Dear Parent, right out of the gate, here’s a content warning. Reading this article may make you feel a little squeamish, awkward and uncomfortable. That’s kind of the point. Too many of us are being cowardly and need to be called out. Pause for a second, take a few slow, deep breaths, but stay with me – this is important. We need to talk about Sexually Transmitted Diseases – STDs – for short.
Let’s start at the root of the issue and briefly go back in time to think about our own childhood experiences. Picture yourself as a 12-year-old and imagine the word “sex” being spoken aloud in your house. Would the feeling in the room have been one of casual conversation and open discussion, or would all eye contact suddenly cease and the topic abruptly change to leave you feeling like any adult in the room hadn’t actually heard the word? For most of us, the latter scenario was our reality. We were left to watch vague films in school, handed a pamphlet of some sort or set free to uncover the “facts” from our friends – talk about fake news!
My childhood experience was definitely the norm – a couple tidbits about anatomy thrown out, albeit never using the correct anatomical terms, and a small, pink booklet about “Becoming a Woman” passed to me with a box of feminine products. End of story, with message received: We really don’t wanna talk about sex or anything related to it.
Fast forward to my late twenties – when my thirst for accurate, medical knowledge blossomed right along with my belly, pregnant for the first time. I became fascinated with all things pregnancy and birth, and ended up becoming a certified childbirth educator. Now it was my turn to be the adult in the room talking about sex out loud, and I assumed everyone who entered my hospital classroom would be up to the task – they were after all, visible proof of some sexual activity.
The level of embarrassment was still sky-high when it came to certain details, and terminology was a struggle for many. Ironically, my first years of teaching were when my husband was still on active military duty. Almost all of the fathers in my classes were part of a nearby combat arms brigade. These were tough men, many of whom had fought in Iraq, yet they could not bring themselves to say the word “vagina” out loud. After a few series of classes, I realized I needed to start off the first night with some comical, ice-breaker anatomy chants, and the relief was palpable.
I experienced the stark realization that when people are encouraged and given permission to be curious, humorous and honest about the basics of sex – with no shame or judgement – communication begins to flow beautifully. Sometimes we all need a plain and simple reminder that every human alive on the planet today is here because someone had sex – or masturbated. It’s a normal and healthy part of life –wait, it IS life.
Today, we live in the age of erectile dysfunction commercials, dating apps and quick hook-ups. Yet many of us are still too uncomfortable to talk to our kids about sexual health, or we wait way too long to begin the conversations. We either leave it to teachers and coaches in schools, who don’t have nearly enough time to talk about all that needs to be discussed, or we live in a state of semi-denial and hope the kids will eventually figure it out via Google. If we abstain from talking about it, perhaps our kids will abstain from doing it! The more proactive parents hope that leaving a box of condoms in their son’s room, or bringing their daughter to the doctor for birth control pills will be the beginning and end of their involvement.
When it comes to simply preventing pregnancy, these tactics seem to be working. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “between 1991 and 2015, the teen birth rate declined by an impressive 64% nationwide. It has declined in all 50 states and among all racial/ethnic groups.” This is great news, although our teen birth rate is still higher than that of many other developed nations.
What is not great news is that rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are at an all-time high, with young people and gay and bisexual men at greatest risk for becoming infected. 2015 was the second year in a row in which increases were seen in all three nationally reported STDs – chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that “nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year in this country, half among young people aged 15–24, and account for almost $16 billion in health care costs.”
Another alarming fact: while medication for gonorrhea has been available for decades, the bacteria has grown resistant to nearly every drug ever used to treat it – only one recommended treatment option remains. Dr. Jonathan Mermin of the CDC acknowledges that
Embarrassment, along with limited access to testing, plays a large role in prevention and treatment of STDs for many Americans. When left untreated, these infections can cause chronic pelvic pain, blindness, inability to have children, increased risk of getting HIV, stillbirths, and permanent malformations in newborns.
The complexities of discussing sexual health with our kids is that we must also address issues like oral and anal sex, and same-sex partner behaviors. Periodic, confidential sampling conducted by the National Survey of Family Growth shows sustained increases in oral and anal sex rates starting in 2002, when both men and women ages 15-44 began survey participation.
The reality is that infections can be transmitted from any kind of sexual conduct involving genitals, and there are some risks even if condoms are being used. Kids need evidence-based facts.
Parents seem to do a much better job with talking about their moral and ethical concerns when discussing the broad topic of relationships with their children. It goes without saying that this is vital and should always be a part of the ongoing discussions. Where most of us fall flat is with the details of staying physically healthy. We often choose to forget that sex is one of the basic human biological drives, along with hunger, thirst and sleep. Imagine if the total nutritional advice we gave our children was a simplistic, “Eat when you are hungry – but be careful!”
So, if up until today, you’ve been one of the many embarrassed parents, what steps can you take now?
5 Ways to Talk to Your Teen About STDs and Sexual Health
- Whether your child is 12 or 20, arrange a first discussion – preferably where eye contact is minimal. Start off with acknowledgement that it’s going to be awkward, hopefully a bit humorous, but free of judgement and solely focused on their health. Key attitude: Sex is normal! Let them know they can ask you anything now and going forward, and you will help them find answers if you don’t know. (See the resources below.)
- If you have any reason to even suspect your child is sexually active, make sure they see a doctor, have access to birth control, and have them get tested for STDs. If you can’t stomach the details, tell the doctor beforehand that you’d like a longer appointment so there’s time for them to talk in greater detail with your child.
- Emphasize the extreme importance of always being completely honest with health care providers. I often remind my kids that medical professionals have seen and heard it ALL! Even if it is not offered to your child, suggest the option of talking to the doctor without you present, especially if you suspect they aren’t being honest with you. Isn’t their health as important as any control issues you may have as their parent?
- Talk often about how alcohol and drugs alter decision-making when it comes to sex of any kind. Sexual health and history needs to be discussed with a potential partner when both involved are sober and honest. Mutual consent is a must. Yep – if you’re not mature enough to talk about it, you really shouldn’t be doing it.
- Highlight the fact that decisions made about sex today can significantly affect someone’s health far into the future. As with learning to drive a car, emphasizing safety can be achieved without undue fear.
If you’re a parent who already openly discusses sexual health with your kids – thank you. If you’re not, but you’ve read this far – pat yourself on the back, and get talking.
Here are some helpful resources for both parents and teens. Encourage your kids to follow a couple of these sites on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Tumbler.