What? Teens Are NOT All Having Sex?

When I tell people I have been talking to teens about sex, dating and relationships for two decades, many adults say “they sure need that!” They recognize the problems of teen pregnancy, STDs and dating abuse. Second, they wonder why I’d think it’s effective to encourage teens to draw a line and not become sexually active. They state about teens, as a know fact, that “everybody’s doing it” and assume that the best we can do is provide condoms…and abortions and medicine for their recurring herpes sores when condoms fail.

I get a real kick out of telling adults and teens that “Well, actually, it’s not true that everybody’s doing it.” In fact, we have solid data going back to the early 1990s showing dramatic and steady decreases in teen sexual activity over the last 30 years. Every other year, as the newest Youth Behavior Risk Survey (YRBS) comes out, I have to revise my teaching to reflect the latest data. A couple of years ago, it was “almost 60%” of high school students have never had sex,” then “over 60%,” and now “almost 62%” have never had sex. Some other measures of teen sexual behavior are also going the same direction. In 1991 over 10% of 13-year-olds had had sex, and now it’s less than a third of that…3% as the above-linked YRBS chart shows. The truth is, adults who are fatalistic about teens experiencing sexual activity should believe more in the ability of teens to make healthy choices.

There are a lot of reasons why avoiding sexual activity is beneficial physically, socially, emotionally and mentally. Many have been covered in this blog. One I haven’t mentioned, that has a lot of solid data behind it, is how the timing of childbearing significantly impacts the course of not only an individual’s life, but family life and indeed society. What am I talking about? It’s called “The Success Sequence.” One of the researchers into future success and family formation explains in 60 seconds what it is: LINK

Quite simply the success sequence is this: Get at least a high school degree, find full-time work, and marry before having any children…in that order. The US Department of Human Services has posted some of the research on the Success Sequence, showing for instance, that “95 percent of Millennials who married first are not poor, compared to 72 percent who had children first.” Additionally, “71 percent who married before having children made it into the middle or higher end of the income distribution by the time they are age 28-34. By comparison, only 41 percent of Millennials from lower-income families who had children first made it into the middle or higher end of the distribution when they reached ages 28-34.” As one African American leader noted…marrying before having kids is the “great equalizer” economically.

So let’s connect the dots. During the same 30 years that the percent of teens having sex has decreased, teen pregnancy (and births and abortions) have also decreased dramatically. If we can encourage teens to keep going the direction they are already going…we can impact their future, and all of society, for the better. Isn’t that what we want for our kids? One Illinois organization is currently distributing to teachers and community leaders (through a government grant) an online course for teens based on the idea of sexual abstinence as a healthy choice. More can be found at successsequence.com.

The Other Virus That We Should Be Worried About

Very few people realize that the #1 most common STI (sexually transmitted infection) is HPV (human papillomavirus). According to the American Cancer Society it’s responsible for the ~13,800 new cases of invasive cervical cancer, and the ~4,290 women who will die from cervical cancer just this year in the US. And it is preventable, because virtually all cervical cancer is attributable to this sexually transmittable virus.

If teens would heed the warning to be abstinent from all forms of sexual activity they would remove themselves from any chance of getting HPV-related cancers. If WE (the older generations) had been abstinent, we wouldn’t be the most-diagnosed age group! It takes years for the cancers to develop if they are not detected. If you’re a woman reading this and your partner has ever had sex with anyone but you (either cheated or had s*x with even one person before you), or you had s*x with anyone but your current partner even one time (as a teen or since), you can significantly increase your chance of detecting HPV-caused cancer before it’s too late by getting a PAP smear. That’s right…that test we are told to get every year is designed to detect cancerous or precancerous cells from an HPV infection.

What is our health system doing to stop this deadly cancer? Too many people rely on a message to “use condoms.” BUT…HPV is not reliably preventable via condoms because it is spread skin-to-skin (and condoms don’t cover all skin that is touching during intimate contact). Check out the exact words from the CDC: “Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infections can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered.”  What about the vaccine we’re told our children should get by age 12? Many of your children have probably had one of the vaccines that prevent 2 of the roughly dozen cancer-causing strains of HPV. (Other strains can produce genital or oral warts). Those two strains are responsible for 70% of the cancers…leaving 30% they’re still vulnerable to. By the way, you may have wondered about the message you send to a teen by getting this vaccine. I mention in the classroom that this is the #1 STD out there, and that if they’ve been vaccinated it’s not because their parents think they plan to have s*x, but because doctors routinely recommend it.  Also, there is such a thing as dating or stranger s*xual assault by someone likely to have HPV.

My concern is for also for us…as many of us will be diagnosed with one of the cancers years after our exposure to HPV. the CDC says the median age at diagnosis for HPV-related cancers is as follows:

  • 49 years for HPV-associated cervical cancer.
  • 68 for HPV-associated vaginal cancer.
  • 66 for HPV-associated vulvar cancer.
  • 69 for HPV-associated penile cancer.
  • 62 among women and 59 among men for HPV-associated anal cancer.
  • 63 among women and 61 among men for HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers.

Unless you and your partner had no s*xual contact with anyone before marriage or lifelong commitment, and unless you’ve both been faithful, YOU should be concerned, and get those PAP smears as recommended. An HPV test can be purchased for women, but there is no approved test for men. A friend of mind, after decades of marriage found out her spouse had cheated. The first thing I said to her was “You need to be tested for HPV.” Sure enough, she has it and will have to keep vigilant about getting her yearly PAP. Oh…and it’s not just cervical cancer we have to be worried out. As I tell teens…mouths love this skin-to-skin spread STI. The CDC estimates 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are attributable to HPV, and that about 10% of men in the U.S. and 3.6% of women have oral HPV.

Videos by teens, for teens

I recently came across the OK, Inc. YouTube channel, with dozens of videos on topics teens say they want addressed…things such as date rape, bullying, sexting, abusive relationships, substance abuse, etc. These videos use high school students as actors and portray realistic scenarios. I watched several that have been viewed by millions, and can recommend them as excellent tools for parents and teachers.

These short story videos help teens recognize risky situations, make good choices, deal with consequences, and see a way forward even after making a poor choice. Every video has an example of friends who help their friends along the way.  Parents, don’t we want to see our child learn now how to have good relationships, choose well when faced with negative pressures, and to BE a good, supportive friend to others who are caught in bad decisions, or bad relationships? Sometimes, all the good advice we know we could give is better received coming from peers. These videos provide a creative way to open conversations with our children about the pressures and problems they face in everyday life, without coming across as too “preachy.” I urge you to watch and discuss as many of these videos with your teens as possible.

STDs? No Worries IF…

You may remember learning about 4 STDs when you were in high school health class. But did you know that teens today learn about 10-12? There are more than 30 STDs, with new ones being discovered every year. Some cause lifelong pain and/or embarrassment. Some cause death, blindness or death in babies, and other grave consequences. Chlamydia and other STDs that cause pelvic inflammatory disease are the leading preventable cause of infertility, and the biggest preventable reason for cesarean sections is the mother having an STD. So what do we tell our teens? How can we protect them?

One 8th grade boy showed me the condom in his wallet that his mom had given him. But that’s not a solution, since STDs (especially those spread by skin-to-skin contact) can be spread even when wearing condoms. In fact, the CDC says: “Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infection can occur in male or female genital areas that are covered (protected by the condom) as well as those areas that are not.” HPV is the #1 STD, with 100+ strains leading to genital warts and cervical and oral cancers. It’s incurable.

We at Teen Decision help teens discover that the safest, healthiest choice is to be sexually abstinent. Of course, being abstinent has benefits beyond avoiding STDs and pregnancy…it also helps teens have healthier dating relationships, and even (fuel for another blog) more stable marriages in the future. One girl wrote, after the conclusion of our program: “This program was an amazing experience!  I’ve now learned to be more open with my mom about sex, abstinence, and everything else.  Before this program, I thought sex was inevitable.   Now, I am realizing that saving it…is the best option.  I am currently dating a boy that I really like. He is so good to me and always puts me first.  I have only been dating him over a month now but last night I talked to him about abstinence and he said that he is willing to wait until marriage (that is if I marry him).  It’s really nice to know that I won’t have to worry about STDs, pregnancy, or just not being ready” 

FACT SHEET ON STDs from the CDC.

Teen Sex and Grades: Related?

Are you worried about your child’s grades?  Is that the only issue? Perhaps not…

Research shows teen risk behaviors go together, such as drinking and sex, or drugs and poor grades. Parents want their kids to do well in school, so they can go to college or learn a valuable workplace skill. And something tells us more is wrong than meets the eye when our kids turn in poor grades, especially when that hasn’t always been true.

It might be time to turn our attention to that new boyfriend, or girlfriend in your teen’s life.  Data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows a connection between teen sexual activity and poor grades, according to a fact sheet from the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).  According to the sheet findings:

“23% of US high school students with mostly A’s were currently sexually active (had sexual
intercourse with at least one person during the 3 months before the survey), compared to
46% of students with mostly D/F’s.”

Instead of berating your child about slipping grades, maybe have a sit-down with an open ear, and a caring tone, to find out what’s happening with a dating partner. A simple question: “How’s it going lately with Casey?” could open the door to helping your teen think about how a dating relationship (and perhaps physical intimacy) is affecting them.

Where is your teen headed?

Looking ahead

We can see in retrospect that the decisions we made as teens and twenty-somethings set the course for the rest of our lives, but if the teens under your care are like many young people, they are less focused on direction in life than what’s for dinner, who asked who to homecoming, and making the next kill in Fortnight before getting down to homework.

Do you know what your child would say if asked about goals in life?  If you find yourself using the line: “If you don’t get good grades, you won’t get into a good college” it’s time to rethink your strategy.  Do we really thing kids can’t wait to finish high school, just so they can go to college for 4 or more years? No…college is a means to the other goals they have: A good job, a house, travel…and yes, marriage and family. So HOW can we help them put a name to their goals, and use those goals to drive the decisions they make today?

The first step, is to help your child identify the things that are important to them…put a name to it! Take one of the spokes on this life “wheel” (LINK) and talk about it at the dinner table some night…and keep going until you’ve talked about them all.  Then, once important goals are identified and written down, talk through the HOW of achieving those goals. Next, identify the roadblocks they might encounter, or create by their lack of planning or poor decisions.

Teen Decision and other organizations are part of the effort to get teens to consider how relationship choices now can affect teens today AND tomorrow. Over 15,000 Illinois students this year have benefited from a state-funded workbook based program (A&M Partnership) teaching abstinence from a medically accurate, well-reasoned perspective. The very first chapter in each workbook  talks about goal-setting. The entire first chapter of Navigator (LINK) has great resources if you want to take a page or two to help you talk through goals in life with your child. In the next blog posts, I’ll be taking some other tips and ideas from these workbooks to help you help your teen on the path to maturity.

Today’s Choice = Tomorrow’s Consequences

What might motivate teens to wait to have sex? A report by Ascend (a sexual risk avoidance advocacy and research organization) reveals some reasons…and we think some of them would be GREAT conversation starters for you, the adult in your teen’s life. Here are a few key points from the article:

“Teens overall (51%) and especially females (57%) say they would wait longer for sex if it meant a greater chance of having a better relationship or marriage in the future.  Avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases (50%) is an even greater disincentive for sex than was avoiding pregnancy (44%).  Increasing one’s chances to avoid or escape poverty (41%) or to attend college (42%) were important factors that teens say would cause them to wait longer for sex.”

Teen Decision is on the forefront of giving teens (and parents!) a VISION for the future by talking about the impact of choices they are making now:

  • STDs: Sexually active teens face more risks than any generation EVER (and higher risks for STDs than pregnancy)…with serious consequences for their future, such as infertility, illness, even death.
  • PREGNANCY: Teens discuss in our classroom how pregnancy could impact their lives right now, and their future. One fact they hear from us is that less than 2% of teen moms complete a college degree by the age of 30.
  • FUTURE: We help teens think ahead about how being sexually active can impact their goals in life, such as finishing high school, going to college, getting married, having a family, and owning a home.

Stay tuned for future posts…where we discuss how to help teens wait by giving them reasons to believe that waiting can mean a better future.

Talking to Teens about Sexual Harassment

A couple of years ago, a student in an all-girl classroom I was speaking to shared that boys were grabbing their butts during passing periods. A show of hands indicated 29 out of 30 had experienced this! After hearing from them that if they protested “it would get worse,” I spoke to them clearly about what they were allowing, and why they should stand up to it, then put them in groups and tasked them with deciding what to do the next time it happened. One girl wrote me afterwards that the next time it happened, she slapped the guy.  I’m not sure I intended to incent violence, but it WAS assault (let’s be clear!), and she finally treated it as such. She said she was treated with respect after that. Every year since, as I kept hammering home that “your body belongs to YOU,” the numbers came down…and this year only 3 in a class of 30 had been groped! It makes a difference when we talk to our teens and prepare them to stand up to seSilent No Morexual harassment. This is just one of the things Teen Decision does, as we talk to teens about sex, and dating.

According to a Washington Post article, in a national study on sexual harassment, “87 percent of respondents [ages 18-24] reported they had been the victim of at least one form of sexual harassment,” and “72 percent of men and 80 percent of women reported that they never had a conversation with parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.”  Parents, we have to do better! We’ve all seen the news about politicians and Hollywood celebrities getting away with sexual misbehavior for decades. Now is a great time to take advantage of the public conversation, and expose these boorish (often criminal) behaviors for what they are.  The Post article has GREAT suggestions for how to talk to your teen. Take a moment to read the article, and have that conversation…NOW.

If you like the work Teen Decision does, and how we help boys AND girls advocate for themselves and stand strong for their right to “SAY NO” to sex…consider a donation! If you’re on our blog page now, look for the green “Donate” button. Or go to teendecision.org.  People like you, who love and care about teens, are the ones who keep us going, and we need your help to finish 2017, as we stay on track to serve 8,000 students this school year. 

Dads, daughters, and risk.

Their is plenty of research on the link between girls growing up without dads, and heightened incidence of risky sexual behaviors. But what about the KIND of fathering a girl gets, and the “doses” of father time? It turns out that encouraging dads to take an active role in parenting their daughters is KEY to whether or not they engage in risky sexual behaviors. A study looked at sisters who had different amounts of time, and different quality time, with dads…for instance, because of divorce or separation. An older daughter might have had more “dad” time than a younger one growing up, and it showed in different outcomes.

According to the article, “ItTeenager and dad‘s not enough for a dad to just be in the home,” said Danielle J. DelPriore, a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Utah’s department of psychology and lead author of the study. “The quality of a father’s relationship with his daughter has implications for both the overall monitoring she receives from her parents as well as her likelihood of affiliating with more promiscuous or more prosocial friends.”

Anyone knows how exhausting it can be to parent teens, and keep tabs on their safety…and two parents are better than one if you can both play a part.  The article points out: “Parental monitoring refers to parents’ supervision over their children’s lives, including their communication and knowledge about what a child is doing, who she is hanging out with, and how she spends her time and money. Research has shown that low parental monitoring is associated with increased drug and alcohol use, delinquency and other behavior problems.”  If you are a dad, know how important your presence and input are!  If you are a mom, encourage your daughter’s relationship with her Dad (we’re not talking about abusive dads of course), whether you are an intact family or not. It can really help her take the path to a better future.

Not your grandma’s sex ed program…

One of the funniest comments I ever got was from a student who said that at first she expected to see some old person with warts show up as the Teen Decision speaker.  Others were similarly relieved…”‘I like how you didn’t just say ‘Sex is bad. Don’t have sex.  Back in my day….’  You talked about how it actually is.”  While we immediately dispel students’ notions about boring tori-libby-teaching_teen-decision_high-school-3or irrelevant sex ed, it’s not so easy to dispel the misconceptions many ADULTS have about the abstinence message.  Today I watched a YouTube video of a 20-something sex educator who has multiple videos mocking abstinence education as “abstinence only,” “pledge cards,”  “purity rings,” and “lies, lies, lies.” The false stereotypes were rampant…and it made my blood boil. So, let’s tackle just one common misconception:  That abstinence education is “shame-based.”  One of the ways to connect with teens, whether as a parent, or a Teen Decision speaker, is for them to know you understand their world, their feelings and the pressures they face.  That includes the desire for a boyfriend or girlfriend and the urge to express their desires physically.  Shame is a poor motivator, and is never part of our classroom presentation, nor should it be how you approach your child. Instead, we’re matter-of-fact about discussing sex. And that makes it less awkward.  There was a study some years ago of teen-parent conversations about sex.  When parents didn’t show nervousness or discomfort (I know, that’s not easy!) but were straightforward and calm when discussing sex, teens were more likely to be OK with having those conversations, less nervous themselves, and more likely to feel parents (YOU) could be approached with questions and concerns. We want to send the message that there’s no shame in having feelings and desires, but managing those desires in a way that leads to good relationships and dating practices is key to a healthier, happier future.

Next time, I’ll tackle another misconception…that the message to wait to have sex is “fear-based.”