The Sex Lives of Our Teens“Just talking about sex is a taboo topic for many adults. But young people are talking about it in their discipleship group. The kids are on it. They don’t want to stop talking about it.”

Those words, from a Christian youth worker who participated in a 2008 study conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTP), sum up the precarious spot that many urban parents, churches, and youth organizations find themselves in today when it comes to the topic of sex and the teenagers under their watch.

Do you know the difference between “shorty” and “wifey”? If your youth group refers to a certain girl as a “set out ho,” do you know what they mean? You overhear kids in your church’s afterschool program describe one of their associates as “trysexual.” What are they talking about? Welcome to the new reality of Black teenage sexuality.

A 2004 study conducted by Motivational Educational Entertainment (MEE) Productions, Inc., This is My Reality: An Inside Look at Black Urban Youth Sexuality and the Role of Media (referred to throughout as “the MEE study”), pulls back the curtain on the sexual attitudes, practices, and subculture of urban Black youth. [Editor’s Note: Data and statistics in this article come from the MEE study unless otherwise noted. While the results of this 2004 study are still relevant today, see “Related Resources” below for more recent studies.]

The kids that the MEE interviewers spoke to and surveyed for these studies live in some of this country’s largest metropolitan areas–places like Los Angeles and Philadelphia–and probably would remind you of teenagers you’ve seen portrayed in movies like Boyz in the Hood or You Got Served. Poverty, absentee fathers, and homelessness are prevalent. But unlike those we see in movies, these teenagers are all too real, and they send a startling message about what it means to be Black, young, and sexually active today. A message that the Black church, and those ministering in urban areas, need to hear loud and clear.

Relationships That Ruin

When I was a teenager, back in the ’80s, we dated one person at a time. Anyone who did otherwise was frowned upon and eventually wound up dateless. We weren’t concerned about getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or disease (STD), we just didn’t think messing around on your steady girlfriend or boyfriend was right.

The sexual subculture of today’s teenagers not only allows for this kind of “serial sex,” but accepts that dynamic as a hardcore fact of their world. One teenage boy describes it this way: “For me there’s two sets of girls–there’s the girl you talk to, you’re cool with, and then there’s the other girl you call up just to ‘get some’ [have sex].” The first girl he describes holds the status of “wifey”–the steady girlfriend who is respected and taken care of. The girl used for sex is “shorty,” and she receives no relational benefits; she knows to expect physical interaction only. This type of arrangement is seriously damaging adolescents’ ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships.

Young boys are treating girls like property, humiliating and impersonalizing them with categorization. They have even coined a phrase that describes their “rights” in these young women. A “set out ho” is a girl who is the “property” of primarily one boy, but whom he can, at will, “share” with his friends. You only have to listen to a rap song, watch almost any BET video, or visit any of the underground hip hop websites to see this phenomenon demonstrated.

At the same time, teenage girls are learning to manipulate and jockey for superior position if they want to be treated well. A related consequence is a deep mistrust among teenage girls. This dynamic might explain why, according to a recent Chicago Tribune report, some teen girls blamed the pop star Rihanna for the alleged physical abuse she received from her boyfriend, singer Chris Brown. She must have done something to provoke the attack, many of them assumed. These young women consider each other necessary adversaries, because they never know when their best friend might become their boyfriend’s “shorty.”

The Absence of Abstinence

Unfortunately, abstinence and marriage–concepts that would greatly improve their relationships–are not messages these adolescents want to hear. They do not see Mom and Dad together, and if they do it’s not a successful relationship that they want to emulate. Furthermore, the male-female relationships they see among other adults in their neighborhoods don’t last and are characterized by infidelity, violence, and abandonment.

“We teach abstinence before marriage,” says one youth worker in the 2008 NCPTP study, “but a lot of these kids have never seen a healthy marriage and it’s not a reality for them.”

Is it any wonder then that our Christian advice to save sex for marriage sounds disconnected, unrealistic, and almost insensitive to many young people? Why save yourself for something that’s not going to happen? Their hopelessness and cynicism is palpable:

I’ve seen a lot of marriages where there’s cheating–that’s why I ain’t getting married. – Los Angeles female MEE study participant

Love don’t get that deep where you gotta put it on paper. I’m gonna be a bachelor. – New Orleans male MEE study participant

We weren’t made to be with one woman, because God wouldn’t have given us this much sperm. – Los Angeles male MEE study participant

I don’t think you necessarily have to wait until you’re married [to have sex]. – Unidentified MEE study participant

I see no future for myself–so I have to get what I can now. – Unidentified MEE study participant

Most people feel they ain’t gonna live that long, so they might as well have their fun on Earth. – Unidentified MEE study participant

“Just say no” has devolved into “Might as well say yes.”

In addition to relationships that teach and perpetuate destructive behaviors, today’s Black urban youth are also pushing the envelope in their sexual practices. Anything goes, and sometimes the riskier the better.

Next week, in Part 2 of this special series, I’ll explore some of the risky sexual behaviors taking place among urban youth and the double-edged sword of sex education in our public school systems.


• Urban Youth Workers Institute Focus Group Survey, October 2008
The purpose of these focus groups was twofold: (1) to learn from youth workers about the ethnically diverse teens they serve and to explore teens’ attitudes and beliefs about sex, relationships, teen pregnancy, and parenting; and (2) to hear from youth workers themselves about unplanned pregnancy among their 20-something peers.

• Black Youth Project, June 2007
This project examines the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth ages 15 to 25, exploring how these factors and others influence their decision-making, norms, and behavior in critical domains such as sex, health, and politics.

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