The sex lives of adolescents is a topic which many parents – and, apparently, doctors – would often prefer to avoid. But since almost half of high school students have had sex, we can’t pretend the sex lives of teenagers are nonexistent, nor can we neglect to teach adolescents about being responsible for their sexual health. Unfortunately, a recent study showed that only about 65% of physicians are talking to teens about sex, and when they do, the conversation lasts only an average of 36 seconds.
None of the 253 teenage patients in the study brought up sex themselves during their office visits, meaning that if the doctor did not initiate the conversation, it did not take place. The doctors were more likely to raise the topic with female patients. It may be true that girls are the ones who get pregnant, and must learn to protect themselves, but adolescent boys also need to know that they share equal responsibility when it comes to safe sex. Besides unexpected pregnancy, both girls and boys must be taught how to avoid contracting and spreading sexually transmitted infections.
And teens can’t count on learning the information they need at home or at school, either. Many sex-ed classes in schools fall short of comprehensive, and the subject is never brought up at all by many parents. For this reason, it is important for doctors to realize the magnitude of this need and be sure to talk to their adolescent patients about sex.
Parents can assist by not being present in the room during the exam – unsurprisingly, the study showed that doctors were much more likely to bring up the topic of sexual health when parents were absent. Longer visits were also more likely to include conversations about sex, one of many reasons why taking enough time with each patient and giving them individual, personal attention is so important.
Whether the doctors were uncomfortable talking about sex with teenagers, were concerned about making conservative parents angry, or were just too rushed isn’t clear. What is clear is that we can’t expect teens to make good choices if we don’t make the effort (uncomfortable as it may be) to educate them and provide them with the tools to make those good choices.
And since teens don’t bring up sex on their own during doctor appointments, it’s vital that we open up the conversation and give them a chance to ask any pressing or embarrassing questions they may have. Otherwise they will likely turn to their friends or the Internet, and there is far too much incorrect and downright dangerous information out there to neglect the job of teaching kids the facts and giving them the opportunity to talk to a trusted, knowledgeable adult about sex.
– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.