Adolescence, the period between 12 and 17 years of age, is a crucial phase in the development of an individual and it is also the period in which sex is discovered, along with the questions related to it. It is also when young people begin to consider what sexual behaviour could be pleasurable, morally acceptable and appropriate for their age, although it has been proven, statistically, that sexual activity during early adolescence can be harmful in both psychological and physical terms. However, the phenomenon of precocious sexual activity shows how sex is present in the lives of adolescents even before they are ready for the consequences it can have.
In America, the phenomenon of precocious sexual activity is warned about sensitively, especially in the Afro-American and Hispanic communities, because it has consequential repercussions on the health system: every year in the United States, every fourth sexually transmitted diseases is attributed to a sexually active adolescent, and America has the highest percentage of teenage pregnancies in the Western world. Unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are more common amongst young people who were sexually active from a young age, that is, before 16 years of age. A study, which was made public in 2001 by the Alan Guttmacher Institute and lead by Doctor Lydia O’Donnell, adds, to the aforementioned effects, the probability that a young person who starts to practise sex at a very young age will have many sexual partners, may force a partner to have sex against their will, will have frequent relations and will consume alcohol or drugs before or after a sexual act. In short, young people who start to have sex at an early age end up behaving in ways which put their health in danger. What are the factors that encourage precocious sexual relations and who is able to put adolescents off?
Sex on television
There are various factors which can lead on to adolescents prematurely addressing sexual relations but the factor which comes up the most, both in family, political and pedagogic contexts, is the television. There are good, scientific reasons for thinking that the television can contribute to precocious sexual activity: sexual behaviour is strongly influenced by culture and the television is an integral part of adolescent culture. According to studies carried out in the United States, adolescents watch up to 3 hours of television a day. A scientific survey on a representative sample of programmes which went on air between 2001-2002 found that 64% of all television programmes contained relatively explicit references to sex. Furthermore, one television programme out of seven (14%) included a description about a sexual relation. This high exposure young people have to sex can influence their ideas about cultural norms and the television can actually create illusions that sex is the central part of daily life, but, in reality, it is not. Exposure to social models provided by the television can also change opinions about the probable consequences which sexual activity brings with it. A sociological theory claims that adolescents who see people having casual sexual relations on television (or at the cinema) without negative consequences are more inclined to assume this behaviour themselves. Although the television can also inhibit sexual relations by illustrating the risks (especially the possibility of contracting a disease, infection or having unwanted pregnancies), encouraging abstinence or promoting ‘safe sex’, it rarely carries out this task: only 15% of programmes with content related to sex do this. As a result of this, Doctor Rebecca Collins’s study, which was published in the September 2004 edition of the journal ‘Pediatrics’, has caused a lot of discussion as it demonstrated how the television can influence young people to have sexual relations at an early age. Having picked up a signal from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which linked the phenomenon of sexual content in television programmes (even if not explicit) to sex practised during adolescence, Doctor Collins and some colleagues studied the phenomenon in scientific terms and in depth by examining a significant sample of 1,792 girls and boys aged between 12 and 17 for two years. The group of young people, who came from different areas, were asked to talk about their television habits and their answers were compared with the results of a scientific analysis of television programmes in order to obtain assessment criteria regarding the sexual context. The final results testified that 90% of adolescents who watch television programmes which contain a lot of sexual content are twice as likely to start precocious sexual activity compared to those who watched less television. This piece of data is very significant if you think about the fact that so called ‘risky’ programmes, deemed so by the survey, were not only those which showed sexual acts but also those in which sex was purely spoken about.
In light of the increasing presence of sexual content in television programmes, it is important to encourage parents and schools to work towards a means of prevention which addresses sexual initiation during early adolescence so young people are aware of the risks they are exposing themselves and their partners to. Reducing the quantity of sexual content in entertainment programmes, reducing exposure of such content to adolescents and offering explanations about the possible negative consequences sexual activity can have on very young people could delay or prevent the onset of intercourse. Alternatively, parents of young people could help to minimise negative consequences by watching the programmes with them and discussing the opinions they have concerning sex and the situations presented on television.