1 of 5
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Teenagers at Bingham High School hold hands during a soccer game.

"Sugar, ah honey honey

You are my candy girl

And you've got me wanting you."

Jessica Turner has this playful chorus to the song "Sugar Sugar" by The Archies on her cell phone. The 16-year-old's cheerful voice breaks in: "Hey y'all. It's Jessica. Leave me a message. K. Bye."

Her 18-year-old boyfriend has his own cell phone, too, and he identifies himself on his recording as Eric "The Sexy Beast" Doxey.

Utah teenagers do a lot of talking about sex. They joke about it, they flirt about it, they pretend not to care about it or they brag about how much they are doing it.

Interviews with dozens of teenagers for "The State of Teens" series demonstrate a wide range of attitudes toward dating, sexuality and morality. And although little research is available about the sexual behavior of Utah teens, it seems young people here are following national trends that show the ages for sexual behavior dropping and experimentation on the rise.

The facts about Utah teens and sexuality are as follows:

• Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise among teenagers age 15 to 19. Of the 716 Utahns who are HIV positive, 30 are between age 13 and 19.

• Pregnancies for most teenagers are dropping, but the rates for Utah females younger than 15 are on the rise.

• Utah's Planned Parenthood gives out more of the "morning after" birth control pills every year to women of all ages — including teenagers.

An informal survey of teenagers conducted by the Deseret Morning News showed most parents talk to their teenagers about sex.

And although pregnancy rates among most Utah teens are dropping, counselors and church officials say privately some young women have lost the true intent of "saving themselves for marriage" and are engaged in regular foreplay, "messing around" and oral sex while remaining what they call "technical virgins."

"The youths that I've worked with in the LDS Church know intercourse is wrong," said Cheryl Thompson, a teacher and counselor in the Provo School District.

"They know they should wait based on their religion, but . . . they think oral sex is OK because they haven't actually 'done it.' So they've done every other thing but intercourse."

In May during a special commemoration program of the 175th anniversary of the restoration of the priesthood, President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged priesthood holders to honor women and to avoid sex outside of marriage.

"Never forget that every girl is a daughter of God. There is something divine within her. She is deserving of respect," Hinckley said.

"Have fun together. Yes. Sing and dance, hike and skate, and enjoy the companionship of wonderful young women who are members of the church and keep its standards," he urged. "But draw the line where familiarity comes in. Some girls of weak will and weak ways will lower the bar of behavior. Any such act should make you retreat and avoid what could become a disaster."

But talk to the teenagers in the state trying to straddle the wall of strict beliefs and peer pressure, and a more murky picture of teenage sexual behavior emerges.

"I think a lot of people are doing everything but sex," said Jessica Turner of Bingham High.

Many of her friends are technically virgins but frequently "mess around" and have oral sex. "It's hard when you are put in that situation, because it's hard to say no when everyone else is doing it," Turner said.

She and her boyfriend have been dating for eight months and sometimes everyday kissing gets kind of old. "So as it is with a lot of other things, you want to try new stuff." So Jessica, her boyfriend and their parents have discussed how to refrain from "making out" and letting their sexuality get out of hand.

"It's an everyday discussion in our household about how to handle these situations," said Chris Turner, Jessica's mom, "because teenagers really do think that if they're not actually committing 'the act,' then they can do it."

The Turners sit down with Jessica and Eric so everyone knows the rules and the expectations.

"He knows her curfew. He knows he can't cross that line in the basement between the family room and her bedroom," Chris Turner said. "And they both know if they are sitting out in the car kissing, we're going to be flipping the porch lights on and off."

With both teenagers actively involved in their LDS faith, Turner also advises them to pray if necessary. She does anything to keep the lines of communication open and to help the teens keep their hands off each other.

"Every time she leaves the house, I tell her, 'Remember who you are and what you want to become.' "

A pamphlet titled "For the Strength of Youth, Fulfilling Our Duty to God" includes chapters on dating and "sexual purity." This booklet is distributed to teens and regularly reviewed with them in Young Men and Young Women classes at the ward and stake level, said Dale Bills, a spokesman for the LDS Church.

On Nov. 12, 2000, President Hinckley spoke at a fireside for youths and young adults that was broadcast on the church satellite system. "And now just a word on the most common and most difficult of all problems for you young men and young women to handle. It is the relationship that you have one with another. You are dealing with the most powerful of human instincts," he said.

"The Lord has made us attractive to one another for a great purpose. But this very attraction becomes as a powder keg unless it is kept under control. It is beautiful when handled in the right way. It is deadly if it gets out of hand."

In March 2004, President Hinckley spoke to young women in the church. "As we look out over the world, it seems that morality has been cast aside. The violation of old standards has become common. Studies, one after another, show that there has been an abandonment of time-tested principles. Self-discipline has been forgotten, and promiscuous indulgence has become widespread.

"But, my dear friends, we cannot accept that which has become common in the world. Yours, as members of this church, is a higher standard and more demanding."

Turner knows what her religion requires.

"You can choose to be strong," she said. "But after a while it gets to you, just because you are around other people who are doing it."

Thompson counsels young women to wait, not on religious grounds but for safety reasons. "It's not even about being righteous and living clean," said Thompson, who has three teenage daughters herself.

"It's about respecting your body and taking care of yourself so you don't have to live with these horrible consequences" — consequences that run from the unexpected psychological impact of sexuality to teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

There is the case of a young woman who went to a clinic thinking she had strep throat but actually had gonorrhea of the throat.

The rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea among teens age 15 to 19 increased between 2002 and 2003, according to the Utah State Health Department. And the 1,208 cases of chlamydia among teens make up 32 percent of the state's total cases.

The state does not track numbers of genital herpes or HPV (human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts). It does track the few cases of primary and secondary syphilis that occur in Utah each year.

Amanda Garcia is 17. She has a 3-year-old son and another child on the way. She is married to her children's father, finishing up her high school requirements and taking very seriously her role of student/mother/wife.

Yet she acknowledges her life is very different from those teenagers who are engrossed in school activities, dances, dating.

Money is Garcia's top concern. "We just have to make sure the rent's paid and the bills are paid and the kids have everything they need. There is a lot to pay and not a lot of money to pay for things," she said.

"I have my son and I got married. That's the choice I made."

"Teens are having sex . . . they have since the beginning of time," said Karrie Galloway, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Utah.

"So whether it's a good decision or a bad decision, we need to be open with teens about how to protect ourselves."

In Utah, sex education has always been a tricky and controversial subject. Utah law says questions can't be asked of teens in the schools about most topics that touch on sexuality. The Centers for Disease Control does some surveys, the American Society of Pediatrics does some studies, but it's been a long time since Utah surveyed teenagers on their use of contraception, or the onset of intercourse, or anything else.

So, how do Utah adolescents feel about sexuality? How do Utah young people make sexual decisions? How do they view relationships? What do Utah teens know about sexuality and what do they want to know?

In the Beehive State, it is impossible to tell.

Nationally, one in 10 loses his or her virginity before age 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in four sexually active teens will contract a sexually transmitted disease, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Two-thirds of teenagers are sexually active by the end of high school, and more than one-third say they regret it, according to a 2002 examination of teen sex in U.S. News & World Report.

Sixteen percent of sophomores had four or more sexual partners.

According to Galloway, Utah statistics follow national trends quite closely.

But Utah officials don't know at what age the average Utahn loses his or her virginity, or how many are using the "morning after" pill, or whether the age at which Utah teens are engaging in oral sex is decreasing.

Experts do know sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological or physical effects, Galloway said. But without the lines of communication open, it is impossible to get teenagers the information they need.

"All of this is a disservice to Utah teens," Galloway said.

National researchers agree.

"We need to know what's going on in their lives if we are going to help them," said Adrienne Verrilli from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States office in New York. "It becomes a circular problem."

Here is a "red light" situation: inviting your boyfriend over to the house where you are baby-sitting.

"Feel, Think and Act" instead of "Feel, Act and Regret." That's Nancy Anderson's motto.

Anderson was honored in November by Utah Gov. Olene Walker for her abstinence program, which is the only surefire way for a teenager to protect him or herself.

"Sexuality is who you are, not what you do," Anderson said. "We stress maturity, physical and emotional maturity as well as ethical and cultural maturity."

Anderson started a Utah Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality program six years ago, and she has reached thousands of young people in middle schools, high schools, youth programs, court programs and LDS wards throughout the state since then.

FACT literature says students who go through the program experience a 45 percent lower "transition rate into sexual activity" than other students or delay their sexual intimacy until they are older.

This former schoolteacher is direct and pointed when she talks to young people, many of whom are already sexually active and working to become "reformed."

"You do not need to have sex to get a sexually transmitted disease," she explains. "HPV comes from skin-to-skin contact of the genital area."

She educates young people about the guilt, abandonment, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, forced marriages and all the other ills that result from premarital sex and "messing around."

"The problem is getting worse and worse," she said, citing statistics that show 12,000 teens today contract a sexually transmitted disease in this country. "We think it happens only in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but it's happening all over. It's happening here."

Teenagers can stay out of trouble by attending sports events or concerts instead of more intimate outings. Girls shouldn't date older guys. In fact, Anderson advocates only group dates until age 18. "There really is no need to date alone before you are 18."

So, back to the situational stoplights.

A "green light" is holding hands or going to a school dance. A "yellow light" is a situation where you need to proceed with caution, she said.

"Inviting a boyfriend or girlfriend over while baby-sitting . . . that's a definite red light."


E-mail: lucy@desnews.com

Thursday: Teens and drugs — It's easier than ever to get anything you want.