It may be every parent’s worst nightmare: when it comes to what constitutes appropriate sexual behaviour, teen girls are starting to think a lot more like boys. The latest survey by Project Teen Canada shows that while adolescents collectively aren’t having more sex than they used to—in fact they’re having less—females have a drastically different attitude. Rather than passively waiting for a romantic partner to come along, they are more likely to find one themselves, and have sex on their own terms.
The data shows that nearly half of female adolescents now say it’s acceptable to have sex after a few times out together, up from 35 per cent in 1984. During that same period, attitudes among male adolescents barely budged. Similarly, the proportion of teen girls who say that “making out” is okay after being with someone a few times has rocketed up from 79 to 94 per cent, which almost puts them on par with the guys, who are at 96 per cent. Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge sociologist heading Project Teen, says the numbers reflect the fact that teen girls are “catching up” to their male counterparts.
“The traditional sexual script of male-female relationships in which the male is the initiator and controller is rapidly eroding,” says Alex McKay, research coordinator of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. “That basic fact explains a kind of convergence in attitudes and behaviours in relation to sexuality.” Both he and Bibby agree that this change has been a long time coming. The sexual revolution of the 1960s sparked a process of “the liberalization of attitudes” regarding gender equality and sex behaviour, says McKay. “Western culture has become more accepting of sexuality, and has been more willing to face up to the reality that adolescents are sexual beings.”
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Of course the fear has always been that if you take the taboo out of teen sex, then things could get salacious. But the opposite seems to be happening. According to Bibby’s research, the percentage of youth who report being virgins is going up. In 2008, 56 per cent said they’d never had sex, compared to 51 per cent eight years earlier. McKay adds that Canadian teen pregnancy rates are declining, condom use is up, and Statistics Canada confirms that fewer adolescents under the age of 15 are sexually active now than in the 1990s.
Bibby says it’s because being comfortable discussing sexuality and being more tolerant of various behaviours doesn’t necessarily translate into having more sex. “Obviously things have become much more open,” he explains, “but they’ve also become much more optional. So one has the freedom to engage and the freedom not to engage.” Sara Moroz, a 20-year-old University of Lethbridge student, agrees. She says that teen girls can now be more open about having sex without being labelled as a “slut.” But on the other hand, “being abstinent is okay too. It used to be so hush-hush whether you’re having sex or not—but now it’s fine either way.”
In Bibby’s view, this is good news. “There’s much more of a sense of being in control of their sexuality,” he says. One finding in particular that may stun parents is among Bibby’s favourites: on a monthly basis, adolescents now engage in less sexual activity than seniors. “You know what the teen response is when I say, ‘I hate to tell you this, but grandma and grandpa might be having more sex than you guys are?’ ” he asks. “ ‘Gross!’ ”