So, do you think "teen sex" just refers to the sexual habits, of say, the 16- to 19-year-old crowd?

Well, then strap on your seat belt for this one: A survey just out from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has found that 20 percent of American children between the ages of 12 and 14 has had full sexual intercourse. (That translates into about 18 percent of whites, 20 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of blacks.)


The major findings? Slightly more boys than girls in that age group have had sex, and a significant percentage of the girls say the sex is at least relatively unwanted. Kids who are having sex at this age are more likely to use drugs and alcohol and participate in other delinquent activities than are their virgin peers. The vast majority of sexual relationships occur between children of relatively the same age, but those 12 to 14 who were dating someone two or more years older were especially likely to have had sex.

The sex isn't frequent, but there is apparently plenty of opportunity for it. The data showed that a third of 12-year-olds had "attended a party in the previous three months where no adults were in the house." By age 14, "this percentage increased to 51 percent for boys and 42 percent for girls."

The National Campaign to prevent Teen Pregnancy is a nonprofit, public-health organization in Washington committed to reducing overall teen pregnancy rates.

It would probably find critics on both the left and right. (They are, for instance, committed to "abstinence first" education, but not "abstinence only." They tend to focus on child physical and emotional well-being and the perils of early sex, not explicitly on the moral issues involved.)

In any event, I'm the first to say that I have big qualms about asking sexual questions of teens. But, what a wake-up call. The campaign looked at six different extensive data sets collected in recent years, three national and three local, involving seven teams of investigators.

Although the information was collected in different ways, a remarkably consistent picture is painted, and it's not a pretty one.

It should be no surprise that 80 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds who have had sex later said they regretted having had sex so early.

What's going on? Bill Albert, director of communications for the campaign, said some of

these kids may be modeling the sexual behavior they see in older teens (which is, happily, actually declining). It's also true that we live in a highly sexualized culture — a certain percentage of these kids said they were just darn curious. And, I would certainly argue, we live in a culture that is increasingly afraid to describe any behavior as "wrong."

But, in spite of all that, I'm left wondering — WHERE ARE THE MOMS AND DADS OF THESE KIDS? Two-thirds of the parents of these youngsters didn't know that their kids had had sex. One third were aware of it, but it's not clear they were doing anything about it. These parents are either clueless or powerless, and either way, they've let their kids down.

As Albert put it, "Many parents fear that when it comes to kids and their decisions about sex, they have lost them to peers and popular culture. But nothing could be further from the truth, and we have decades of research to prove it."

Albert pointed to extensive data that consistently show that parents have, or can have, a tremendous impact on the behavior of their kids including their sexual habits, well into the later teen years.

The campaign's Web site,, draws on that research in its list of "tips" for parents who want to prevent their kids from engaging in sexual activity. Like making sure your kids are comfortable talking with you about sex and that they know exactly how you feel about teen sex and why; ensuring that someone is responsible for engaging them in useful after-school activities if you can't be there; setting and sticking by rules and curfews; setting high goals for education; helping your kids think critically about the messages the popular culture sends; strongly discouraging early dating; and knowing your kids' friends and welcoming them into your home — when you are there.

The bottom line? Parents can't back off and out of their children's lives in early adolescence, when their kids may need them to "parent" most of all.

Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at: