Tue Jul 16, 2002 - Updated at 02:47 PM

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Too sexy for my age
Kids are sexualized early but that doesn't mean they're ready ? or willing
By Isabel Teotonio
Staff Reporter
Splashed across her chest is the word Hottie. The padded bra pushing tightly against the tiny T-shirt enlarges the strategically placed letters. A glimmering belly chain dangles seductively against her bare midriff. And surprisingly, her low-riding jeans remain in place despite the lack of hips to keep them up.

With her tousled hair and pouting lips, she seems to ooze sex appeal. But it's all smoke and mirrors. Sex is the furthest thing from her mind. After all, she's only 12 and has barely kissed a boy.

Despite growing up in an electronic age where kids can learn about the birds and the bees with the click of a mouse, and living in a Playboy culture that makes sex a commodity and bombards them with Just Do It messages, most youngsters aren't ready to do it. Just ask them.

Today's youth are the most sexually aware ever, but that doesn't mean they're more sexually active. Experts say that's a misconception born out of watching young Britney Spears wannabes with T-shirts that scream Hottie paired with dangerously low-riding jeans, or from seeing young boys adopt the machismo attitudes they hear in lyrics and see in flicks.

So beyond a trip to the mall for the latest J. Lo look or gangsta rap CD, just how far will those perched on the threshold of sexual maturity go?

"Girls think guys are having sex but really, it's all talk and no action," admits 12-year-old Justin, offering a rare glimpse into the world of boyhood bravado.

"It's true," he says, crediting the straight talk he gets from his parents with enabling him to sift through schoolyard rumours, which he claims are more fiction than fact.

"I can tell from what my parents tell me that those guys are just lying," he says, sitting among a group of peers at Scadding Court Community Centre in downtown Toronto.

The revelation inspires both silence and snickering. The boys stare at the ground, quiet and motionless, while the girls chuckle in disbelief.

"There's this image that all guys wanna do is have sex and that only girls can fall in love ... that we just wanna throw away girls," says an "insulted" Justin.

His comment draws a roar of laughter from a small gaggle of girls who believe steadfastly that guys are "true players.''

True dreamers is more like it, says Justin. "With all my friends, it's all about having sex with Britney Spears. All they wanna do is get it on with her," he laughs, rolling his eyes. "These guys know nothing about the world and they're saying they wanna have sex with girls?"

A 14-year-old boy seated next to him agrees, saying most of his classmates "talk the talk but don't walk the walk."

"Guys just care about a girl's bootie," two 13-year-old girls pipe up, provoking a defensive strike by the boys.

"I see girls come to school and they say they want equal rights but then they have on a shirt that says `Come and get it.' They're giving mixed messages," says a genuinely confused Justin.

He then directs his attack at boys who wear equally provocative shirts with the words "Big Pimp" on it. "They're weirdos. They don't even know what it means."

The group of seven girls and three boys, aged 12 to 14, attend different inner-city schools, but their experiences, or lack thereof, are similar. There seems to be little more than kissing, touching and unsolicited grabbing going on after school. Only a few can list a handful of people actually "doing the nasty."

It's true there are more teens who are sexually active than ever before, but the median age of first intercourse for both men and women ? 17 ? has remained the same for more than three decades.

According to a study published last year in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, finding a 14-year-old who's had vaginal intercourse is rare; fewer than 2 per cent have had consensual sex by that age.

"It's like drinking or smoking," explains Justin, whose name, along with the other children's, has been changed. "They say they're doing it just to be cool, but they're not. If they're lucky, they're making out.

"We see all these messages from the media, so we think we have to do what we see. We just wanna be normal and who doesn't wanna be normal? The media's a big issue when it comes to sexuality ? we relate our whole life to it."

But sometimes behaving "normally" just doesn't feel natural, he says.

Sandra, 13, admits it's not love or lust stirring their hormones, it's simply curiosity. "You see people all day kissing, so you want to know how it feels."

Yet despite the onslaught of sexual imagery bombarding these kids, they seem more interested in what a tongue feels like in their mouth than in having any other part of their body penetrated.

"Young women today seem to be developing quicker. Some 12-year-olds look like they're 16 ... but I don't think they're growing up faster," says Bridget Sinclair, a youth worker at St. Stephen's Community Centre in Toronto's Kensington Market, who runs sexual education workshops for youth aged 12 to 18.

"There's a difference between looking sexual and being sexual ... The reason they're more sexualized is because of the media's influence. Through movies and music, that's where they're told their power is."

The media's push to sexualize children can be confusing and potentially dangerous, says Lyba Spring, a sexual health educator with Toronto's public health department. "Kids are encouraged to be sexual and it has ramifications with their thinking of what sex is. They're being pushed into actions and are asking, `Do I have to have sex?'

Speak Out: Tell us what you think about sex, clothes and playing it cool
"I remember being very young and having a boyfriend and it was perceived as being cute, very innocent. But kids now are so aware of the sexual activity that goes along with being a couple."

A lack of research on non-coital sexual behaviour in adolescents makes it tough to understand the headspace of young teenagers, says Spring. After all, which school or parent will let their children be probed with sexually loaded questions? Instead, she relies on anecdotal information gleaned from 20 years of teaching children as young as 10.

"I wish we had good stats on whether they're having oral sex, holding hands, making out or fondling. They're asking the questions, but it's not clear what their attitudes are," she says.

In Grades 5 and 6, if kids are doing anything sexual, it's mostly kissing, she says. By Grades 7 and 8 that usually escalates to making out, complete with touching and fondling.

"But in every school, there's a pocket of Grade 8s having intercourse and oral sex," says Spring, adding they're the risk-takers who also smoke, drink and do drugs.

"There's a `just-do-it' attitude with some teens. Some engage in sexual activity because they're bored, it's cheap entertainment ... At that age, we don't think girls are getting much out of intercourse but they're taking risks with pregnancy and STDs.

"Girls are unlikely to enjoy it. Teenage boys are notoriously quick."

She encourages young women to postpone intercourse until they're 18 because their cervix isn't fully mature, and to stick to kissing and other no-risk or low-risk behaviour.

For boys, her message is simple: If you're not going to use condoms consistently, then you're not ready for sex.

The advice may sound overly simplistic but after all, she says, she's a civil servant teaching health, not a moral educator. That job, she says, is best left to parents.

Back at Scadding Court, children complain that positive sexual education is stymied by parents too petrified to broach the issue and teachers too timid to even say the word "sex." Even worse, they say, because it's only mandatory until Grade 9, most of them won't get the information they need when they're actually having sex.

"My parents don't talk to me about it because they don't think I know about it," says 13-year-old Anna. "And I can't talk to my teacher because he's a man and he's married. He'd freak out."

Her speech is peppered with sexual lingo that seems to make her an authority, but it quickly becomes evident she's not. She flippantly uses epithets such as slut, "ho" and tramp, and uses sexual terms without knowing what they mean.

She later asks the girl seated beside her, "What's anal sex? Is that lesbian sex?" The girl shrugs and nods her head as though in agreement. And when the topic of AIDS comes up, she's surprised to learn that women can contract it.

Most of them complain that sex ed in schools usually amounts to a Just Say No lesson, loaded with dreaded references to sexually transmitted infections. However, they can rhyme off a litany of places to get free condoms, proving the safe sex message isn't getting lost ? though none of them have any use for condoms aside from using them as water balloons.

But the stuff they'd really like to know, like how to be a good kisser, just isn't part of the curriculum.

"You can't talk to religious leaders or doctors or anyone with a title and ask how do you do this," says Justin, laughing at the absurdity of such a suggestion. "When I talk to friends it scares me because they don't know anything."

The void of sexual information left by parents and teachers, they say, is being filled with a lot of misinformation from friends, media and especially the Internet. Gone are the days of youngsters smuggling smut into someone's dingy basement for a peek. Today, a worldwide collection is only a click away, all from the comfort of one's family room. And judging from the reaction Justin gets while telling a story of searching for information on the Canadian Air Cadets, only to end up at a site of naked women saluting the flag, it's a reality that grosses most of these kids out.

When it comes to sex, teens have always felt more comfortable turning to their peers for information, says Emma McDermott, a 16-year-old volunteer with the Teen Sex InfoLine. The telephone counselling service (416-961-3200) is run by Planned Parenthood of Toronto and provides youth with a confidential and anonymous way of getting the lowdown on sex.

"Sex is such a taboo subject. All the imagery in the media trivializes the subject or scares people," says McDermott, who along with 25 other youth, is trained to answer calls and reply to e-mails.

"I love telling it like it is, telling it straight ... On the phone, people are free, it's an open positive vibe, the barriers come down."

Younger teens tend to ask about the mechanics of certain sexual actions while older teens have questions about birth control and sexually transmitted infections. The toughest calls, she says, are from distressed teenagers questioning their sexual orientation, "who've been told the feelings they're having are wrong and they're freaking out."

The problem with sex ed, says youth worker Sinclair is often it's not inclusive, is too technical and impersonal. "They never feel like they're being talked to about sex directly. What's taught is the safe stuff, the stuff that's not too racy."

Health educator Spring admits that even she gets flak from kids for not delving deeper into the pleasures of sex. So she's doing her best to respond tactfully without the titillation.

"When kids ask questions like, `How do you give a blowjob?' My job isn't to say put your tongue here and your hand here. My job is to get them to communicate with each other about pleasure and what pleases them.

"They have a right to know about it," she says, even if they're not using it. "Sex isn't just about plumbing and diseases."

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