For the past few years I have been lucky enough to spend my time talking to people about sex. Yes, sex! I spend 8 hours a day either talking or writing about sex and relationships. Now, for some people, just hearing the word “sex” or “vagina” makes them run for cover, but for me, it’s a chance to conduct honest and meaningful discussions about some of the most intimate and pressing moments in our lives.
Working as a reproductive and sexual health educator for Planned Parenthood allows me to interact with a wide range of individuals—from parents who struggle to talk to their teens about sex, to middle school teens who grapple with the ins and outs of puberty. Although I work with a variety of people, I spend most of my time with high school teens and find that it is increasingly harder for them to advocate for themselves.
Quite often, teen girls struggle to effectively communicate with their romantic partners, while teen boys have not yet acquired the proper skills to listen and accept the personal boundaries outlined by their romantic counterparts. This breakdown in communication ultimately disrupts the power dynamics in any teen relationship, either by leaving them without a voice to speak up for themselves, and/or by allowing them to completely dismiss and override one another’s personal boundaries. Likewise, both teen girls and teen boys receive mixed and often misguided messages about communication and relationships, which has a negative impact on the way they interact with each other.
Due to their inability to communicate effectively, many teens struggle to create and maintain positive relationships and ultimately decrease their ability to engage in safer sex practices.
For the most part, the teens I work with have basic knowledge about safer sex. Usually, before we begin a workshop, I ask what they should do to stay safe, and they typically respond with, “get tested and wear a condom.” But, they always miss two important factors: communication and consent.
None of my students ever state that they need to first discuss sexual activity before they have sex, and they especially do not think to ask permission before they engage in sex of any kind. In some instances, I have even had male students admit that if their partner physically responds to their touch, this then gives them the “green light” to continue. They do not immediately understand that the only way a person can know if their partner wants to have sex with them is by asking for permission and receiving a verbal “yes.”
Up until recently, the concept of consent was not something that was overly stressed when discussing safer sex practices. It was usually something that was glossed over, but in fact, it is one of the most important and essential strategies in reducing the risk of both STI transmission and unintended pregnancies.
Typically, when middle and high school students are pressured by their partners to engage in certain activities, they tend to do so even if they do not want to. The pressure to satisfy their partners’ requests is so high that they often sacrifice their own needs for the sake of their relationships. Moreover, teens receive mixed messages about sexuality from a variety of sources, which can influence the way they perceive one another. For example, many girls receive messages that they should be more submissive and accepting in their relationships, while young men receive messages suggesting that they are entitled to have sex whenever they want irrespective of their partner’s decisions.
In some instances, teen boys are praised and encouraged to have sex, while young girls are judged and even shamed when they choose to have sex with their partners. This situation then lends itself to an unhealthy and even hostile environment because teens then have different sets of expectations for one another and are not given the skills to positively communicate with their partners. We need to do a better job in providing positive messages to teens that reinforce healthy relationships and give them effective communication strategies so that all teens feel comfortable and empowered to voice their concerns without feeling pressured to abide by any other standards but their own.
According to a study conducted by Sameer Handuja and Justin Patchin, students who experienced peer sexual coercion were more likely to engage in other risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use (2010). They also found that one in ten 15 year-old girls have experienced sexual coercion by a dating partner (2010). This suggests that both teen boys and girls struggle to maintain healthy boundaries while in relationships. And though girls seem to have more of a difficult time expressing their concerns, boys also struggle with paying close attention to the needs of their partners.
There needs to be a shift in the way we communicate with our teens about sex and relationships because as it currently stands, we are setting them up for failure. The Centers for Disease Control states that in the U.S., STI transmission and unintended pregnancies among teens are still relatively high compared to other industrial nations such as the Netherlands and Japan. They found that “there are about 20 million new cases of STI’s reported each year, and about half of those individuals are between the ages of 15-24” (2014).
Even with the reduction of teen pregnancy rates, nearly 1,700 teen girls, ages 15 to 17 years, gave birth every week (CDC, 2014). There is still a lot of work to be done, and by only focusing on condom use and STI testing, we are indirectly disenfranchising our youth. They need to learn how to stand up and speak for themselves regardless of who they are with. We need to teach them how to utilize and listen to their voices; otherwise, we are perpetuating the problem.
Conversations about sex and relationships need to start with consent because if they don’t, then more and more teens will be at higher risk for unhealthy relationships, STI transmission, and/or unintended pregnancies. Being able to comfortably express one’s opinions about sex and seek permission to have sex will not only improve communication in the relationship, but it will also ensure that neither person engages in any activity they do not feel comfortable with.
There needs to be a community effort made to help teens make healthier and safer decisions as they grow and develop personal relationships. It does not simply fall on the backs of parents/guardians and/or schools; all of us must be involved. We need to start by providing positive messages for both teen boys and girls that clearly reinforce the notions of consent and personal boundaries. It is not enough to skim through a textbook and call it “sex education.” It is not enough to tell teens to “use a condom” and “get tested.” And, it is certainly not enough to tell them to wait until they are older. They need to have regular conversations about relationships so that they can ask questions and receive medically accurate information on an on-going basis. They need a safe space where they can talk about sex and relationships without the fear of judgment and shame.
But most importantly, teens need to learn the social skills required to advocate for themselves in any given situation. When we talk about prevention, we need to frame it within the context of communication and consent so that teens are not only sexually literate but are also empowered to keep themselves and their partners safe. We must come together and work to breakdown the social structures that prevent teens from building positive relationships because if we don’t, then the cycle continues, and our teens are left without the resources they need to build positive and loving relationships.
Centers of Disease Control. (2014, April). “Preventing Pregnancies in Younger Teens, CDC Vital Signs.” Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/young-teen-pregnancy/index.html
Centers of Disease Control, (2013, April 2). “Information for Teens: Staying Healthy and Preventing STDS CDC Fact Sheet.” Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/std/life-stages-populations/STDFact Teens.htm
Hinduja S, Patchin JW. (2010). Sexting: A Brief Guide for Educators and Parents. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/section/our_work/tweens_and_teens