Jessica Stephens (not her real name), a San Francisco mother of four, has heard the term "hooking up" among her teenage sons' friends, but she's just not sure what it means. "Does it mean they're having sex? Does it mean they're having oral sex?"
Teens use the expression hooking up (or "messing around" or "friends with benefits") to describe everything from kissing to having oral sex or intercourse. But it does not mean they are dating.
Hooking up isn't a new phenomenon -- it's been around for at least 50 years. "It used to mean getting together at a party and would include some form of petting and sexual activity," says Lynn Ponton, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls.
Today, hooking up instead of dating has become the norm. About two-thirds of teens say at least some of their friends have hooked up. Nearly 40% say they've had sexual intercourse during a hook-up.
Even Pre-Teens Are Hooking Up
There's also been a rise in heavy petting and oral sex among younger kids -- starting as early as age 12.
Experts say today's busier, less attentive parents and the constant displays of casual sex on TV and in the movies have contributed to the change in teen sexual behavior. "I think young people are getting the message earlier and earlier that this is what everyone is doing," says Stephen Wallace, chairman and CEO of Students Against Destructive Decisions.
Teens also have access to the Internet and text messaging, which impersonalizes relationships and emboldens them to do things they wouldn't dare do in person. "One ninth-grade girl I worked with texted a senior at her school to meet her in a classroom at 7 a.m. to show him that his current girlfriend wasn't as good as she was," says Katie Koestner, founder and education director of Campus Outreach Services. She intended to "show him" with oral sex.
Talking to Teens About Sex
So what can you do to prevent your kids from hooking up? You should start the conversation about sex before they hit the preteen and teen years, when they learn about it from TV or their friends, Wallace says. Clearly, this isn't your parents' "birds and bees" sex talk. You need to recognize that your teens are going to have a sex life and to be totally open and honest about your expectations of them when it comes to sex. That means being clear about what behaviors you are -- and aren't -- OK with them doing online, while text messaging, and during a hook-up. If you're embarrassed, it's OK to admit it. But it's a conversation you need to have.
Other ways to keep the channels of communication open include:
Know what your kids are doing -- who they're emailing, instant messaging, and hanging out with.
Analyze sex in the media: When you watch TV or movies together, use any sexual messages you see as a jumping-off point to start a conversation about sex.
Be curious: When your kids get home from a night out, ask questions: "How was the party? What did you do?" If you're not getting straight answers, then talk with them about trust, their actions, and the consequences.
Avoid accusing your teens of wrongdoing. Instead of asking, "Are you hooking up?" say, "I'm concerned that you might be sexually active without being in a relationship."