"I'm young. I don't even know what love is."
  • "I'm young. I don't even know what love is."
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According to a survey of 4600 teenagers (aged 12–17) conducted recently by Mediamark Research Inc., 89 percent of teens say they have been in dating relationships, 57 percent regularly date, and 33 percent have a steady boyfriend or girlfriend. Over 12 percent of dating teens are currently in relationships that have lasted for more than a year.

The following is based on conversations with nearly two dozen teens and gives us a sense of the dating life of San Diego teenagers: what influences them and what drives them; who they like and how they woo; how they address the complex issue of sex; the places they go with members of the opposite gender and the things they like to do on dates.

The Metaphorical “Base System,” circa 2008

Kissing is no longer first base. Kissing is now the batting cages. (And hardly anyone strikes out in the batting cages.)

First base is now touching above the belt and/or over the clothes.

Second base is touching below the belt and under the clothes.

Third base is oral sex.

A home run’s still a home run.

A Quick Note on the “Batting Cages”

Abbie and Diana are 17-year-olds who say they are seniors at University of San Diego High School. (I later learn that this school closed several years ago.) The two are walking around Mission Valley Mall for an afternoon of shopping.

They both hold multiple brand-name shopping bags in one hand and closed cell phones in the other.

“A kiss is not that big of a deal,” Abbie says, between chews of gum.

“It’s like a hug, nowadays,” Diana agrees.

Abbie adds that she was 11 years old when she started kissing boys for real. Fifth grade.

This same sentiment is echoed across town by Stacy, a 16-year-old junior at Mission Bay High School. Stacy stands in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach, sipping Slurpees with her buddy Andre. Stacy has braces on her teeth and a shy smile and wears way too much makeup. Andre’s hair swoops down across his forehead. Every few seconds, he brushes it away from his eyes.

Stacy says she’s had three boyfriends; her longest relationship lasted three months. She started dating when she was 14. She says she’s kissed “a lot of different guys.”

How does that work? Kissing lots of guys?

“They talk to you,” Stacy says, giggling. “I don’t know, like, at parties, or you just see someone in the street or at school, and, I don’t know, they just talk to you and hang around, and then you might end up kissing them. It’s no big deal.” Stacy looks down at the ground, still giggling, perhaps embarrassed.

Andre, who’s 17 and also a Mission Bay High junior, comes to his friend’s rescue. “There’s no rules about kissing,” he says. “As long as you’re both comfortable.”

Monday at the Mall

At Fashion Valley, Mission Valley, Horton Plaza, and other malls, many weekend and early-evening patrons are teens.

Alexis and Alex are a cute couple with fresh faces. Neither could possibly weigh more than 100 pounds. The two are sophomores at La Jolla High School. Alexis is 15, and Alex is 14. They’ve been dating for over seven months.

“We had a class together,” Alex says, “and I told her friend to go talk to her for me. And then I started talking to her. And then I told her over the phone that I wanted to be her boyfriend.”

And Alexis liked him?

“No,” Alex kids her. “She didn’t like me.”

Alexis rolls her eyes. “Oh, my God.”

Alex laughs. The two of them are curled around each other, arm-in-arm, hugging. They keep hugging while talking.

It’s the first relationship for both of them.

Today, Alexis and Alex are at the mall, but most afternoons they’ll hang out at Alex’s house or in their neighborhood park.

The two usually get around by hitching rides from their parents.

“Her parents like me because they know I’ll protect her,” Alex says.

Alexis seems to like this. She smiles up into Alex’s throat, her face on his chest, the two of them still hugging. She looks protected.

Alexis says she’s able to talk to her friend Carlita about Alex, and she needs to “because he flirts with other girls”; she practically moans, pinching him.

“No, I don’t,” he laughs, sheepishly. “And anyway, she flirts with guys.”

At this, Alexis squeaks loudly. “I do not!”

Alex laughs again, this time a satisfied guffaw.

Does Alex talk to his friends about Alexis?

“Sometimes,” he says. “My friend Nestor.”

And what do they talk about?

“I talk about how I get mad at her because she doesn’t listen to me,” Alex says. “But when I ask for something, I want it quick.”

Alexis honks at this, a long “Haaaannh!” She jostles Alex with her arms around his waist.

After their first phone conversation, when Alex asked Alexis out and she said yes, the next day at school the two of them kissed each other for the first time.

So they kissed after their first conversation? And how far have they gone since?

“I was almost going to be a dad,” Alex says, without a hint of remorse or guilt or irony.

And Alexis breathes out a long, exasperated syllable, “Hoooooiiiii!”

They’ve already dealt with a pregnancy?

“Yeah,” Alex says.

Alexis punches him in the stomach, hard.

He laughs and says, “Ouch,” grabbing her hands so she can’t punch him again.

“No, no, no,” Alex says, “not really. She wasn’t pregnant. But we thought she was.”

So Alexis was late for her period?

“Yeah,” Alex says.

Alexis looks exasperated at the turn of the conversation, a big frown on her face.

Don’t they use protection when they have sex?

“Naw,” Alex says. “It’s not worth it.”

Not worth it?

“It doesn’t feel as good,” Alex says. Alexis shoots him a look that seems to say, “See? I told you we should use protection, you idiot!”

Do they understand the magnitude of the risk they’re taking, having unprotected sex?

“No,” Alex says. “Nothing ever happens. It’s been over two months.”

But still. What if something does happen?

“Then I’ll get a job,” Alex says. “I’ll go to Mexico. They already want me to play soccer for a team. Like second-division reserve. So, I’ll earn money.”

What about the pill?

“She’s afraid of getting sterile,” Alex says, while Alexis just moans, half under her breath.

Tuesday after School

It’s after 2 p.m., and school’s out: lines of yellow buses, gluts of cars with moms behind the steering wheels, and hundreds of kids streaming off toward the rest of their days.

A boy and a girl are talking to each other in front of San Diego High School. They lean against a metal railing, close together but not quite touching. Afternoon traffic streams up and down Park Boulevard.

William, 18, and Stephanie, 17, have been together for three years. They’re both seniors at San Diego High. In eighth grade, William worked up the courage to ask out Stephanie on Valentine’s Day. They’ve never broken up since.

How difficult was it for William to approach Stephanie?

“I told everyone I liked her,” William says, “but then I’d tell them not to tell her.”

Stephanie smiles, “I was the only one who didn’t know about it.”

And when William asked her out, she said yes right away?

“I liked him too,” Stephanie says. She has angular cheekbones and striking green eyes. William’s long curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail. His face is marked by the typically troubled complexion of a teenager.

Both William and Stephanie had dated others before but never seriously. And it was a few weeks after they started going out before they kissed each other.

Now they go to the movies or out to eat, or they like to walk around at Seaport Village.

William has a job at SeaWorld, so he can afford to pay for dates. He also borrows his mom’s car. But back at the beginning, they would take the trolley or the bus, and William would use his allowance to pay. He always pays.

“Even if I have money, he won’t let me pay,” Stephanie says, smiling widely. She throws an affectionate and grateful glance at William.

The two both get along well with each other’s parents, and they both follow the rules when it comes to curfews. “I always have her home by 11,” William says.

They seem to have their heads on straight. What about the future?

“Well, I kind of want to go to college,” William says. “But I’m not really sure, because I don’t have the money for it. But, for sure, I’ll be working.”

And Stephanie?

“I want to be in real estate,” she says. “They say you don’t have to go to college for it, so, I don’t know. But then they say it’s also good to have a plan B, so, maybe I’ll go to college. Maybe.”

What about their relationship in the face of college and jobs and adult responsibility? Do they ever talk about it?

“Yeah,” William chuckles. “She always does.”

And William changes the subject?

“Yeah.”

They both laugh at this, although the laughs are different. Then they both fall silent.

What about sex? How long was it before William and Stephanie took their relationship to that next level?

“It was about a year,” says William, matter-of-factly.

“At first, I didn’t want things to change,” Stephanie adds, “so I didn’t want to do it. Because they say when that happens, a guy becomes way overprotective. But he didn’t change that much.”

They always use birth-control pills and condoms. Both.

Where does Stephanie turn for good advice about her relationship? To her siblings?

“They’re all in bad relationships,” she laughs. Stephanie is the baby, the last of four children. “I have the most healthy relationship in my family.”

A Quick Note on Home Runs

Eddie, 17, is a junior at San Diego High School. He’s a redhead with long, red eyelashes and lots of freckles. He looks you in the eye, speaks clearly, and shakes your hand firmly.

Eddie, wearing his backpack, is waiting for the Number 11 city bus on Park Boulevard.

He’s been dating his girlfriend Adele for almost five months. Adele’s 16, also a junior at San Diego High. For their fifth-month anniversary, Eddie’s going to take her out to dinner.

It took about a week of hanging out together before Eddie and Adele first kissed. “We were comfortable with each other, right from the start,” Eddie says. “So we’ve never gone too fast or too slow. We’re always right on our own pace.”

Which is to say that Eddie and Adele haven’t slept together yet. Neither of them has slept with anyone yet.

“If we do, we do, and if we don’t, we don’t,” Eddie says, sounding sincere. “I’m not going to push it, and I don’t think she will either.”

But Eddie’s friends do tease him. He says, “They’re, like, ‘So!? You have sex yet?’ And I’m, like, ‘No.’ And they’re, like, ‘Oh. So when you gonna get some?’ And I’m, like, ‘I don’t know.’ When it happens, it happens. That’s all I go by.”

Wednesday…Just Chillin’

What about that minority of teens, the ones who aren’t into dating? What’s with them?

Two girls are sitting on the sidewalk on 47th Street, in a residential area of City Heights. They’re just sitting on the ground in the midafternoon sun and chatting.

Shanietta, 18, is a recent graduate from Herbert Hoover High School. So is 18-year-old Vylisha.

“I think that teenage dating is stupid,” Shanietta begins. “Because teens are young, and they don’t know what they’re doing. So, trying to find love at a young age, I think, is stupid.”

What should teens do instead?

“We could be doing other things, like hanging out with our friends,” Shanietta says. “But boyfriends and girlfriends are just distractions, pretty much.”

Both girls have their dark hair pulled back, and they’re squinting and flipping their new tongue piercings between their lips.

Shanietta started liking boys — and dating them — in tenth grade.

“But I’m young,” she says. “I don’t even know what love is.”

Despite this insight, Shanietta does think that she might be ready to start dating soon from a wiser perspective.

“I think the appropriate age to start dating is my age,” she says. “Eighteen.”

Vylisha has been nodding along and finally says that she “shares the same opinions” as her friend. “I was in love once, too,” she says. “But love, love, I can’t tell. I was probably lusting, instead of ‘in love.’ Love is a big word. And, at my age, and at the age I started dating, I think it was probably just puppy love. Like, you think you love, but you don’t really know what it is.”

“But we have friends,” Shanietta says, “and they think they’re in love. And they keep going back to the same person that’s treating them wrong. But they think that they’re in love, so they keep going back to the same relationship.”

Thursday at the Club

At Club Caribe in Bonita, Thursday night is 18-and-over night. But really it’s more like 16-and-over night. Or maybe even 15-and-over.

Kara, for one, has been coming to Caribe since she was a 16-year-old junior at Bonita Vista High School. She’s a 19-year-old graduate now. “I used my sister’s ID,” she says, with an expression that can only be described as confrontational. She looks as if she wants someone to tell her she’s wrong, so that she can argue.

Kara and her friends are dressed to the nines — even past the nines. One of them wears a skirt (if it can be called a skirt) that barely covers her rear, and she keeps pulling on it discreetly. All four of the girls in Kara’s crew look as if they’ve spent hours on their hair.

Inside Caribe, music thumps and throbs and bodies grind in the low light and high humidity.

Kyle, 18, who’s a senior at Bonita Vista, comes to Caribe to check out the ladies. He says he’ll often meet a girl here for the first time, dance with her, start making out, and then get her to leave with him sometime before the end of the night. “We’ll just go out to the car, man,” Kyle says. “We got no place else to go.” And then he adds, raising his eyebrows, “You should go out to the parking lot and see which cars is bumpin’.” The sound of his laugh is almost lost in the hip-hop music.

Girls and guys have each other pressed up against walls around the edges of Caribe. Nearly everyone is dancing, If you can call it dancing — they’re doing the closest approximation imaginable to having fully dressed public sex. Midsections grinding into midsections, hands all over everything. Shakespeare called a copulating couple “the beast with two backs.” Caribe is full of two-backed beasts all moving together in unison, though everyone is (mostly) clothed.

The under-21 crowd seems to take Caribe more seriously than the over-21s, judging from the elaborateness of their outfits. The over-21s are dressed much more simply.

But why would an older guy want to come to an 18-and-over club in the first place?

“Come on, man,” says one 25-year-old, smiling. “You don’t like young girls?”

Friday at the Movies

It’s the weekend, and the new blockbusters are being released. It’s dark and cool inside the theaters of the Mission Valley 20 AMC movie complex. You can raise the arms between the cushiony seats.

“The movies” is easily the number-one answer for where teenagers go on dates.

Victor and Elizabeth have been dating for over a year. He’s 18 and recently graduated from San Diego High School. She’s 15 and a junior. Their first kiss was on the first day of their relationship.

“I wrote the question, ‘Do you want to go out with me?’ on a piece of paper, and I gave it to her, and I waited while she read it,” Victor says.

Elizabeth covers her mouth with her hand.

As Victor talks, sitting on a bench in the lobby of the theater, Elizabeth nestles between his legs, leaning back into him. She’s tiny, and very pretty, with broad features and strikingly nice teeth. Victor has a friendly demeanor, like a gentle bear, perhaps, with a big smile and an easygoing attitude.

Elizabeth looks at Victor and furrows her forehead.

Throughout the interview, she hardly says a word, and yet you can read every question and every answer on her expressive face.

What did Elizabeth do when she read Victor’s question? How did she answer him?

“She just kissed me, and that was the answer,” Victor says.

Elizabeth twists her face up and smiles.

Just up and kissed him? On the lips?

“Yeah.”

That’s kind of bold.

“Yeah.” He laughs.

This time, Elizabeth covers her mouth with both hands.

Turns out Elizabeth has been kissing boys since she was 12, but Victor has a lot less experience. “I’ve seen other girls, but she’s the first one that I’ve been taking seriously,” he says.

Elizabeth purses her lips.

For dates, Victor and Elizabeth go out to eat, and then often they see a movie. Sometimes he pays, sometimes she does. The only way they get any money is from their parents. “Most of the time, I’m broke,” Victor laughs. Elizabeth laughs, too.

“I go to her house on the weekends,” Victor says. “Usually at, like, ten in the morning. I end up leaving, like, around ten at night.”

What do they do together all day?

“Just, like, nothing.” Victor chuckles. “Just hanging out.”

Elizabeth raises an eyebrow.

The two share a relaxed energy, even as the Friday-night crowd of movie patrons bustles past.

What about sex? They seem to have kissed pretty fast. When did the two of them start sleeping together?

“It was a couple months,” Victor says, after some thought. At first they used condoms, but now Elizabeth has gone on the pill. “But this is kind of embarrassing,” he says and pauses. “She was my first. And, I don’t know how to say this, but I wasn’t her first. So it was kind of odd. It’s usually supposed to be the other way around.”

Elizabeth wrinkles her nose.

Victor smiles at her and nods.

So when did Elizabeth start having sex?

At first, she doesn’t want to answer. She flares her nostrils and narrows her eyes.

Well?

“Thirteen,” she says.

The Songs Kids Listen to These Days

Here’s a selection of lyrics from songs popular among teens today. Of the 23 polled for this article, nearly half had not only heard of all four of the following tunes, they could quote whole lines from them.

Let’s both get undressed right here

Keep it up girl and I swear

I’ma give it to you nonstop

And I don’t care who’s watchin watchin watchin watchin watchin

Ohh in this club on the floor baby let’s make love

I wanna make love (in this club, in this club, in this club, in this club)

— Usher, “Love in This Club”

Let me give you some swimming lessons on the penis

Backstroke, breaststroke, stroke of a genius

Yep, call me the renaissance man

Get up and I stay harder than a cinderblock man

— Ludacris, “Money Maker”

And they say a closed mouth don’t get fed

So I don’t mind asking for head

You heard what I said, we need to make our way to the bed

Just wait till you see my dick

Ay bitch! wait till you see my dick

Wait till you see my dick

Ay bitch! wait till you see my dick

I’ma beat dat pussy up

— the Ying Yang Twins, “Wait (The Whisper Song)”

I wanna see you cum in the middle of the dance floor

Cum, girl, I’m tryna get your pussy wet

Work that, lemme see you drip sweat

Cum, girl, I’m tryna get your pussy wet

Work that, lemme see you drip sweat

— David Banner, “Play”

Saturday in the Park

Most teens speak of “the park” as if it’s their park. And in most cases, what they mean is the nearest neighborhood park. For kids at Herbert Hoover High on El Cajon Boulevard, it might be the City Heights Community Park. For the Cavers from San Diego High School, the park might be Balboa, but it might also be Cesar E. Chavez Park in Barrio Logan. For the Vikings of La Jolla High School, it’s probably Soledad Natural Park or Coast Boulevard Park. But most teens don’t even know the names of the parks where they hang out. It’s just “the park.”

Four young teenage boys are kicking around a Hacky Sack on the grass near the fountain at Balboa Park.

Not one of them looks older than 14 or 15. Do these young fellas have girlfriends?

“We don’t have girlfriends,” one says, continuing to kick the Hacky Sack in a circle. “We just like to get pussy.” His friends laugh, but something in the kid’s voice, and the way he smiles, slyly, lets you know he’s not saying it just for laughs.

The kid’s name is Dave. He’s 14, a ninth-grader at Point Loma High School.

“It was, like, third grade, my first kiss,” Dave says. He’s taken a break from kicking the Hacky Sack to chat and munch some Sun Chips. He sits cross-legged on the grass.

Dave hasn’t lost his virginity yet, technically. That is, he’s never “hit a home run.” But in fifth grade, when he was 11, he was already making it to second and third base with girls.

How does he get all the ladies?

“I put the charm on them,” he says, smiling affably. “I talk to them, get to know them, and then, boom. I just go for it.”

He goes for the kiss?

“Yeah.”

And most girls will kiss back?

“Yeah.”

On the first date? Or even before the first date?

“Yeah, most girls will,” Dave says firmly. “They say they won’t, but, after.…” He smiles. “After me, they will.”

He chuckles, half to himself.

And how does Dave get from first base to second base and so on?

“It’s a try-and-fail process,” he says. “If she says ‘no,’ you just keep trying till she says ‘yes.’ ”

Dave has dated one girl for as long as “three or four months.” They would “go to the movies and stuff” and call each other boyfriend and girlfriend.

“My mom drops me off when I have a date,” Dave says. “And I’ll usually pay, or else, if we’re going to a movie, she might already have her ticket.”

How does Dave get money?

“Allowance, man.” He smiles.

Dave’s brushy dark hair matches his thick eyebrows. His sleepy-sounding voice drones a bit. He’ll be very tall someday, probably. Like a puppy dog, he has big floppy feet and hands that are too big for his 14-year-old body.

Does Dave talk to his buddies about girls?

“Yeah,” he says, munching Sun Chips. “We trade secrets.”

Secrets?

Dave says, “It’ll be, like, oh, um, like, if somebody’s already gone out with that girl, you can give secrets and tips. Or we’ll talk about stuff girls do and how annoying they are. Saying how they, like, can’t do drugs because they can’t handle them and stuff like that.”

Dave and his friends do drugs?

“Just, like, smoking weed,” he says, in his sleepy way.

And drinking?

“I tried it for a month and got sick of it,” Dave says. “But about half the girls I know drink all the time.”

And these are 13- and 14-year-old girls?

“Yeah,” he says. “And they like to do ecstasy, too, a lot of them.”

Dave’s never tried ecstasy.

He can stay out till 11:00 on weekends and till 9:00 or 10:00 on a school night. He says his parents know where he is and what he’s doing, “most of the time.”

Has Dave ever met the parents of a girl he was dating?

“I’m way too scared.” His voice rises a little. “Because they assume, like, everything.”

Sunday at the Beach

By the side of the ocean, littered among the oiled bodies, all up and down the weekend strands are groups and groups of teens. Whether they’re tanning or tossing a Frisbee, in same-gender groups or in couples, it would seem that the majority of teens enjoy exploiting the major attraction of sunny San Diego.

Two pretty young blonde girls with bright eyes and freckles lie head-to-head on their stomachs on beach towels. They’re giggling and laughing.

Katie, 15, is a sophomore at High Tech High, and Bryn, 14, is a freshman at Point Loma High.

“We talk about boys all the time,” Katie says. “Like, who we like, and, like, what we should do about who we like, and, like, how we should talk to them, or if we should hang out with them and stuff.”

What would Katie do if there was a boy she was into?

“I’d probably just talk to him a lot, like, texting or something, or on MySpace,” she says. “And then ask them if they want to hang out, and then hang out with them and see how it goes.”

Bryn breathes a heartfelt “yes” in agreement.

What’s Katie’s longest relationship?

“Well.” She thinks a moment. “Like, including junior high, I guess I’ve gone out with a guy for seven months, but it didn’t really mean anything. It was just kind of, like, ‘Hi, bye,’ and you’re not, like, going on dates or anything. Um, but I’ve never had a serious boyfriend.”

Katie turns suddenly philosophical.

“There’s not a lot of serious boyfriends, actually,” she says. “More people just, like, hook up, I think.”

By “hook up,” Katie means what?

“Just making out,” she says.

Like, first base?

“Yeah.”

And hooking up’s not that big of a deal?

“Well, we’re not like that at all,” Katie says, pointing to Bryn and herself.

“Some girls are slutty,” Bryn says.

“Yeah,” Katie agrees. “Other girls’ll do that with anyone. But we have to, like, know them really well.”

So what if they don’t know a boy very well, and he’s still trying to kiss them?

“You have to just, like, walk away,” Katie says. “Or be, like, ‘No, sorry.’ ”

But most guys don’t listen to “No, sorry,” do they?

“No, they don’t.” Both girls laugh, and Katie says, “They just keep trying. That’s where most other girls just, like, drop in. But that’s where you have to be strong. You have to respect your morals.”

And guys are cool with that?

“Not always,” Katie says. “Like, a guy tried something with me once, and I said no, but then he went and told his friends that we actually, like, did something. So that’s where it can come back.”

Then Katie confesses with a sheepish laugh, “Actually, though, I’ve never even made out with anyone. That’s kind of personal, but...” She and Bryn chuckle innocently for a few seconds.

But Katie sounds as if she understands the whole dating thing pretty well for never having made out with anyone.

“Yeah,” she says. “Like, I have older siblings and stuff, so I know what it’s all about. My brother and his friends will just hook up with certain people. But I don’t want to be just, like, another girl. But that’s how girls are, they’ll just hook up for fun.”

Katie has rules, it sounds like.

“I feel like the guy should have to work for it,” she says. “Not just do it for fun.”

Bryn adds, “You don’t just want to be easy.”

Katie agrees. “Yeah, you don’t want to be easy. And pretty much, like, 75 percent of the girls are easy.”

Bryn adds, “Too easy.”

So why do so many young girls hook up for fun?

“They don’t have enough self-confidence,” Katie says, “and they need some guy to reassure them.”

Reader poll

At what age did you lose your virginity?

  • Under age 15 11%
  • 15-17 38%
  • 18-21 30%
  • 21-25 9%
  • Older than 25 3%
  • I'm still a virgin! 9%

411 total votes.

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Comments

Uzumaki Sept. 4, 2008 @ 8:39 p.m.

Wow, Alex and Alexis seem like bright, shining stars. In my worst moments, I support forced sterilization for stupid people, but now I'm thinking castration altogether is the only way to go. How about coming up with some procedure that can be done when a child is born, and then reversed when they've proved themselves worthwhile adults?

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