Two years ago in this space, we examined a study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control looking at the relationship between sexual identity, sexual activity and high-risk behaviors in teens, with a focus on the data examine the relationship between sexual activity and suicide. The CDC released updated data several weeks ago from the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey of approximately 15,000 teens, completed in December 2017. Results from the 2017 survey suggest that many high school students are engaged in health-risk behaviors associated with the leading causes of death among young people in the United States. During the 30 days before the survey…
- 39.2% of high school students nationwide (among the 62.8% who drove a car or other vehicle during the 30 days before the survey) had texted or e-mailed while driving.
- 29.8% reported current alcohol use, and 19.8% reported current marijuana use.
- 14.0% of students had taken prescription pain medicine without a doctor’s prescription or differently than how a doctor told them to use it one or more times during their life.
- During the 12 months before the survey, 7.4% had attempted suicide.
- Nationwide, 39.5% of students had ever had sexual intercourse and 9.7% had had sexual intercourse with four or more persons during their life.
- 8.8% of high school students had smoked cigarettes and 13.2% had used an electronic vapor product on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey.
- Forty-three percent played video or computer games or used a computer for 3 or more hours per day on an average school day for something that was not school work.
The prevalence of many health-risk behaviors is significantly higher among sexual minority students compared with heterosexual students. The reasons for this difference aren’t completely clear, but trauma appears to be a significant factor.
According to the survey, sexual minority youth are four times more likely to have been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want tocompared to heterosexual youth, three times more likely to have experienced sexual violence in the last twelve months compared to the general population, and two to three times more likely to have experienced physical or sexual dating violence.
Suicidal thinking and the severity of suicidal behavior are HIGHLY correlated with sexual activity in teens. Students who experienced sexual contact with the same or both sexes are approximately 294% more likely to report having attempted suicide compared to students who had sexual contact with the opposite sex only and 567% more likely to report having attempted suicide than students with no sexual contact. Boys who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were 232% more likely to report having attempted suicide compared to those with no sexual contact. Girls who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were 188% more likely to report having attempted suicide than those with no sexual contact.
Since the time of our original post two years ago, I’ve continued to be struck by the association between early involvement in sexual activity and an increased risk for anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and suicidal behavior among the kids who pass through our practice. I wish parents, educators and church leaders would come to recognize that many teenagers aren’t remotely prepared to manage the intensity of emotions that results when relationships become sexualized. Those who ultimately commit suicide represent casualties of the sexual revolution.
There are lots of limitations to the conclusions that can few drawn from the study. We can’t tell from the way the data is presented whether suicidal behavior increases as the total number of sexual contacts increases. We don’t have a breakdown that shows suicide statistics comparing rates between heterosexual and sexual minority youth who have been victims of sexual violence. We don’t know whether rates of suicidal behavior “normalize” among teens with same-sex attraction who refrain from sexual activity.
Some thoughts that crossed my mind after reviewing this study…
Maybe we need to think about mental illness as a sexually transmitted disease, at least in the teen population? My guess as to why we don’t think of it that way is that there isn’t a way to make sex more safe from an emotional standpoint. Condoms don’t protect against emotional trauma.
Do our kids need to develop resilience and learn self-control more than they need “safe spaces?” When one in fourteen high schoolers reports having attempted suicide at least once during the preceding twelve months, clearly millions of kids are struggling to cope with the emotional challenges of adolescence. We’ve made significant strides in reducing smoking rates in teenagers by emphasizing the effects upon health and laws that make it more difficult to access cigarettes. Does our suicide crisis necessitate we make a similar effort to reduce sexual activity in teens?
We need a #MeToo movement to protect teens from sexual violence – especially teens who are members of sexual minorities. Maybe we need to consider raising the age of sexual consent? Maybe our more progressive churches led by members of sexual minorities could take the lead in changing attitudes regarding “coming of age” experiences between adults and LGBTQ youth? How is it acceptable in 2018 that a movie glorifying sexual predation and abuse can not only be nominated for, but win Academy awards?
I came away from this study impressed by the need for pastors and church leaders who work with youth to become more trauma-informed. One in fourteen high school students (and more than one in five sexual minority youth) have experienced forced intercourse, and one in ten (three in ten among sexual minority youth) have been victims of sexual violence. The results of this study suggest that a better understanding of trauma is essential to those serving all kids – especially kids with same sex attraction– in youth ministry settings.
Finally, how is it still socially acceptable in this day and age for advertisers and social media platforms to promote sexual behavior in youth when a clear association exists between sexual behavior and suicide? Hats off to Abercrombie and Hollister for getting rid of their shirtless models. And how is it OK for parents to facilitate opportunities for their teens to engage in sexual contact with other teens? How are “coed sleepovers” for teens acceptable? How is it OK for the nation’s “paper of record” to celebrate the sexualized relationships of teens in the pages of its’ magazine?
In the midst of a culture that puts great pressure on teens and adults to define themselves through their sexual attractions and prowess, the church has the ability to introduce our youth to a better – and safer better way of discovering their true identity!.
Know a family impacted by disability in need of help finding a local church? Encourage them to register for Key for Families. We can help connect families with local churches prepared to offer faith, friendship and support, while providing them with encouragement though our Facebook communities. Refer a friend today!