When most adults think of preteen girls, they picture children in those appealing "tween" years-full of the innocence and exuberance of childhood but hovering on the lip of the adult world. It's a time when girls may begin to have vague, idealized dreams of far-off love and romance, we think, but when they're just as likely to play with dolls, dash through sprinklers with their dogs and spend their afternoons doing homework and talking about their day to their stay-at-home moms.
That's not how Shawna, now 17, remembers her preteen years. At 12, she says, she was a student at Booker Middle School, and she spent most afternoons hanging out with her 14-year-old boyfriend. Sometimes they would go to the park or the movies, but often they went to Shawna's house to play video games or watch TV. One day, when her mother was at work, Shawna and her boyfriend started fooling around, and the girl decided to just go with the flow. They had sex. Afterwards: a curious letdown. The skinny little 12-year-old with the soft voice-whose sexual education was limited to a fifth-grade video on menstruation-wondered what all the fuss had been about. She didn't really want a serious relationship, she says, but she had sex a few more times because her boyfriend wanted to. A few months later, she started feeling queasy, and her mother took her to the doctor. Shawna was five months pregnant. Her mother wanted her to have an abortion.
"I told her no," says Shawna. "I said, there's girls much younger than me having sex. I figured maybe it's not as bad as being 10 and pregnant."
Welcome to the brave new world of Sarasota's preteen girls. It's a world where eight-year-olds play with dolls that wear navel-baring hip huggers and show off plastic cleavage, and where nine-year-olds wear makeup and shop for thong underwear, giggling about their plans to flip up their skirts and flash it at the boys in class the next day. It's a world where taunts of "fatty" follow the chubby 10-year-old onto school buses, and even slender 12-year-olds try to live on Diet Coke and salads because they're desperate to look like Jennifer Aniston. Some 11-year-olds with their heads together on the bus probably are talking about their homework, but others may be discussing how they can please their boyfriends yet remain virgins if they perform oral sex. It's a world shared by preteen girls all over the country-and increasingly, around the globe, as little girls even in such traditionally protective cultures as India report increased levels of sexual activity, eating disorders and anxiety.
It's also a world that's a curious paradox of isolation and accessibility. Many children in Sarasota come home to large, empty houses separated from neighbors and the community by gates and busy thoroughfares but connected to the entire world via Internet modems and television. As a result, preteens may spend their afternoons in an atmosphere thick with sexual messages but bereft of adult attention.
"These kids have it so much tougher than I had it," says Barbara Brownell, who has taught parenting classes at the Manatee County Exchange Club Family Partnership Center for 27 years. She remembers riding around her familiar neighborhood on her Schwinn bicycle when she was a preteen, completely secure in her life and her values. Her parents were confident about right and wrong, and most of the neighbors shared their beliefs. "My neighborhood was looking out for me. What I see happening is that our teen-agers have a lot of information, but not a lot of experience, and many mistake information for experience."
Sure, teen-agers have always been notorious for raging hormones and sexual experimentation. But until recently, that sort of activity had been the territory of older teens. What's shocking parents and worrying professionals who work with girls is how early the kids are starting now-eight percent of American students have had sex before the age of 13, according to a Centers for Disease Control nationwide survey. And no longer is early sexual promiscuity the mark of a child with low esteem or a troubled background. "There's only two girls in my class, including me, who have never kissed a guy," says 13-year-old Emily, a Booker Middle School student. Those 10-, 11- and 12-year-old girls who are casually dispensing sexual favors in middle schools-some call it the "blow job epidemic"-include student council members and honor-roll students; and while the majority of girls still don't participate in such activities, many will tell you it's "no big deal" if others do.
"Society has made everything so open and available to children," says Booker Middle School counselor Carla Wiggs, who runs one of three girls' mentoring programs in that school to combat the trend and keep middle school girls' focus on education and their future.
"Children are raising themselves and are more independent and unsupervised," says Wiggs. "I don't think the girls really understand the consequences of promiscuity. They don't understand the seriousness of being sexually active. They may have knowledge, but they are still little children."
"It's a problem because it forces girls to have coping skills way earlier than they are physically, cognitively, and emotionally ready," says Bradenton psychologist Debra Carter, president of the Florida Institute of Cooperative Parenting. "Society is nudging girls in directions before they are ready."
Other Sarasota professionals who work with youth agree that early sexual activity presents real dangers to young girls, exposing them to adult situations and pressures when they are too young to cope-and most vulnerable.
Instead of enjoying the last precious years of childhood, they're in the grips of confusing physiological changes and mixed messages from society. Some psychologists warn that the ever-sinking threshold between childhood and adulthood will extract a bitter toll, damaging the psyches of a whole future generation of women.
When Britney replaces Barbie
Before Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, oral sex was not part of the national dialogue. But that scandal marked a turning point; after months of play-by-play coverage of the oral sex habits of the President, even young children knew all about the subject. The entire affair made a telling statement on this society's tendency to both glorify and vilify sex, and it probably helped to further trivialize-and popularize-such behavior.
Even adults can have trouble sifting through our culture's paradoxical relationship with sex, but the mixed messages can overwhelm an 11- or 12-year-old. In middle school, girls are warned not to have sex because they will get pregnant or contract AIDS. Teachers stress the importance of self-worth, abstinence and education. Then the girls walk outside their classroom and into a discussion of the latest episode of Are You Hot? (a television show featuring a panel of judges rating the body parts of scantily clad contestants). They mimic the bump and grind of MTV music videos at middle school dances and master the nuances of hip-hop vocabulary-calling each other "ho," "pimp daddy" or "playah"-and intending those terms as compliments.
"There's a broad societal pressure to be more mature faster, academically and socially," says psychologist Carter. "The pop media image is portraying a false notion of what you're supposed to do and look like. Look at the magazines, at MTV. Commercials for jeans, socks, deodorant. they're all very highly sexualized. In the '60s, some of these ads would have been considered pornography. It's peer pressure with a sexual overtone."
Girls are told via the sexually packaged pop star brigade-think Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera-that the ideal fashion style exposes a broad swath of bare, toned stomach, plenty of cleavage and maybe a glimpse of a skin-tight thong. Ginna Downing, executive director of the Child Protection Center, Inc. in Sarasota, says that when she goes shopping with her 11-year-old daughter, she has a tough time finding clothes that aren't provocative. Many video games feature explicit sexual imagery and adult concepts; even the popular Bratz dolls, which are marketed to young girls, send a sultry message with their tight, revealing clothing.
"Barbie's at least an adult," says Downing. "She has a job or goes to college. [Bratz dolls] are a very sexual fashion doll clearly intended to be a teen-ager."
The pressure on young girls is not just from the outside; their bodies are actually maturing faster than ever before. A 1997 study of 17,000 girls ages 3 through 12 revealed that 6.7 percent of white girls and 27.2 percent of African-American girls are showing signs of puberty by age seven-they are either growing breasts or pubic hair, or both. The trend has attracted lots of attention but no consensus about why, although theories range from increased body weight to exposure to growth hormones in meat.
During puberty, many girls feel confused about what is going on in their bodies, and about what it means to be female. Some researchers have found that girls this age begin losing the spontaneity and spark of their elementary school years, and some deliberately submerge their math, science and athletic skills. Girls who previously thought nothing of romping with a football on a muddy field may think differently now that attracting the opposite sex and being "feminine" have come into play.
Girls are also starting to move away from their parents. They relationships with their mothers can swing wildly from affection to antagonism, and many fathers of pubescent girls also subtly change their behavior toward their daughters at this time, often drawing away a bit and withdrawing physical affection. Yet experts stress that girls this age still need parental involvement and guidance.
"Time and time again, kids list parents as the number one reason that they don't get involved in drugs and early sexual activity," says Brownell. "Even 16-year-olds whose parents think they don't like them anymore."
Yet with more single-parent households and homes where both parents work, many girls have less supervision and guidance than their parents did. Not only does this make it harder for them to incorporate and live by their parents' values; it can also, says Pat Diodati, curriculum manager for Planned Parenthood of Sarasota, cause some to turn to sex.
"They get attention from older guys; they become easy prey, especially if the girl's self-esteem is not terrific, if she's not getting love, attention in a positive way from adults in the family or community," she says. "They're just easily victimized or drawn into relationships."
What a girl wants: Not always what a girl needs
Sometimes late at night KT Curran, the producer of Planned Parenthood's Teen Source Theatre, gets frantic phone calls from kids she knows, begging for help with emergency contraception or sobbing that they think they have a sexually transmitted disease. Curran works with some of the city's most talented young people, some in programs for gifted and exceptional students, and many from affluent, educated families.
Like other children in wealthy Sarasota, these teens can grapple with tremendous pressures, says Curran, including the pressure of getting top test scores and into the right colleges, and of generally feeling that they have to be "perfect." She hears girls casually discuss how they need liposuction and chin implants, attitudes that are easy to pick up when their mothers turn to plastic surgeons to iron out wrinkles and sags. Girls can see sex as a way of confirming their attractiveness and desirability; but casual sex with a variety of partners, says Curran, is more likely to leave them feeling empty and like objects than to build a lasting sense of self-worth.
Curran, who has worked with teens throughout her career, says there's a pattern to girls who experiment early with sex.
"They have a hardened edge, a lack of trust in people in general. They have a chip on the shoulder, and a high tendency to substance abuse. They become jaded, unhappy little adults," she says.
Early promiscuity is democratic, not restricted to a particular socio-economic background, to "wild" kids, to children from broken homes. The bored rich kid, the lonely preteen from a bad side of town, the attention-seeking middle-class student, all fall prey to this easy avenue for hormonal venting, exploration and momentary gratification.
"In my day, those were things bad girls did," says Detective Lynn Thompson, who has worked the sexual abuse beat at the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department for 28 years. "Now we have girls doing it behind bleachers, going into alleyways, movie theaters without blinking an eyelid. Where does it come from? From being totally desensitized."
Thompson says young girls are easily manipulated into situations that are illegal, often by older boys or even men. She sees 11-year-olds who insist that their sexual acts were consensual, and has to explain to them that sex with anyone under 12 constitutes capital sexual battery. "They don't know what [any of] it means. But they do it."
When Sandra, now a 19-year-old mother, first had intercourse at 14, the Macintosh Middle School student didn't realize she had lost her virginity. Now she and her sister, Christina, also a teen mother enrolled in the school district's CYESIS program for teen-age parents, often visit middle schools to talk about the problems of early sexuality-and encounter the same ignorance. "Can you lose a baby by shaking a hot can of Coke?" the middle school students have asked Christina and Sandra. "Can you lose a baby from bouncing on the floor?" "Do your breasts get bigger after you have sex?"
"They think it's a joke; they don't care," says Christina. "When you're 14, you think, it's not going to happen to me. You're in denial about everything."
At the Girls Inc. office on Tuttle, volunteers and trained professionals teach girls how to resist peer pressure, handle finances, deal with media stereotypes and make good decisions so they can grow up "strong, smart and bold," as the organization's motto says. The results are telling, says Stephanie Feltz, executive director of Girls Inc.
"We brag that none of our girls have become pregnant," Feltz says. "They really have pride in themselves."
Pride, self-worth and self-esteem, says Feltz, are often victims of early sexual activity. Yet these values are essential to making good career decisions and developing into healthy adults. Sherry Watts has been involved with Girls Inc. since she was 12, when her mother ran a branch of the organization in Tennessee. Today, she's a Sarasota Girls Inc. board member and past national vice president; and she says that those values she absorbed from the organization helped her become the successful woman, wife and mother she is today.
"If we change a girl's life, we change the whole family," says Watts.
Perhaps it isn't even necessary to reach that far; perhaps it's enough to protect a young girl's innocence and all too fleeting childhood. Shawna says she missed out on the last few years of childhood, on going to the beach or the movies, spending time with friends. Her mother is stricter now and doesn't let her go out much- and besides, she rarely has the time to just hang out now, or the money to get a babysitter.
Sandra is luckier; her boyfriend, now 25, stuck by her. They rent an apartment together and she plans to go to nursing school. Although she can't imagine life without her four-year-old son, she wishes he would have come along later in life.
"I was so stupid," Sandra says, wistfully. "When I see myself at 14, I wish I could slap myself a couple of times."
A statistical look at preteen and teen behavior.
o More young girls smoke now than ever (one in eight 8th graders in 1991; one in five 8th graders by 1996); and girls ages 12 to 18 now are as likely to drink and use drugs as boys.
o 50 percent of high school students have had sex by graduation; 8 percent before 13.
o In 1992, 62 percent of all reported rape cases involved girls younger than 17.
o For 2001, In Florida, 16 percent of high school students have had four or more sex partners; 87 percent of those who had sex during the three months prior to the survey did not use birth control pills.
o In Sarasota County in 2001, seven babies were born to girls ages 10-14.
Statistics are from the Centers for Disease Control annual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report, the United States Department of Health and Social Services and the Sarasota County Health Department.