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Fast Times in Junior High

Just when you thought the problem was casual sex among high-school kids, it turns out there’s a trend of close encounters between kids who aren’t even old enough to date


It was just another day for a group of seventh-graders hanging around on the banks of Walnut Creek, talking and teasing one another. As they traded jokes and jibes, one of the boys asked one of the girls for oral sex. A few of the kids smirked, and after a minute, the boy and girl went off into the bushes.

No adults would ever have heard about it, but that evening, a girl in the group mentioned to her parents what had happened. They phoned the home of the girl who had gone off with the boy. The girl’s outraged parents called the police, convinced their daughter would never have engaged in such behavior if not coerced.

Certainly, what the girl’s parents didn’t understand—what any parent of a 12-year-old might have trouble understanding—is that what occurred between their daughter and her classmate is not all that unusual.

As has been talked about frequently by Dr. Phil and Oprah, and as People magazine and NBC News reported in January, many teenagers who are having sex are doing so with friends and acquaintances, with no strings attached. Still, local parents who watch TV or read People have probably wondered, uncomfortably, whether the extracurricular activities being described were really going on among classmates and friends of their children—and if their own kids were involved.

As Diablo found out—in talking to several professionals who work with young people in our community, as well as with kids in our neighborhoods—the trend is occurring here. And while the People/NBC survey questioned slightly older kids, it’s clear that around here, children who are barely in their teens are engaging in casual sex.

he investigation of oral sex between the Walnut Creek 12-year-olds landed on the desk of Assistant District Attorney Jim Picco, head of the juvenile crimes division of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office. But because the two kids were the same age and both consented, it was determined that criminal charges were inappropriate. But Picco says it wasn’t the first time in recent years that parents went to the police because they were so shocked by their children’s level of sexual activity. Many more such cases involving junior- high kids are looked into by the police, he says. And those, of course, are reported only because these are incidents in which the kids somehow get caught, and their parents decide to call the cops.

"Cases involving sexual activity among 12-year-olds are not uncommon," Picco says. "We find these girls and boys really think this is normal behavior. They’re surprised everyone’s so upset about it. Oral sex is to kids now what kissing once was."

Furthermore, authorities say, for kids these days, getting sexual has little to do with young love or infatuation—or, for that matter, even sexual attraction.

Both Picco and Sergeant Sandra Douglas, supervisor of the sexual assault unit for the Contra Costa Sheriff’s investigations division, say they’ve handled cases involving groups of middle schoolers engaging in sex with interchanging partners. And child therapists confirm an apparent indifference among their patients about when and with whom they do it.

"Kids have always talked more than they acted, but now they’re following through more," says Don Elium, a Walnut Creek therapist who has counseled hundreds of young people during his 20 years of practice in the Bay Area. "Boys and girls are
hanging out in groups where sex is shared around the pack."

One of the reasons that local therapists know so much about the sex lives of teenagers and preteens is because, behind the scenes, their young patients aren’t altogether sanguine about being sexually active at such a young age. While the party line among many kids is that let’s-just-do-it sex is great, therapists say their clients report depression, confusion, and guilt associated with the experiences they’re having.

"The mentality is ‘what’s the big deal?’ but just as likely I’m hearing the lament, ‘I think I screwed up my life,’" says George Papageorge, a marriage and family therapist in Pleasanton. "Having sex too early brings undue, deep emotional pressure to individuals who aren’t yet ready to deal with it."

One problem, therapists say, is that kids are interacting through sexual encounters, often at the expense of communication and emotional closeness. "That’s not how you build healthy relationships in your life," says Elium.
"I think we can expect these kids to have greater problems later, in creating intimacy in their romantic lives."

Young women could emerge especially wary. Local girls are initiating sexual encounters as often as boys, many sources say, with the girls taking the stance that they are simply going after what they want, just as boys do. However, this equal-opportunity
theory has some odd twists that are thoroughly sexist, including the fact that many, or even most, of the encounters involve girls performing oral sex on boys.

In addition, age-old stereotypes about young women’s sexuality still seem to apply, even among the girls themselves. "‘Hooking up’ isn’t always so bad if he’s a cute guy," says a 16-year-old high-school junior from Lafayette. "You can hook up too much, though. Then you’re a ho."

The assessment of a 15-year-old boy who’s a sophomore at Acalanes High School is harsher.

"As far as I’m concerned," he says, "all these girls are hos, because I personally know they’ve all gone down on guys. The guys act all nice to girls so they can get it, then when they get it, it’s like, ‘See ya.’"

Within the last year or so, Contra Costa prosecutors handled a case in which two drunken teenage girls from Lafayette had group sex with some older teenagers at a party. The girls fully acknowledged they were the initiators.

"The girls, by their own statement, were saying, ‘Come on, let’s get it on,’" says prosecutor Karen Zeles, who handles statutory rape cases.

However, Zeles says she feels that even among girls who appear eager to initiate sexual encounters, some have qualms about the sexual activity that’s occurring. But they are reluctant to say anything.

Most disturbing, Zeles says, is when a girl has been obviously victimized. "Even if the girl, in her gut, feels that it’s wrong," says Zeles, "it’s a stigma [to admit that to] the other girls."

At the same time, boys who want to be considered popular may also feel denied the option to "just say no."

"I have a 14-year-old boy who’s hanging out with a group that’s caught on to the oral sex thing, and who first thought this was the greatest thing in the world. But now he’s really struggling with how to get out of it," says therapist Elium.

California law requires schools to teach the basics about sex to middle schoolers, including information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, the nature of the message often depends on who’s giving it.

Educators from Planned Parenthood conduct frank, practical seminars in school districts throughout this area, while Linda Turnbull and her organization, known as Teen Esteem, focus more on abstinence in their presentations to kids in the San Ramon Valley, Pleasanton, and Livermore.

With any sex ed program, parents can keep their children out of the classes, and some do, saying their kids are too young. But educators representing a range of approaches agree that parents who consider junior high too early to learn about sex are jeopardizing their children’s welfare.

The risk of pregnancy doesn’t start with middle-school graduation, nor does the possibility of getting a sexually transmitted disease. People/NBC reported that nearly 30 percent of the kids having sex don’t always use protection.

Despite potential hazards, it seems unlikely that the trend toward sexual activity at younger ages will reverse.

"You’d like to say it’s just a fad," says Walnut Creek therapist LaVerne Lamach, who’s been counseling young people since the 1970s, "but that’s what we’ve said about every other generation of teens, and mostly the behavior seems to stick around—if not escalate."

One mother who has heard about sexual activity in middle school says she cannot imagine her 11-year-old is ready to deal with it. She says she hopes the hyper-sexuality fad will pass, but acknowledges it’s a big concern for parents.

"We’ve all heard the tales, and it scares me to think that my son will have to face this as a child," says parent Sara Runco, of Walnut Creek. "This isn’t what I really thought I’d be worried about until my kids were much older. But, unfortunately, I guess that’s the way it is."

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