Freudian fear and cooked statistics

The recent media alert about sex-crazed "tweens" is mostly a lot of hoo-ha with naught behind it.

Published October 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last week, in what has become a rite that recurs every decade, Newsweek magazine sounded the alarm. "Tweens: Are They Growing Up Too Fast?" asked the cover. Yes! shouted the copy inside. The age of puberty in this country is plummeting! Ours is a nation of sexually sophisticated kiddies!

"They are a generation stuck in fast-forward, children in a fearsome hurry to grow up," said the authors. "The girls wear sexy lingerie and provocative makeup created just for tweens in order to complete what some parents call the Lolita look." Precocious, strangely seductive young girls in 1999 are "8 going on 25," Newsweek warns, and they "becoming sexually active at an alarmingly early age."

Newsweek is just the latest publication to join the chorus of media decrying a new phenomenon of early blooming, sexually precocious "tweens" -- a marketing term for children between 8 and 12. The Des Moines Register, the Plain Dealer, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Washington Post and the New York Times have weighed in on the topic with headlines like "A Woman Too Soon: The Dangerous Trend Towards Early Puberty" and "Too Young to Be Women."

As the end of the millennium nears, girls "are facing teenage hormones before they've learned to multiply or write their names in cursive," Redbook announces, fretting that these child-women will spark demand for "Disney deodorant and Baby Bop bras."

Taken as a whole, the stories have a telling subtext. Barely hidden is the terror that reporters and editors seem to feel as their daughters and their friends' daughters -- daughters everywhere -- evolve into sexual beings.

Obviously missing are the boys, good, bad or indifferent. They mature later and become interested in sex earlier, but this, apparently, is of no concern. Instead, each story contains a gender-specific warning label hundreds of words long: Remain alert and vigilant, parents of girls! They will bloom before they (read: you) are ready and disastrous consequences will ensue! Freud would be amused by the undercurrent of hysteria: Clearly, Daddy is struggling mightily with the fact that his girl may be attractive to other men cuz -- yikes! -- she's even looking kinda sexy to him. Hands off, she's mine!

In each dread-filled tome, "scientific evidence" is used to show that girls are maturing earlier these days. And each of the articles assumes, in a knee-jerk reaction born of parental anxiety, that early puberty means one thing: early sex.

Both lines of reasoning are flawed. The onset of puberty appears to have stabilized 50 years ago. The age of first intercourse leveled off 10 years ago. More than half U.S. teenagers remain virgins until age 17. But interestingly, the science hasn't gotten in the way of a good story.

Nearly all the stories originate with a 1997 report in Pediatrics magazine. Benignly titled "Secondary Sexual Characteristics and Menses in Young Girls Seen in Office Practice," the 1997 study analyzes physical attributes of 17,000 girls seen in pediatricians' offices across the country. Newsweek used a later report published in this month's Pediatrics, "Reexamination of the Age Limit for Defining When Puberty Is Precocious in Girls in the United States: Implications for Evaluation and Treatment," that reaches similar conclusions.

According to the 1997 study's principal author, Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, the age of the onset of puberty (i.e., first signs of pubic hair and breasts) is much younger than previously believed. While medical textbooks had put the age of puberty onset at between 11 and 12, the study found that the average age for white girls is actually closer to 10. For African-American girls, the study reported, puberty usually starts just under age 9.

News of this decline set off alarms and mutated, in the popular press, into a story about teen sex, where early puberty became early sex and led inevitably to early pregnancy. Doctors, nurses and teachers who had noticed such things, like girls with breasts in the second grade, were quoted and the study was heralded as proof positive that the age of puberty was free-falling ever downward.

But was it?

"The truth is that the old data is inaccurate and the textbooks were wrong -- for a long time," says professor Dr. Robert Blum, director of the University of Minnesota Pediatric Department's adolescent health program. The Herman-Giddens report may be accurate, he says, but it simply states what has been true for decades. "We simply are not seeing this rapid decline in the age of puberty," he insists. "Short of doing tests of hormonal levels in girls, the most concrete specific measure we have is menarche (the onset of menstruation). And when you look at the age of menarche, you don't see any decline that has occurred recently."

Speculating that the old medical textbook charts were based on scant study of the subject, he says that menstruation is a more reliable marker of puberty and the age that girls get their periods -- 12 and a half -- hasn't changed since the 1950s. Even Herman-Giddens herself acknowledges that the old textbooks, with figures describing puberty's onset at 11 or 12, might have been wrong in the first place.

Though she declined to be interviewed by Salon Mothers Who Think, Herman-Giddens told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last year that "the onset [of puberty] does seem to be occurring earlier, but the problem is there is no good data with which to make a comparison so that we can say with absolute certainty that this is so."

Others, perhaps with less at stake, are more definitive. "Why would menarche be still taking place at the same age, if the onset of puberty was truly earlier?" says Rose Frisch, a professor of population sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, who is doubtful about any recent drop in the age of puberty. Frisch, who has studied menstruation extensively, insists that the age of menarche reached a plateau 50 years ago. She's puzzled why people are acting like puberty is dropping now, in the '90s.

Noting that the "TV hostesses" have been all over her to talk about this trend, she says, "I'm very surprised by the response in the popular press. Mainly, I think the American public just didn't know about this research." When she considers the leap the media makes, from early puberty to early sex, she says they're barking up the wrong tree. "Environmental factors may be influencing girls' behavior, but not biology. That hasn't changed since the 1950s."

But no matter. The press still loves this story, or non-story, which has been a perennial favorite for almost 25 years.

Before the Herman-Giddens study there was the J.M. Tanner study, which appeared in 1976 and is resurrected regularly in the press as a scientific novelty. Tanner discovered that the age of menarche had fallen dramatically among Americans. While the average age of menarche in the United States today is approximately 12 and a half, Tanner, an authority on physical development, noted that in the early 1800s, the average age at the onset of menstruation was 17.

More current academic work on the topic suggests a far less precipitous decline, from 14 in 1890 to 12 today, where it leveled off in 1947; and, in fact, this irrefutable marker of puberty hasn't changed since. Tanner's report, like the Herman-Giddens study, was hardly earth-shattering and probably would have slipped quietly into academic obscurity. Instead it contributed to an outbreak of inflammatory rhetoric about adolescent promiscuity and a teen pregnancy epidemic.

Even though Tanner's contemporaries, like historian Vern Bullough, immediately questioned the study's accuracy, it was snatched up by Newsweek, Time and the Nation, among others. Their stories all hyped the trend as current; none noted that the trend toward early menarche had stopped 30 years earlier, in 1950.

In September 1980 Newsweek went with "The Games Teenagers Play." They used Tanner's study to confirm that "something has happened to those enduring young charmers who used to wobble around playing grownup in Mom's high heels." With a predictable swipe at working moms, reporters explained that kids "are reaching puberty earlier, finding new freedom from parental restraints, taking cues from a pleasure-bent culture and playing precocious sex games in the bedroom -- often while Mom and Dad are at work."

The danger was not randy boys, but Lolita girls. "For adolescent boys, sex has always been regarded as a rite of passage, like getting permission to drive the family car," Newsweek allowed. Bemoaning "sexual adventurism among young girls," the teen-pregnancy "epidemic" and the "rampant" venereal disease resulting from this "carnal knowledge," the magazine then used the Tanner study as a springboard to launch into a diatribe about girls whose "sexual awareness thus runs breathlessly ahead of their emotional development." Full of euphemisms for sex, like "stampeding into sin," "going over the brink" and "unseemly sexual stirrings," Newsweek fanned the flames of "precocious puberty" alarmism, roundly condemning this new breed of copulating schoolgirl.

Fast-forward a decade and Newsweek runs the same story. As news. This time, the magazine calls the article, "The End of Innocence" and places the story in the May 1991 special issue on kids. Again, Tanner's study on the declining age of menarche becomes the basis for a warning that girls today are, sexually speaking, "two to three years ahead of their counterparts a quarter of a century ago."

Perhaps because the sexually active teens that the magazine excoriated a decade ago had become the parents of young children, the magazine upped the ante a bit by suggesting that vigilance needs to begin even sooner -- with toddlers. "The sexual acceleration starts early and holds throughout adolescence," Newsweek wrote. "A 3-year-old who no longer holds her mother's hand becomes a 9-year-old who can discuss homosexuality, AIDS and transsexual surgery."

The article continues to blame the media (the pop song "Me So Horny" takes a hit) and moms ("Most mothers aren't home when their kids return from school and can't exert day-to-day control").

By 1999, Newsweek hits its stride. Last week's cover story -- with a nod toward the healthy economy and the buying power of 27 million American "tweens" -- manages to hit all the familiar bases. The new Pediatrics study -- regurgitating the same stats that show white girls beginning puberty around age 10 -- is cited to prove that the age of puberty is plummeting and this segues -- surprise! -- into a paragraph on premature sexual activity.

Blame is dispersed. A finger is pointed, once again, at working moms: "The vast majority of their mothers -- more than 75 percent -- are in the workforce," and that and divorce mean "they're often alone in the afternoons." And the media is scolded for fostering a "tweens" love affair with the TV show "Friends" and an obsession with Brandy, Backstreet Boys, Pokimon and Quake III -- all proof of untoward sophistication.

Newsweek does not manage to provide proof that early bloomers are having intercourse sooner or that absentee moms, along with a premature dousing of hormones, are to blame. Probably because it doesn't really exist.

"Actually, new studies have found that, if you control for the age of the peer group, there is no association between pubertal maturation and the age of sexual debut," says Dr. Blum. In other words, girls who get breasts sooner are treated like they're older than they are -- by boys and their parents. They can attract the attention of older, more sexually experienced guys. They can incur fear and guilt and premature leniency or restriction in their parents.

"Early puberty actually catapults girls into an older peer group, and thus there is an association with early puberty and sex," says Blum, "but it's actually related to who you hang out with, not hormones."

In pointing out the difference between social maturation and physical maturation, experts tend to agree that parents and educators need to be sure they are not treating girls who may look sexually mature as though they are more mature. They point out that attraction is quite different from action in young teens -- a fact that Newsweek and other media alarmists seem too panicked to accept.

And these days, even further distinctions have to be made. While articles about these sexually sophisticated teens seem to have only one thing on their minds, the teens who contemplate "sex" do not. Sexual intercourse is the publicly-stated "problem" in the press, partly because it allows the authors to bring up the specter of unwanted teen pregnancies. The leap from there to a teen pregnancy "epidemic" is easy to make. But the teens who call themselves "active" often have never had sexual intercourse and have no intention of doing so anytime soon. Sex, to them, is about blow jobs, hand jobs and heavy petting.

In fact, the rate of teen births in the United States has actually dropped in the past few decades. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the rate has declined from 525,000 teen births in 1956 to 513,000 in 1995. While any births to girls who aren't ready to be mothers is problematic, it's important to put the "crisis" in context. What has changed since the 1950s is not that more girls are having babies, it's that more girls are having babies out of wedlock. Those numbers have shot up, so that while only 15 percent of teenage girls who gave birth in 1960 were unmarried, 75 percent were unmarried in 1994. In other words, the number of shotgun weddings has declined.

The evidence, old as it may be, that some girls start puberty at age 8 or 9 has obvious policy implications. But those implications just don't make great cover stories. There have been plenty of studies that show that the key to healthy sexuality and a lower teen pregnancy rate is good sex education. But the same fear and ambivalence that spawn hysterical media spam about "tweens" inhibits the creation of decent education programs about sex.

"Puberty education is essential and needs to start earlier," says Peggy Brick, a longtime sex-ed teacher who now works as a sexuality-education consultant in New Jersey. "It helps kids understand that this happens to everybody. It normalizes things instead of everybody feeling these changes are secret or nasty."

Secret and nasty. Sounds like a cover line. Look for it 10 years from now at a newsstand near you.

By Karen Houppert

Karen Houppert is a freelance journalist, assistant professor at Baltimore's Morgan State University and the author of "Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice."

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