to sleep with him last May.
Eric concedes that his forbearance-eight months between attraction and consummation—is unusual by the standards of his friends at Shanks, a small rural school with a mostly black population and a pregnancy rate so high that a health clinic providing birth control has been established across from the school. “A lot of guys say they won’t waste more than three weeks with a girl—if she won’t have sex, they drop her,” Eric says. “I waited for mine, and I didn’t push her, because I don’t think I’d like it if she did that to me.”
As Eric and Clinita have discovered, in some ways monogamy can be as troubling as promiscuity. “I worry about whether we should be doing it,” says Eric. “Sometimes she makes me feel like she wishes we would have waited.” Clinita, sitting next to him on the car hood, cannot give him much reassurance. “Nothing really makes me think it’s okay to do it,” she says. “It just happens.” All of Eric’s whispered tenderness cannot dispel her feeling that true love will falter when both go off to college next year. “He’s going to be a football player,” she says gloomily. “All they do is chase after girls.”
Evening. San Francisco.
Diaz Carter and Kenny Bryant are standing in front of the bathroom mirror in their bikini briefs. “OKAY, ACTIVATE!” they yell in unison, dancing around the room as they massage curl-activator into their hair. After 20 minutes of coiffing their quarter-inch flattops, Diaz, 15, remembers the finishing touch. “Hey, Ken, where’s the spray?” he asks his 17-year-old friend. “If the ladies touch this ‘fro, they’re gonna mess it up.” Hair sprayed, they dress, putting on long black overcoats and picking up the telephone beepers they carry so that girls will be able to reach them at any hour of the day or night. “I brought the whole bottle of cologne,” says Diaz, pouring some onto his jacket. “Gotta know what the lady likes, right, Kenny?”
The plan for tonight is a double date, and Kenny and Diaz have already prepared for action with a training meal at their favorite restaurant, McDonald’s. It is an institution for which they have great respect. Their transportation is the “Mac Mobile,” otherwise known as Kenny’s burgundy Ford Tempo four-door; their favorite pastime is “Mac-ing,” which means kissing a girl on and on and on. “The ladies will page us at about 10:30,” says Kenny. “Then there’ll be some serious Mac-ing, you’ll see.”
Kenny, who learned all he knows about sex from his brother, a Baptist minister, intends to remain a virgin until he meets the right girl. Diaz, who has had sex with three different girls in the past two years, likes Mac-ing as much as the next guy, but wouldn’t mind if things went further. There are no moral quandaries to be sorted out yet, however, as the “ladies” have not beeped. After gassing up the Mac Mobile, Kenny and Diaz decide to try their luck at a couple of school dances. The first is empty. The second is swarming with police. Kenny and Diaz ride around in silence until they find themselves parked down the street from their dates’ house. It is nearly midnight, and they have driven more than 30 miles.
“Wonder what the ladies are doing, but we’ll wait it out,” mutters Kenny as he starts the car and drives toward the nearest Golden Arches. “Need a Mac before they call.”
Saturday, 2:45 A.M. New York City.
If this were a weekday morning at 8:30, 17-year-old Billy Erwin might pass for a high school student on his way to class. But it is the pitch-black end of a rainy night, and Billy’s knapsack contains not books but the tools of his trade: condoms, lubricating jelly, handcuffs, antiseptic spray, a pornographic video tape, a pair of black jockstraps, a can of Mace. “It’s fun getting paid for screwin’,” he says with a grin, “but you got to be prepared.”
As Billy tells it, he had plans to be an aerospace engineer until his parents died seven years ago and one of his numerous foster mothers sexually abused him. Whatever the case, he found himself a teenage runaway living in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. At 15, he says, he was working as a Christmas elf in a posh department store when a well-heeled man asked him if he’d like to make some good money fast. In one night, Billy earned a crisp new $100 bill.
These days, Billy gets most of his clients by referral; he says he can get $150 for a single man or woman. $200 for couples. But on nights like tonight, when his affluent regulars are at their weekend homes, he resorts to roadside hustling, which brings him $75 for 20 minutes in the back seat of a car. Most of his customers are “chicken hawks”—older, usually married men who drive along the New York City waterfront looking for young boys. Billy always uses a condom—one of his clients died of AIDS last year—and is cautious about which cars he gets into. “Last week a guy was found right here with his throat slit open,” he says.
Business is slow tonight. Billy positions himself in the middle of the street, grabbing his crotch to catch the attention of passing drivers. At last a station wagon slows down, the gray-haired driver craning his neck. On its third trip around the block, the car stops, and the driver asks Billy, “Want to go for a ride?”
Billy works until 5 A.M. But it isn’t work for him—or so he insists over breakfast at a downtown diner. “It’s extra cool to have these older people under my control while I’m doing them,” he says. And a 17-year-old is a marketable commodity in a society where sex and youth are sold as a package deal. “You’d be surprised,” says Billy, “how many people out there want a little boy like me to play with.”
Saturday. Dawn. Ben Taub Charity Hospital, Houston.
Benita Johnson, 17, can finally sleep. It is a sweet relief after what she has endured: five days of labor so painful that this morning she became hysterical, pulling at the IV lines in her arm as a crowd of orderlies restrained her. When her second baby, Charles Edward, finally struggled free of her body, only her mother was there to see him. There has been no visit from Benita’s 22-year-old husband, Isom, the man she married when she was a 15-year-old ninth grader and separated from three weeks ago.
There are things a woman learns when she has a child—the ferocity of suffering, the limitlessness of endurance, the importance of unfounded hope. But Benita, whose firstborn child, Isom Jr., is 23 months old now, wonders as she lies in her hospital bed whether she has learned too much too soon. “If I had it to do over,” she says, “I wouldn’t.”
To discourage other girls from getting pregnant, she has consented to be photographed. “Let them see how they’re gonna look when they have a baby,” she says. “Their hair gonna be torn out from screaming, and their makeup gonna be washed off with their tears and sweat. They gonna leave looking like a ragged old stuffed dog.”
But the pain of childbirth fades with the approach of dawn. When little Charles Edward is brought in for his 6 A.M. feeding, Benita smiles. She cannot help herself: Once again, she is falling in love.