New teen sex study erases sexual assault

A new CDC study (PDF) has made a lot of headlines this week: It reveals that 40% of teens have had sex. Most (95%) have used condoms. And an increased number of sexually active teens (17%, up from 11%) are using the rhythm method — which has a 25 percent failure rate.

Also getting a lot of play (har har) is fact that some teens aren’t trying to avoid pregnancy. According to the study, 14% of females and 18% of males would be “a little pleased” or “very pleased” if they got (a partner) pregnant. This is interesting — especially because of its ramifications for sex education. I do think it’s possible for educators to teach teens about effective contraceptive use and the
difficult realities of young parenthood without stigmatizing young mothers.

But what I really want to focus on are the statistics about consent that aren’t getting a lot of media pickup. The study asked young women whether their first sexual experiences (and by that they’re narrowly defining sex as penis-in-vagina intercourse — but that’s a whole other post) were voluntary:

Among females aged 18-24 whose first sex was before age 20, 10% “really didn’t want it to happen at the time”, 47% had mixed feelings, and 43% “really wanted it to happen at the time”. This varied depending on the age at first sex. For those who had 1st sex at 14 years or younger, 18% really didn’t want it to happen, compared with 8% among those whose first sex was at age 18 or 19. On the other hand, more than a quarter of females aged 18-24 whose first sex was at age 14 or younger (29%) really wanted it to happen at the time. First sex with an older partner was associated with much higher percents of females reporting “really didn’t want it to happen”. Among those whose first partners were 3 or more years older, 19% reported that they didn’t really want it to happen at the time, compared with 5% among those whose first partners were the same age or younger.

I keep staring at those figures in boldface above — the young women who did not get to set the terms of their first time. I wonder if CDC researchers can explain exactly what the difference is between “really didn’t want it to happen” and rape? Because “really didn’t want it to happen” is just another way of saying “nonconsensual,” which is the defining quality of sexual assault.

We don’t know a lot about this 10% and 18% and 19%. Based on this study, we can’t say whether or not these girls verbally said no or otherwise resisted. We don’t know whether they personally consider what they’ve experienced to be rape or not. But that actually shouldn’t matter to the CDC. Lack of consent means it was assault, and it’s important that the CDC explicitly classify it that way. I know this is an old debate (one we’ve written a lot about, though typically about a slightly older demographic with regard to the idea of “gray rape“), and CDC researchers were probably loathe to wade into it. Yet the wording of this question leaves little doubt that the women who answered yes were actually raped:

“Would you say then that this first vaginal intercourse was voluntary or not voluntary, that is, did you choose to have sex of your own free will or not?

Those that answered “no” should not have been categorized as having had “first sex.” If they did not make the chose of their own free will, it was rape.

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15 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    There is a difference between, “It’s my first time and I’m a little scared” and “I don’t want to do this at all”.
    In a queer male context, however, what has always bothered me is that “I don’t want to do this at all/rape” is seen as a form of initiation.

  2. Surfin3rdWave
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    This is a touchy subject for me, but an important one to address. I lost my virginity when I was 14. My boyfriend was 17. I was physically still VERY immature– I had no pubic hair and still hadn’t gotten my first period. I wasn’t even entirely sure where my vagina was.
    I had told him repeatedly that I wasn’t ready to have sex, but he pulled the typical “you don’t love me if you don’t put out” crap that teenage boys tend to pull. One night, after I had told him probably 50 times that I didn’t want to have sex, I finally gave up and told him to go ahead, because I was tired of telling him no.
    It was horrible; it hurt like Hell and traumatized me emotionally. We broke up right after that and I didn’t have sex again for almost 4 years.
    So– was I raped? Maybe. I was annoyed into sex. While part of me feels like ANY coercion is rape, another part of me says that he was just a stupid, horny kid. I don’t think he would deserve to be prosecuted for rape because he got on my nerves until I finally said yes.

  3. borrow_tunnel
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I agree 100% that not consenting to sex is rape, but if I were making the survey, I might word it that way too, since not everyone is a feminist who knows it isn’t her fault if she is raped. A girl may refrain from checking off “rape” if she thinks she’ll be asked by teachers if she’s OK or needs to see a therapist. Or maybe she wouldn’t want to check off rape because rape happens to “other girls,” not me. Or because if she decides that she was raped and checks it off she may come to the realization after she takes the survey that, “Oh god, that IS considered rape. I was raped. How am I supposed to deal with this?” You know how at the beginning of psychological surveys they have a little disclaimer saying if you experience any negative psychological effects during this survey, call ______?

  4. supremepizza
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think its clear from the question that was asked that it was rape. If you 100% don’t want to have sex & someone forces you to, that’s rape. If you 90% don’t want to have sex– but 10% do –well, that’s normal. Sometimes I really want to have sex, sometimes I really don’t want to have sex, but most of the time I’m in between. The question, frankly, is whether or not they consented. I don’t know if they asked that question specifically, but they should have.

  5. KBeck02
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    I think that another thing that goes through girl’s minds is whether or not their parents will be notified. It has been over three years by now, but when I was 18(and a virgin), I was coerced into sex when I was drunk, I still haven’t told my parents because my mother is very much a victim blamer.
    I mean parents have a strong hold their children’s behavior, they can’t always stop sex but they deter safe sex out of fear of getting caught. Girls especially don’t have condoms because of stigma and fear.

  6. dhistory
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    I agree the report is weird. Maybe they thought they wouldn’t get honest answers if they worded it too strongly (accurately).
    Anyway, rape was once considered extremely heinous. It motivated lynchings and even sparked riots in the past. I wonder how many murders now are in response to finding out about a rape. Probably more than zero, but I never hear it reported as such.

  7. Melissa
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, it’s probably absolutely true that many, if not most, of the girls who lost their virginity when they “really didn’t want it to happen” were probably raped, I’d be hesitant to draw any absolute conclusions from the wording as it stands. (And I’m not saying that you tried to draw absolute conclusions; in fact, you pretty explicitly didn’t.) But, that being said, I think there’s a pretty glaring omission from our whole feminist discussion about nonconsent and rape and all that…which is the idea that consent can be faked. Or rather, consent, even consent which appears enthusiastic, can certainly exist even with someone who really doesn’t want the sex to happen. If a person (of any gender) doesn’t want sex, but feels like it’s hir duty anyway, or feels like ze doesn’t deserve to say no (even in the absence of explicit threats from the partner), or simply doesn’t care and wants to get it over with, it’s pretty easy to have unwanted sex without your partner ever being any the wiser.
    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying AT ALL that the absence of “no” implies consent…I’m just saying that it’s possible (and happens a lot) to make an active decision to pretend to consent to sex you’d do anything to get out of if you could have your ‘druthers. If coercion, threats, violence, or verbal/non-verbal signals of non-consent are present in the situation, then of course it’s rape. But there are other people who can successfully fool a partner into believing they have enthusiastic consent, and those situations can’t really be lumped into the category of “rape.”

  8. theology_nerd
    Posted June 5, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    It’s horrifying to read that 1 out of every 10 sexually active girls/young women was essentially coerced/pressured into the act…I think that should be a wake-up call to all the societal institutions that are supposed to be educating young people about healthy sexuality (families, churches, schools, media, etc.) We need to be teaching boys that sex isn’t their “right”, no matter how horny they are. (If you’re turned on and she’s not interested, go home and masturbate. It’s simple!) And both genders need to know that if someone is trying to pressure them into unwanted sexual activity, that person isn’t worth dating anyway!
    On another note, I wanted to address this part of the post:
    “According to the study, 14% of females and 18% of males would be ‘a little pleased’ or ‘very pleased’ if they got (a partner) pregnant.”
    It sounded like the OP was suggesting that this proves that some teenagers really are ready for parenthood, but I sincerely doubt it. Numerous studies have shown that the parts of the brain which influence judgment don’t finish developing until the early 20s, so although a teenager may *think* that pregnancy would be pleasing, they probably don’t have the judgment and foresight to realize just how difficult teenage parenting would be. Pop culture glamorizes unplanned pregnancy…think Jamie Lynn Spears, “Secret Life of the American Teenager”, “Juno”, “Knocked Up”, “Glee”, Bristol Palin’s recent fashion spread which featured her son as an adorable accessory to the designer gowns. Because they don’t have the necessary discernment skills, teenagers are prone to eat this up! I would posit that most of those students who gave positive responses are thinking along these lines:
    Females–”Babies are cute, and I’d totally be the center of attention! I’d have a cute little “baby bump”, all my friends will love playing with the baby, and my boyfriend and I will be together forever! Plus, I’d be a real adult…if I have a kid of my own, my parents wouldn’t be able to tell me what to do anymore!”
    Males–”This is proof that I’ve been getting laid, and it also proves my virility and potency! Being a father makes me a real man…and I don’t have to worry about the pregnancy or the bulk of the childcare, because my girlfriend will handle that! Plus, I’d be a real adult…if I have a kid of my own, my parents wouldn’t be able to tell me what to do anymore!”
    Just my two cents.

  9. Sunset
    Posted June 5, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I think I’d have been happier if the report addressed this point a little more. Maybe, say, actually using the word “rape” or “sexual assault” or something. I do think it’s a figure worth reporting. Whether we want to call it “first sex” or not, having your first sexual encounter through assault does have a significant effect on your life. I was more disturbed that the report seemed to normalize rape/abuse as a sexual encounter.

  10. paperispatient
    Posted June 5, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s a good point. Depending on what people think rape means, I can see a survey getting very different answers to “have you ever been raped?” versus “have you ever been pressured into sex, had sex when you didn’t want to, etc.”

  11. smiley
    Posted June 5, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Borrow_tunnel,
    “I agree 100% that not consenting to sex is rape”
    And what does the law state about “consenting”? I actually don’t know, but I suspect that consent can be given, in that context, by not saying no.
    After all, many of us have had sex, consensually, without actually stating ‘yes, please continue’.
    It would be a step back if consent required a clear, unambiguous statement from both parties. And I think the law recognises that.
    AS the French say: he who does not protest, consents.

    • Posted August 10, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Sexual Assault laws vary from state to state. Illinois Law explicitly states that a person cannot give consent if coerced into a sex act.

      In other words:
      “Come on baby…”
      “no”

      “Come on baby….”
      “I don’t want to tonight…”

      “Come on baby….”
      “okay fine”

      Is NOT consent. Coersion is rape. But this scenerio routinely plays itself out in teens’ bedrooms throughout the country. Rape is so prevelent that many teens don’t even consider it rape! They call “bad sex,” or just plain “normal.” It breaks my heart.

      Thanks for this post. the CDC’s tacit rape-apologist stance needs to be brought to light!

  12. GrowingViolet
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    This phrasing is standard for surveys and has been for a long time, and for good reason. A lot of people don’t, or aren’t ready to, categorize their experiences as sexual assault, for a lot of reasons. Some feel it “doesn’t really count” as such if [insert whatever condition]. Many times there’s a discrepancy between the practical experience of sexual assault and the legal or technical definition of it – something these surveys aren’t equipped to explore. Bland, neutral phrasing about any number of experiences, sexual or otherwise, is considered the best way of obtaining accurate information. It’s a basic principle in the social sciences – one with which people reporting on them might be expected to be familiar.

  13. shsally
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Uh, why would making legal consent being active consent (yes means yes) be a step back? A step back for who? People who are afraid asking permission and getting it kills boners?

  14. Melissa
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I think that had more to do with racism than with a strong aversion to rape.
    That plus…as far as we still have to go with feminism, we (well, our foremothers) certainly have made some strides. I think rape seemed like a bigger crime when women were necessarily considered property…so raping a woman was like a crime against another man’s property. Now, when it’s just a crime against a woman, people don’t get as upset about it.

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