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With 'Friends' Like These
Healthy Respect welcomes NBC's sudden focus on teen sex,
challenges media to respond by responsibly reducing sexual content

“Friends with benefits” may sound like the name of a new TV sitcom, but for young people today it describes a scenario that has few laugh lines and rarely a happy ending. The phrase refers to a practice whereby young people use “friends” solely for sex, with no commitment, sense of intimacy or permanency. It’s sex simply for the pleasure of the moment, in which both guy and girl agree to use one another. In the world of many young people, this form of “hooking up” is what “friends” do for one another.

The practice was highlighted recently by Katie Couric on the “Today” show, which reported the results of a national survey by NBC and People Magazine of the sexual practices of young teens, aged 13-16. The survey found that 27 percent of young teens have been “sexually active,” with 13 percent having engaged in intercourse and 12 percent in oral sex. In addition, 8 percent of the young teens report having had a “casual sexual relationship,” such as “friends with benefits.”

Healthy Respect welcomes the sudden spotlight on teen sex. We respectfully ask: Where has the media been till now? As New Yorkers serving New York’s young people, we have been dealing with the issue for a long time, offering teens healthy alternatives and positive, life-affirming choices. We call on the media that has trumpeted these statistics to follow through and reduce the amount of explicit sexual content. We also ask that abstinence be portrayed in a more positive manner.

Friends With Benefits’
The media could start with taking a closer look at the “Friends with Benefits” practice. We at Healthy Respect have encountered this “hooking up” mindset among some students in the classroom. Through a curriculum that reaches young people with a positive message they can relate to, Healthy Respect challenges the “hooking up” mentality while instilling self-esteem and self-respect. As one Healthy Respect classroom instructor noted, “While the idea of ‘friends with benefits’ is popular, it doesn’t take a long discussion with young people to find that no one really knows anyone who walked away from the experience emotionally unscathed.”

We at Healthy Respect know that sex, talk about sex and thoughts about sex have been a part of teen life forever. Yet the “friends with benefits” phenomenon marks a change in attitude because it lacks the structure, expectation and safeguards that usually go with traditional dating. Breaking up after a period of dating has always been hard on young hearts; but “hooking up” with multiple partners without any commitment can erode emotional health altogether. In addition, there are the increased dangers of picking up sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), when a “friend with benefits” has been “hooking up” with an unknown number of other “friends.”

‘Multiple Epidemics’
You don’t see the fact mentioned often in the mainstream media, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) used the words “multiple epidemics” in a year 2000 report on sexually transmitted diseases. Yet a lengthy New York Times Magazine article last year that glorified the “friends with benefits” culture, mentioned STDs only in passing in one paragraph. The reader had to be alert to find the hastily listed statistics the Times couldn’t hide: “Female adolescents ages 15 to 19 have the highest incidence of both gonorrhea and chlamydia, and according to the latest C.D.C. figures, 48 percent of new STD cases reported in 2000 occurred among 15- to 24-year-olds.”

The Times failed to give the proper context to the percentages though. Our Healthy Respect staff easily found that the CDC reports 15 million new cases of STDs each year – which means that some 7 million young people are newly infected each year. In all age groups nationwide, there are more than 75 million individuals infected with an STD.

This is an epidemic, indeed. But where are the governmental alarms and front-page headlines? The New York Department of Health reports that about 43 percent of high school and middle school students in New York City had sex in 2003.

The Centers for Disease Control reports: “Despite the fact that STDs are extremely widespread, have severe and sometimes deadly consequences, and add billions of dollars to the nation’s health care costs each year, most people in the United States remain unaware of the risks and consequences of all but the most prominent STDs,” such as HIV/AIDS. The report concludes: there is “not one single STD epidemic but multiple epidemics.”

Clearly, a lot of young lives are at risk. Yet the best that most schools offer is “safer sex,” consisting of outdated sex education that seemed adequate to many people before the onset of this epidemic, and access to condoms that are far from flawless in protecting against sexually transmitted diseases.

Abstinence in the City’
Healthy Respect is honest with young people about sexuality, and young people appreciate the honesty. The fact is that a young person who may not want commitment while “hooking up” still runs the risk of acquiring an unwanted lifetime companion in the form of incurable diseases from AIDS to chlamydia to human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a leading cause of cervical cancer in women.

At Healthy Respect, we talk about STDs not as a scare tactic, but as a reality check. We teach ‘Abstinence in the City’ because it is the best protection for young bodies and tender hearts. We talk about a lot of other things too: self-respect, respect for others, healthy choices and lifestyles, setting and achieving reasonable goals, and academic achievement.

We know that New York’s Kids Deserve Respect – Healthy Respect.