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Secret lives of Singapore teens

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[b]Secret lives of S'pore teens[/b]

[i]Publication Date : 2006-03-26. [/i][url=""]Straits Times[/url]

[b]Claire is an outstanding academic performer, who went to a top secondary school and junior college and just scored five distinctions in her A-level exams.[/b]

But the 18-year-old is also hiding an intimate secret.

Since she was 15, Claire has been sexually active. Every weekend, she heads to her boyfriend's house, where they have sex in his bedroom.

She has had two different partners and admits that there have been times when she did not practise safe sex.

Her story is indicative of a hidden but apparently widespread culture among Singapore teens, one recently put into the spotlight by the case of 'Tammy', the 17-year-old Nanyang Polytechnic student whose explicit cellphone sex video found its way onto the Internet.

The clues had been there for some time, in the form of explicit blogs or Internet journals and rising numbers of teens with sexually transmitted diseases. But the Tammy saga finally blew the lid off the myth that local youth are repressed, prudish bookworms.

As other copycat X-rated clips made their way - intentionally this time - onto the Net, parents and schools were suddenly forced to sit up and notice a phenomenon many have long tried to ignore: their otherwise normal teenage children are having sex.

After interviewing 20 sexually active teens - 10 boys and 10 girls - The Sunday Times made some surprising discoveries.

Firstly, if the small survey is anything to go by, today's teens are completely nonchalant about sex.

Half of those polled had sex before they turned 16, the legal age for sex. Of the 20 teens, 13 said they did not need to be in a relationship in order to sleep with someone and, most alarmingly, only four always insisted on using protection. Not surprisingly, none of them has ever told his parents about his activities.

Granted, these liberal youths are still in the minority. Last November, an informal survey by The Straits Times of 60 teens and a 2003 Nanyang Technological University study of 350 students found that one in five had had sex.

A survey by Aids awareness group Action For Aids of 500 teens around the same time reported that one in four had sex.

But youth counsellors fear the ratio is only going to go up.

'Saving themselves for marriage just doesn't seem to matter anymore,' said Mr Jerry Ong of Focus On The Family, a pro-abstinence group which has conducted sexuality workshops for some 17,000 students to date.

Indeed, of those who have gone through its workshops this year, only 40 per cent said they felt the right time for sex was after marriage.

An October 2002 study of 2,659 teens by welfare organisation Fei Yue Community Services revealed the same proportion.

The numbers add up to a picture of a young population for whom pre-marital sex is perfectly acceptable. While the average marrying age in Singapore is 30 for men and 27 for women, the latest Durex global sex survey indicated that Singaporeans have sex for the first time on average at age 18.4, among the youngest in the region.

By and large, most teens do not appear to take sex too seriously, even though some say they are pressured into it, either by their sexual partners or by the desire to fit in with their peers.

More than half of the 20 teens in The Sunday Times survey said they would sleep with someone they were not attached to and eight teens confessed to 'experimenting' with things like threesomes, fetishes and taking pictures or videos of themselves.

Only five, all of them girls, thought oral sex could be defined as 'having sex'.

'It's a sexual act, but oral sex is really quite the norm. I think you'd still be virgin after oral sex,' said Andy, an 18-year-old JC student, who said he has had seven sexual partners since he was 14.

Teens seem to be equally indiscriminate when it comes to venues. Some have sex at home, even while their parents are around, others booked into short-time or transit hotels like Hotel 81, while two confessed to having sex in a public toilet for the handicapped.

But most worrying of all was the cavalier attitude towards protection. Only four insisted on condoms every time. Others offered excuses like 'my boyfriend is shy to buy' or 'it is really inconvenient'.

Claire recalls being mortified when a condom tore during sex. Joan remembers breaking down when her period came late.

'I nearly killed myself. I really did not know what I would do if I got pregnant,' said the 17-year-old, who admits that she has hardly ever had protected sex.

Their complacency is worrying in light of mounting statistics on teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Even as the Health Ministry reports around 1,500 teen pregnancies a year, figures at the DSC Clinic in Kelantan Lane show the number of patients aged 10 to 19 has more than doubled from 238 in 2002 to 565 between January and November last year.

Youth counsellors blame the apparent moral decline on a host of factors, from media exposure to an absence of parenting.

The director of the youth development centre at the Singapore Children's Society, Ms Carol Balhetchet, said: 'You have the media and movies showing sexual content.

'You have fashion that is very revealing. You have celebrities who are glorifying sexy dressing. Sex has become cool, abstinence is not. And when you see parents now working longer hours, it all adds up.'

Mr Ong of Focus On The Family agreed. 'We seem to have let our values slip away, but I'm not giving up. I sense that many people still believe in abstinence. All is not lost.'

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