Commentary Sexual Health

Here’s a Novel Idea: Let’s Teach Kids About Safe Sex Before They Have Sex

Amanda Marcotte

We don't wait to teach driver's ed until after young people start driving, so why on earth do most sex education classes occur after a significant chunk of teens are already sexually active? It's time to let go of the sentimental attachment to the idea of "innocence" in adolescents.

Would you put kids in driver’s ed only after they’ve been getting behind the wheel and driving around with no instructions for a year? Before kids start playing a sport, don’t we teach them the rules of the game and how to use the equipment safely? Of course! It’s just common sense to establish safety measures before kids get immersed in a risky activity. So why on earth do we only start sharing informationabout sexual safety with young people after many of them have been having sex for months or even years?

Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress recently wrote an article pointing out an interesting tidbit she gleaned from a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on teen sexual health: Most teens don’t get any formal sexual health education until after they start having sex. In fact, among sexually active teenage girls, a whopping 83 percent had not received any formal sex education before they started having sex.

The problem is a matter of timing, really. Teens get over their squeamishness with teen sexuality before adults do. Because the topic of sex is considered so adult, there’s a lot of pressure to put sex education into the later years of high school. It makes a lot of emotional sense to adults to wait to have sex education until kids are “ready,” in our eyes, to start exploring their sexuality.

But since they already are having sex, what we adults deem as old enough to be “ready” is moot. It’s not like driving a car, where we can and should have a mechanism to keep them from doing it until we believe they’re ready. There’s no license to have sex, and even if there was one, kids would ignore it.

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This is anecdotal, but I’ve noticed the same tendency in our culture when it comes to contraception use and teenagers. For a lot of parents, the discussion about contraception use—or the actual act of providing teenagers with contraception—if it happens at all, occurs after evidence is discovered that a child is sexually active. Or, if parents are trying to be a little more progressive, they won’t wait until the discover their kids are having sex, but may wait until the kids start having a formal dating relationship to start providing contraception.

The problem with the first approach is obvious, in no small part because sometimes the evidence you get of sexual activity is a sexually transmitted infection or pregnancy that requires medical attention. Starting the conversation because a boyfriend or girlfriend is in the picture is better, for sure. But, I hate to break it to parents: Sometimes the sex precedes the formal dating relationship. Or at least, the sex may precede revealing a boyfriend or girlfriend to the parents. This is certainly true of most adults—most of us prefer to have a few months of hitting the sheets with someone before we’re certain enough to share the fact that we have a someone with our families—so it follows that some teenagers are going to see it that way too. While all families are different, it would be wise for parents to seriously consider using age as a metric to open up the contraception provision lines, making condoms or the pill available without pushing a child to reveal personal details about their plans to have sex or not.

But as a matter of public policy, we need to set aside this belief that innocence is a thing to be preserved as long as possible, and start thinking realistically about when kids actually start having sex, so we can make sure young people get sex education before then. After all, research shows that giving kids sex ed while they’re still virgins doesn’t lead them to have sex earlier; if anything, it may cause them to put off having sex a little longer. 

The truth is, teenagers are both smarter and more mature than adults give them credit for. Look, I get it. When I walk down the street as a high school lets out, I too marvel at how funny it is to see teenagers who practically look like babies to me strutting and showing off and trying to act cool (and usually failing). They seem really immature, and in many ways they are. But they are mature enough to handle basic lessons on how to use contraception and have sex responsibly. (We adults need to stop flattering ourselves by pretending it’s harder than it is.)

In fact, teenagers are already ahead of adults on this issue. Despite the terrible state of sex education in the United States, Guttmacher Institute research shows that the age of first sex and the age of first contraception use are finally coming together. Throughout most of recent history—because of this obsession with preserving innocence—first sex has generally preceded first contraception use. Kids start having sex and often wait weeks or even months to finally suck it up and get some contraception—no wonder our teen pregnancy rates have been so high. But in recent years, kids have gotten really good about using contraception the first time they have sex and keeping up the habit.

Adults really can’t take credit for this change, as made obvious by the fact that schools don’t even bother to provide sex education until a huge chunk of the class is already having sex. I suspect this is a result of a number of factors that have made it easier for young people to take the initiative to plan for sex. Research is clearly needed in this department, but the fact that things started to improve dramatically when kids started to get unimpeded access to the Internet, where they can ask hard questions about contraception without having to embarrass themselves, is probably a big, if not the biggest, factor.

What schools need to learn from this is not to just foist responsibility off onto kids themselves and let the Internet do the work, but that kids have questions—and sex—long before many adults may want them to. And the only real result of getting that information to them earlier is that they use the information. Kids clearly want to be responsible, and are taking initiative. Schools should take a hint and start giving them more and better help with that, at younger ages.

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