January 2, 2005
Sixteen-year-old Emily Waldron doesn’t have a serious boyfriend. Neither do most of her friends at Ironwood High School in Peoria.
But that’s OK.
"I want to wait for someone who’s the right one to come along," says Waldron, who thinks dealing with constant breakups, makeups and teenage angst is a waste of time.
Then there’s Roxanne Simpson, an Arizona State University freshman with long dark hair and a warm smile, who says she has never been on a "real first date."
But that’s OK, too.
"For now I just like hanging out with my friends and meeting people that way because I’m not really looking for anything serious," says Simpson, 18, of Gilbert.
Like many teens, Waldron and Simpson prefer group dating and hanging out with friends to the traditional one-on-one date, and all the awkwardness it evokes. They are continuing a 30-year trend and rewriting the definition of a date.
"You just kind of hook up and then that’s it and the rest just falls into place from there," says Kiyomi Kawana, a 15-year-old sophomore at Westwood High School in Mesa. "I don’t like the oldfashioned version of just you and your boyfriend just going out. It doesn’t seem fun."
Teens say they may date in the traditional sense, but only after they are in a relationship, not as a way to begin one. While Simpson was a student at Highland High School, she had a serious boyfriend who took her on dates — they would go golfing together or to dinner and a movie — but only after they were a formal couple.
"Now it’s more like, ‘Hey, I’m at a party, come down here,’ and he brings his friends," she says.
While no solid research has been done, Kathleen Waldron, Emily’s mother and an ASU professor who has studied families and adolescents, says there could be several reasons why group dating caught on and has stuck with teens: A spike in divorce rates in the 1970s led to a new generation of commitment-fearing young people; the average marrying age for men and women increased about five years since 1950s, so finding a soul mate in high school became unnecessary; and kids just got too busy.
"I’ve known several of my daughter’s friends or my friends’ kids who say ‘I don’t have time for this.’ They’ve got their sports, their clubs or whatever and so exclusive dating becomes too much of a drag on their time," Kathleen Waldron says.
She doesn’t believe her daughter or other teens are missing something by replacing formal outings with group dates and hang-out sessions — these allow them to spend time with a variety of people and be exposed to different ideas.
"I’m comfortable with the group situation when they are going somewhere like bowling or to go get ice cream, or whatever," she says. "What I am not comfortable with is when they go to someone’s house and there’s nobody home. That’s a group situation that can get out of control really fast."
The group dynamic sometimes pushes teens to follow the crowd, and while there is often safety in numbers, there can also be additional peer pressure.
"I think there’s two schools of thought on the group dating," she says. "The one is that it’s more comfortable. The other is that everyone is making out at so-and-so’s house, we’re here in the kitchen, I guess we should go make out, too."
Teens interviewed by the Tribune say they prefer group dating because it eliminates uncomfortable one-on-one situations and keeps a relationship casual. But are teens’ nonchalant attitudes about relationships and commitment seeping into their ideas about sex?
Many East Valley teens say no.
While the percentage of high school students having sex is lower now than it was in 1991, when 55 percent of the nation’s ninth- through 12thgraders reported being sexually active, the number is slowly rising after a decline in the late 1990s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 percent of students reported having sex in 2003, up just slightly from 2001. Overall, the numbers indicate almost half of all students are sexually active.
Maria Collea, a counselor at Westwood High School in Mesa, says that while it’s probably true that the majority of kids are avoiding high-risk sexual behavior, those who do are taking bigger risks than ever before. She finds many teens don’t consider oral sex a form of sex at all.
"They look at it, sometimes, as casually as kissing," Collea says.
Teens say casual hook-ups are common and come in two main forms: Friends with benefits and the one-night stand. A friends-with-benefits relationship can simply mean two people hang out. This can also mean they use each other for physical satisfaction, from kissing to sex, with no commitment.
"It’s like a little bit of a boyfriend," says Mary Maritan, a sophomore at Sun Valley High School.
"Without the attachments," Kawana adds. "Sometimes that does sound like the better choice, but in the end, you don’t want to be just friends with benefits all the time."
ASU student Simpson says random hook-ups happen a lot on campus, especially at parties, and she knows of people who have multiple one-night stands and often regret them later.
"We know of people doing that all the time but I’m not like that and my friends aren’t like that," she says.
Collea and other local experts agree there is a strong polarization among teens about sex, with most falling in the middle between virginity and promiscuity, where casual attitudes about dating and relationships exist but don’t necessarily lead to risky sexual behaviors.
Sex "has gotten more common and casual, and I blame the media tremendously for that, but there’s also a large cohort of young people who are making pledges to remain virgins until they are married," ASU’s Kathleen Waldron says.
Television shows popular with teens, such as "The O.C.," "Everwood" and "Friends," are full of masked and overt sexual images that normalize sex, making it unclear what is appropriate and what is not, she says. Teens are often depicted in sexual situations, conveying the sense that having sex is a normal part of high school life.
In a recent episode of "Everwood" on The WB, Amy (Emily VanCamp) wonders why her boyfriend, Ephram (Gregory Smith), is hesitant about having sex with her. Meanwhile, Ephram is getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
Some East Valley teens say these portrayals put teenage sexual activity in a false light.
Kolby Skidmore, a junior at Shadow Mountain High School in Scottsdale, is a member of Planned Parenthood’s youth group Real Life, Real Talk, a peer-to-peer educational program that addresses issues such as sex and birth control.
She is often confronted with real-life issues that her peers deal with because she is educated about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and other sexual health topics. Skidmore says there are people her age having sex, and some take bigger risks with it than others, racking up multiple partners and having onenight stands.
"I’ve been with a girl who had to get an STD test once," she says. "She regretted it majorly. It was one of those things where it was a guy and she thought he was really cool and really nice and he just turned out to be the big jerk in the end."
But what’s more common, Skidmore says, is teens who are virgins.
"Girls don’t know that not everyone is having sex," Skidmore explains. "They think they’re in the minority and they’re not, and a lot of girls don’t know that."
Eighteen-year-old Jared Gregory of Gilbert says casual sex is accepted among his friends, but he is saving his virginity for the right person and the right time.
"I’ve hooked up with girls, I just know where to stop and where not to cross the line," Gregory says. "I was brought up for sex to be serious."