By Alicia Wanek
At Good Life Family our tagline is “The Go-To Source for Parents of Kids Tweens to Twenties.” Many of us are parents of children in just that demographic, and we try to cover topics that we ourselves would like to read. In this article, we cover the uncomfortable but very important issue of sex and what we as parents need to know in discussing sex with our kids. You may have thought telling them about the birds and the bees was hard enough, but it doesn’t end there. The risks and consequences of sexual decisions require many conversations.
The percentage of teens in the U.S. who have had sex has declined since the 1980s, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) showed in 2017. Teen birth rates are on the decline, and 80% of teens reported using contraception when they had sex for the first time. For teenage girls and women aged 15 to 19 who had had sex more than once, 99% reported they had used some form of contraception before. Other studies have shown that condom use is up and that teenagers and millennials are having sex with fewer partners than generations past.
The reality is still, according to the CDC report, that 42% of girls and women ages 15 to 19 who have never been married have had sex and 44% of young men. The rates are more variable for college students, but in 2017 at the University of Washington, a survey of 1,180 undergraduate students revealed that an average of 76.4% had had intercourse, 64.3% of freshman and 84.6% of seniors.
There are so many components of healthy relationships and healthy decisions about sex that our kids need help navigating. Here we try to help you with some of the most important conversations you might want to have with your teens.
No. 1 | Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are at an all-time high. Data released by the CDC reported that nearly 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were diagnosed in 2017. In 2015, there were 1.5 million reported cases of chlamydia — the highest number of STD cases ever reported to the government — and people between the ages of 15 and 24 accounted for the largest number of infections. That same age group accounted for half of all gonorrhea cases reported that year.
Some have postulated that because this generation didn’t grow up with the fear of HIV/AIDS, and because of the advancements in medical treatment, they just don’t worry about contracting an STD. Additionally, since only 22 states mandate both sex education and HIV education and many states teach abstinence only, the teens may just not be aware of the risks. USA Today has even suggested that in young adults, the rise in the use of dating apps may be playing a role in the rise in syphilis cases. Sometimes, they aren’t using any protection because their boyfriend or girlfriend has assured him or her they’ve never had another sexual partner. The diagnosis of an STD comes as a very unwelcome surprise.
There are sometimes lifelong consequences. Because 50% of women with chlamydia don’t show any symptoms, there can be severe damage to their fallopian tubes and ultimately infertility before they’re even diagnosed. “What I’ve also seen in my practice is an increase in oral-genital STDs,” OB/GYN Dr. Katrina Walsh reports. These are contracted through oral sex. She reports having seen more pharyngeal chlamydia in younger women. Gonorrhea and syphilis can be transmitted this way as well.
One easy way to reduce the risk of contracting an STD is for your teen to get the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) shot. She points out that this vaccine can reduce the risk of pre-cervical cancer by 73%, although it only protects against 4 to 9 of the hundreds of strains of the disease. In one study of a group of young women who got the vaccine as college freshmen, less than 1% had been diagnosed with cervical cancer at the end of four years. Dr. Walsh assures parents there is no reason not to get the vaccine. “Even if your teen adheres to abstinence … I, as a mom myself, would want to protect my daughter when I know there is a vaccine that can prevent a serious disease.”
Of course, abstinence is the best prevention, but condom use, avoiding oral sex and getting tested for STDs if they are sexually active are crucial. “Always use protection!” Dr. Walsh tells her patients. Parents can’t be scared about talking about STDs with their kids, and it should be before they’re sexually active. If they aren’t hearing about the risks at school, let them hear it from you.
No. 2 | Dating Violence
Though certainly not always sexual in nature, domestic violence is not an issue reserved for those in marriages or domestic partnerships. Whether physical, verbal/emotional, digital, sexual or spiritual, it is a reality in many teen relationships as well. The Genesis Women’s Shelter and Support in Dallas reports that between the ages of 16 and 24, girls and women experience intimate partner violence at almost 3 times the national average; that 1 in 10 high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend; and 1 in 3 girls in the U.S. is a victim of abuse from a dating partner. You may be surprised to know the average age at Genesis’ shelter is approximately 25.
“No one is immune. It’s an equal opportunity epidemic,” says Jan Edgar Langbein, CEO at Genesis.She reminds us that domestic/dating violence is an issue that cuts across all racial, socio-economic, cultural and even gender classes.
As parents, we need to teach our children about healthy relationships and make sure they know abuse is NEVER okay.
Some red flags could be that your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend has an explosive temper, seems to make all the decisions, shows extreme jealousy or controls who they can see or talk to.
Though it’s always important to look for any signs of physical, verbal or sexual abuse, in this day and age, oftentimes the abuse is digital. A boyfriend may demand passwords and access to a girl’s phone as a means of control. Digital messages are often a source of “verbal”/emotional abuse. “Verbal and emotional abuse is also deadly,” Jan says. “It destroys our souls.” She believes we have a responsibility to “make sure we know what our kids are being exposed to” via text or social media.
The best thing you can do is to keep an open line of communication with your child. Jan encourages parents who are concerned to “bite your tongue” and ask “How?” and “Why?” so the teen won’t shut down and walk away from the conversation. Genesis offers a list of teen dating violence talking points including: “What would you want me to do if I noticed red flags in your boyfriend/girlfriend?” or “What do you think are traits or actions you would want to see in a partner?” “What could I do or say that would help you feel safer to talk to me about your dating relationships?” Remember, too, that teens are often talking more to their friends than to their parents, so talk to them about how to handle it if they believe a friend is experiencing dating violence. For teens, dating and being with a partner is brand new. It’s important for parents to help them understand how healthy relationships should feel.
No. 3 | Role of Faith in Sexual Choices
It’s a sensitive topic for sure, but a discussion with your teens about sex is not complete if it doesn’t also include discussing how their faith can guide their decisions and attitudes. A Gallup poll from 2013 found that 56% of teens said that religion played “a very important role in their life.” Sexual abstinence is, of course, the safest way to prevent your teen’s risk of STDs or pregnancy, and according to a study released by the CDC, the most frequent reason teenagers give for abstaining from sex is that the behavior goes against their religion or morals.
Among the 57 percent of girls and 58 percent of boys ages 15-19 who said they had never had sex, 41 percent of girls and 31 percent of boys chose “against religion or morals” as their main reason for not being sexually active.
Most faiths believe in abstinence until marriage, but psychologists also encourage helping teens to have a healthy attitude about their identity as a sexual being. Many churches today offer sexuality courses for young teens, often with very frank discussions about puberty, sexual terms, birth control and STDs but from a Christian perspective. Kate Ott, author of Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, says, “Parents, whenever possible, should be the first and primary sexuality educators for their children. Like all things in life, we also want the information, lessons and values we teach our children to be reinforced and strengthened by other trusted adults around them. That includes school as well as our faith communities. We sometimes limit sexuality education to facts, but it is also about relationships and values. When children have opportunities to connect faith values to what they learn about sexuality, it strengthens their decision-making.”
No. 4 | What Consent Really Means
If you have a son in a fraternity in college, it’s highly likely he’s seen the video “Tea and Consent.” Easily found on YouTube, this 2015 video released by British police attempts to explain sexual consent using a cup of tea as an analogy. The video’s reminders – that you can offer a cup of tea to someone but they can refuse, that you should never force someone to drink tea, and that someone may have accepted a cup of tea but then change their mind about drinking it – are all to point out that the same principles apply to sex. The message “Consent is Everything” is driven home at the end of the video.
Simplistic, perhaps so. The message, however, should be made clear to all teens and young adults – really to everyone – that they should never feel pressured, coerced or forced to participate in anything sexual. Young Men’s Health at Boston’s Children’s Hospital explains it this way: “Sexual consent means there is a clear agreement by all participants for any type of sexual encounter for that one time.
Sex without consent is not only a crime, it can also have long-lasting emotional effects.
Sexual consent is not just about sexual intercourse; it also includes kissing, making out, cuddling or touching.”
The following guidelines from their website (youngmenshealthsite.org) are good talking points with your child:
• Consent can be sexy. Asking consent sets the right tone for a healthy relationship or sexual encounter. Relationships built on sexual consent often grow to have strong roots of trust.
• Silence does not mean consent. Consent is not assumed or hesitant. Consent is clear and understood by everyone involved. How do you know if there is consent? Simply ask and wait for your partner to answer.
• You can change your mind at any time. Sexual activity should feel right every time. Just because you did something once before doesn’t mean you need to be okay with it again. Anyone can change their mind in the future for reasons such as time and mood. You can even change your mind in the middle of a sexual encounter.
• No one can consent after using drugs, alcohol or any substances. If someone is buzzed, high or blacked-out, they cannot give consent. A lack of resistance is not permission to continue. If someone is motionless, they do not have a voice to agree or disagree.
• Using force, control or threats is NEVER okay. If it takes convincing, it is not consent. The bottom line is that everyone deserves emotional and physical respect and has the right to make decisions about their own body. Consent should be guilt-free, willing and crystal clear.
• “No” means no. “I don’t know” does not mean yes. “Yes” means yes.
No. 5 | Pornography and Sexualized Images: How are they impacting our kids?
Pornography is more readily accessible now than ever before. It’s important that you monitor what your children are doing online, and parental controls can be very helpful. However, you can’t control what your child’s peers are seeing online and what they are sharing with your kids. Dr. Joanne Orlando of Western Sydney University, a consultant on children and technology, says, “Pornography can influence young people’s attitudes on sex, sexual tastes and relationships. For example, a lot of softcore and hardcore pornography is easily accessible and can send messages like 1) mutual consent and safe sex aren’t important, 2) violent sexual acts are normal and appealing, 3) loving relationships aren’t important, and 4) aggressive behavior toward women is normal and okay.”
After the opening of a Hustler store in Dallas, New Friends New Life then CEO Kim Robinson told the Dallas Morning News she sees a direct correlation between the increase in the accessibility of porn online and “the increase of sex trafficking and risk to our vulnerable youth … With the growth of free online porn has come an increase in the number of teens and children being exploited and abused. Often these porn ‘actresses’ are victims of human trafficking forced into sex acts for little or no money. Others are coerced into degrading acts after intoxication or drug use,” she says. The team at New Friends New Life is committed to both advocacy and to education, job training and counseling to formerly trafficked girls and sexually exploited women and children. With 5.5 million child victims of human trafficking each year, the average age when a child first falls victim being just 13 years old, and 400 teens subject to trafficking on Dallas streets every night, it’s a problem we can’t ignore.
Even if they aren’t exposed to outright pornography, the prevalence of highly sexualized images bombards them every day. Caron C. Andrews and Amanda Grossman Scott, authors of 30 Days of Sex Talks; How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography state, “… the reality is that it has become a rampant part of our everyday culture. You can hardly drive past a billboard on the side of the road or watch TV ads without seeing sexualized material. You can find thong underwear marketed to seven-year-olds, and an astonishing array of sexually suggestive phrases printed on girls’ shirts. Sex sells, and marketers have gone to the extreme to take advantage of that fact. In this new hypersexualized world, you are going to be exposed to images and poses that not so long ago could only be found in actual porn movies and pictures. It’s everywhere. It’s inescapable.”
“Parents must not turn a blind eye to what is taking place in this new digital age of accessibility; they must not believe their kids will somehow, on their own, navigate it well.”
Dr. Dean Beckloff of the Beckloff Pediatric Behavioral Center says it this way, “Teens are getting inundated with information and talk about sexual matters. Most are well aware of sexting taking place, ways to access pornography – and I believe are needing definite guidance in this brave new world that has opened up due to the accessibility of the Internet. Parents must not turn a blind eye to what is taking place in this new digital age of accessibility; they must not believe their kids will somehow, on their own, navigate it well. Parents, I believe have got to be even more open to discussions about sex. Also, find help through churches, schools and other avenues that will give teens more information to help them navigate this world that we as parents never had to deal with. Whether we like this or not, we cannot afford to ignore what is happening and what our teens are having to deal with.”
So how do you address this topic with your child? It can be pretty uncomfortable for sure. Here are some guidelines from Dr. Orlando.
• Plan the conversation by thinking about what you want to say to your child.
• Be open and ready to listen to what your child has to say.
• Ask questions like: What do you know about pornography? Have you seen it with friends? Do you have any questions about what you’ve heard or seen?
• If your child has seen pornography, it’s important to let her know that it’s normal and okay to be interested in sex and sexuality and that he or she is not in trouble.
• Explain that it is a business, that the people are being paid, and that it does not reflect reality.
• Talk about the risks.
No. 6 | If Not You, Who?
You hope your child will always come to you to talk about sex or any other subject, but there will be times when they don’t feel comfortable discussing certain subjects with mom or dad. Or maybe you don’t feel comfortable talking to your child. Or maybe you don’t have all the answers. It’s important your children have other resources to get the information they need or another trusted adult with whom they feel safe to have discussions about sensitive topics.
If your child is on a college campus, there are likely several resources available to them. The student health center is used to addressing sexual issues, and most campuses today also offer mental health/counseling centers free of charge or with a very nominal fee. For teens, you may offer to schedule an appointment with their doctor, so they can ask questions without you in the room. The team at Girls to Women Health and Wellness/Young Men’s Health and Wellness, a practice specifically aimed at treating teens and young adults, says, “While it’s not our job to tell you when it’s okay to begin having sex, it is our goal to make sure you understand how to protect yourself and have a positive sense of your sexuality over the course of your lifetime.”
Whether it’s a family friend, a relative, a doctor or a school counselor, make sure you help your child identify a trusted adult. Getting their information from friends or the Internet is not reliable.
RESOURCES USED FOR THIS ARTICLE
(in order of appearance)
Centers for Disease Control and Protection
University of Washington
Dr. Katrina Walsh, Plano, TX
Jan Edgar Langbein, CEO, Genesis Shelter, Dallas, TX
Kate Ott, author, Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence
“Tea and Consent”
Young Men’s Health
Boston Children’s Hospital
Dr. Joanne Orlando, Western Sydney University
New Friends New Life, Dallas, TX
Caron C. Andrews and Amanda Grossman Scott, authors, 30 Days of Sex Talks; How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography
Dr. Dean Beckloff, Beckloff Pediatric Behavorial Center, Dallas, TX
Girls to Women Health and Wellness/Young Men’s Health and Wellness, Dallas, TX
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