In a recent study, about half of teens surveyed admitted to sexual activity. It’s a fact of life that adults have to face squarely.
And adults probably would be naïve to assume that the only ones having sex are the ones who are willing to admit to it.
But there’s another factor to consider: kids without access to comprehensive sex education may not know enough to call the sex that they’re having “real” sex.
Consider this finding from another survey, this one of ninth graders, that appeared in the journal Pediatrics in April 2005:
Adolescents evaluated oral sex as significantly less risky than vaginal sex on health, social, and emotional consequences.
That study found that, because of their assumptions about it being less risky, considerably more ninth-graders were having oral sex than were having vaginal sex.
Clearly, we’re failing our children if they believe that oral sex is less dangerous to their health. Oral sex can expose teens to the same sexually transmitted diseases — herpes, Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV — as “real” sex. The only risk they’re avoiding by having oral-genital or anal-genital intercourse instead of genital-to-genital contact is pregnancy.
So why don’t kids know the risks?
Because we adults are not providing them with frank, comprehensive sex education.
We all want to keep children safe and preserve their innocence. But think for a minute — would you hand over the car keys to a child who’s never had a driving lesson? Teens are exposed to a more powerful drive than the one to get behind the wheel. Those raging hormones of adolescence are a biological imperative. We ignore that irrepressible drive at our children’s peril.
As an Ob-Gyn, I see the consequences of inadequate sex education. After years of decline, STDs are on the rise among adolescents. So is pregnancy.
We need to be honest with our children about sex, not because we expect them to be sexually active any more than when we expect them to crash the car when we tell them to buckle up. We must do it to protect them. We would be negligent not to. And, we need to discuss sexual intercourse and all the attendant risks along with the responsibilities before they are teenagers.
Age-appropriate sex education must be available to all youngsters. It must be comprehensive, and include detailed information about homosexuality, heterosexuality, anal-genital intercourse, oral-genital intercourse, and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as abstinence. We must tell our youth the entire story, without flinching or sugar-coating. A child’s future fertility, even his or her life and quality of life can be at stake. If that doesn’t merit giving them the truth, I can’t imagine what does.
- Yvonne Thornton, MD, MPH