It's pretty clear that the flood of sexuality — whether online, in print or on screen — passes in full frontal view of those voracious media consumers: teenagers.
Which might suggest that adolescents are having sex as frequently as they download a song — except they aren't, according to the latest research.
Since 1988, the percentage of 15- to 19-year-olds who have had sexual intercourse has dropped from 60 percent of males and 51 percent of females to slightly more than 40 percent of both groups, according to a recently released survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But to some teens, the issues may be more nuanced and complex — and still cause parental hand-wringing.
Consider students in professor Cary Schawel's human sexuality class at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. On a recent morning, nearly 70 percent of them reported having sex between the ages of 15 and 19.
Welcome to the tangled universe of teen sexuality.
"I look at this group, and they seem so young and inexperienced," said Carla Serantoni, who has taught health education at Lane Tech High School in Chicago for 13 years, "but that doesn't mean that they are."
In other findings from the CDC survey, teens who report having sex for the first time are using contraception much more than they were two decades ago.
The survey, which included interviews of 4,662 teenagers between 2006 and 2010, yielded other notable results:
•Slightly more than half of the 15- to 19-year-old males said their first sexual intercourse was with a steady dating partner, compared with about 70 percent of females. Those figures have remained relatively unchanged for years.
•The percentages of teens who reported having their first sexual encounter with someone they had "just met" or whom they were "just friends" with remained relatively unchanged for both genders: about 15 percent for females, about 30 percent for males.
•About 41 percent of women who had reported having sex as teens said they "really wanted it to happen" at the time. Eleven percent said they "really didn't." Nearly 63 percent of men reported they were enthusiastic about their first sexual encounter, compared with 5 percent who said they didn't want it to happen.
The complexity of the subject was on display in Schawel's class at Oakton. Many of the teenagers and young 20-somethings were surprised by some results from the CDC report. A survey of the 26 students showed that most said they had had sexual intercourse between ages 15 and 19.
One reason the statistics indicated a drop in sexual intercourse may have been that the CDC researchers didn't include young-enough kids, said Kevin Kordvani, of Northbrook, and several classmates.
"When I was younger, sex was (talked about), but it wasn't that big a deal until end of junior high or beginning of high school," said Kordvani, 22. "Now I'm hearing it's big in the beginning of junior high. That's 11 years old."
Kordvani said he had his first sexual intercourse at about 15, after pressure from his girlfriend. He said he believes the level of never-married adolescents having sex probably is closer to 50 percent. Others in class agreed.
Of his first sexual encounter, Kordvani said he "was definitely too young" and felt as if he may have been emotionally scarred from it.
Dasha Korshukova, 19, of Glenview, said the roughly 42 percent of teens having sex "was hard to believe because there's so much stuff" in the media that pushes teens toward sex. She said her first sexual intercourse occurred at 15 with a boy she had known for about a year and had dated for nearly a month.
As a young girl, Korshukova said, she recalled episodes of the popular "Friends" TV show "talking about penis size and sex." Sexual influences have "gotten worse since then," she said, pointing to the movie "True Blood" and the TV show "Californication" as recent examples of entertainment that promotes sexual promiscuity among young people.
"I look back on it and think about how stupid it was," she said. "We had no idea what we were doing."
Other classmates illustrated the range of teens' experiences with sex.
Caitlin Abelson, 20, of Morton Grove, said she first had sex when she was 16 with a steady boyfriend, "and I learned, 'Wow, I don't like guys.' It was very awkward."
Another student, a 19-year-old from Park Ridge, preferred to use only his first name, Will.
He said he hasn't had sexual intercourse yet and started his first serious romantic relationship about a month ago.
"If I could change it, I probably would," Will said of his virginity. "She's fine with it, and I'm OK with it, too, because I'm with her."
The CDC declines to theorize on reasons for the sexual activity it quantified in the survey, said Gladys Martinez, lead author of the survey report, released this month.
"If we don't have the right data for an answer," she said, "I'm not going to make something up."
The views of the community college students might reflect their own experiences but not accurately portray what's happening elsewhere, Martinez said.
A young person's perception of the scope of sexual activity among his or her peers often is "inflated," she added.
"They tend to perceive what's happening around them as what's going on everywhere else," Martinez said. "And what's going on around them may not be representative of what's going on across the country."
The CDC report, based on face-to-face interviews and checked against other teen sex studies, showed something of a paradox: Despite research indicating the pervasiveness of sexual imagery, the percentage of adolescents having sex has dropped since 1988.
At the same time, the use of contraception at first-time sex — 78 percent for females and 85 percent for males — has increased sharply from 1988, even though it has remained relatively unchanged since 2002.
The reasons for the new trends may be related to the AIDS epidemic, said Dr. John Santelli, an adolescent-medicine specialist at Columbia University and president-elect of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine.
Starting around 1991, AIDS awareness led to a delay in the age of people having their first sexual intercourse, Santelli said. That was about the time when the U.S. "saw a big jump in condom use" among the young, he added.
"What adults forget is there's a new group of teenagers every few years," Santelli said. "You have to keep reiterating the message. I don't think we've done such a good job of that."
Health educators said the earlier steady drop in the percentage of teens having sex also may be related to how schools teach sex education.
Lane Tech's Serantoni said teachers "try to have honest conversations with (students) about all the goals that they're trying to focus on now and how those can become complicated if they become sexually active at an early age or fall in love."
Serantoni senses teens at Lane Tech are becoming increasingly disciplined and focused on academics, which makes her think they are less sexually active.
Lane Tech and other Chicago public high schools used to emphasize abstinence, educators said. But in Lane Tech's case, parents requested education in contraception, and the school tweaked its approach, Serantoni said.
The curriculum remains "abstinence-based," she said, "because of so many complications" associated with sexual activity. But Lane Tech also teaches birth control and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, Serantoni said.
"As one educator explained to me, you have to know how to fly the plane before you take off," she said.Copyright © 2015, CT Now