I recently asked a room full of 5th and 6th graders to anonymously write down what they had heard about sex from their friends or parents. Although a few wrote, “nothing,” the rest had heard plenty.
Some of their (mostly inaccurate) reports were about “how” sex happens, “the dude touches the lady with his penis.” But most of the others reported soundbites like, “You have to use a condom” or “You can get AIDS.” Then there was one that made me want to cry, “Boys like it but girls don’t.” Do you see how much they need real sex ed?!
So if your child is beyond elementary school age, whether you think she’s old enough to know about sexually transmitted infections or not, she has probably already heard more than you can imagine, and it’s time to provide some facts and clear up the fiction.
But where do you start?
Assuming your child has already learned about reproduction (and I’ve never met a 6th grader who hasn’t heard something about sex), you can start by asking questions.
- “What are the good AND not so good things that can happen because of sex?” (emphasis on including that sex should be good!).
- “Have you ever heard of sexually transmitted infections?”
- “Tell me what you know, and I’ll fill in what I know.”
Don’t feel like you need to memorize the list of viruses, microbes and their treatments. That’s what doctors are for. The major points are easy:
If you’re talking with a PRE-TEEN, it may be sufficient to provide some general points, like these:
- “There are infections that can be passed through contact with genital skin or body fluids during sex. They are called Sexually Transmitted Infections (or STI)” [some people call them STD (for sexually transmitted diseases), but all infections don’t cause disease, so STI is more accurate term”].
- “STI are unwanted consequences of sexual contact. They can cause pain, illness, infertility, and even cancer. Some are curable; others have no cure, but usually they can be managed with medications and regular medical attention.”
- “Obviously, everyone wants to prevent STI, but teenagers, especially, aren’t great about doing everything they can to prevent them. That’s why teenagers have more STI than adults, and it’s another reason why it’s a good idea to wait until you’re older to have sex.”
- “The first step toward preventing STI is to know about them and get comfortable talking about prevention.”
- “The only 100% certain way to prevent STI is to NOT have sexual contact. That’s a good idea for you while you’re young and learning about relationships, but one day, you will probably become sexually involved with someone, and I want to make sure you know how to protect yourself and stay healthy.”
- “The best protection comes from getting vaccinated (hepatitis B and HPV), limiting the number of people you have sex with, using condoms or barriers, and getting tested if you are having sex.”
- “If that sounds like a lot of responsibility, it is. That’s why having sex is something that’s best when you’re older and in a mature relationship where both of you are ready and prepared to prevent STI and pregnancy.”
- “If you want more details about protecting yourself, you can always come to me or talk confidentially with your doctor. You’ll ultimately be the one who decides when you’re going to have sex, but I want to give you all the information you need to make smart choices and stay healthy. My hope for you is..…[insert family values].”
When your child is facing HIGH SCHOOL & BEYOND, it’s definitely time to get down to some details because 1 in 4 teens has an STI, rates of STI have increased recently for the first time in many years, and by the end of high school, more than half of kids have had sex. All of the previous points are still important, but teens need more. Here are some additional points you can share with your teen:
- The most common STI is Human Papillomavirus (or HPV). It is passed by skin to skin contact and can cause cancer of the vagina, cervix, throat, mouth, penis, anus and rectum. The good news is that almost all of these HPV-related cancers are preventable by a vaccine” (get facts about the vaccine here).
- The next most common STI among teens is Chlamydia, and it often has no symptoms. That means girls and guys can have it without even knowing. The only sure way to know if you’ve got Chlamydia is to get tested (it’s done with urine, so a pelvic / genital exam isn’t even necessary). Chlamydia is the most common cause of infertility in the U.S. It causes infertility in females by infecting and blocking the fallopian tubes. Each new chlamydia infection doubles the risk of infertility.
- The most common STI transmitted though oral sex is herpes which isn’t curable. Barriers (including condoms, dental dams or simple kitchen plastic wrap) are important for oral sex, too. Oral herpes is happy to infect the genitals, and genital herpes is happy to infect the mouth or throat, so there is no longer a big difference in location between Type 1 and Type 2.
- HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and there are a lot of misconceptions about how it is acquired. HIV is not transmitted through kissing or touching, but is passed through infected semen, vaginal fluids or blood that makes its way into another body through shared needles, open sores or microscopic tears that can happen during sex. HIV can take up to several months before it shows up on a blood test, so getting tested for HIV doesn’t account for the most recent 3 months of exposures. That’s another reason to keep using condoms even if HIV tests are negative.
- Teens should be tested for STI once they become sexually active and each time they have a new partner. They can get confidential testing through health departments and most doctor’s offices.
- Even if STI testing is negative, there are some infections we don’t or can’t test for until there are symptoms, so it is recommended that teens use condoms correctly with EVERY sexual encounter.
For a teen-focused chart on STI, grab this downloadable.
Finally, knowing ABOUT STI is great, but learning the HOW TO parts of protection are even more important. Teens need to think about how they will negotiate condom use (that means insist on it). They need to know how to USE barrier protection (read the package directions!). They need to know WHERE to get tested for STI if they are sexually active (health departments, teen health centers). And most of all, they need to know how to get reliable information and support as they navigate their relationships (you!).
Even if you think your child doesn’t need to know about STI because she's not sexually involved, she might use what she knows to help a friend avoid an unwanted consequence, and THAT’s a great thing that can improve the health (and economics) of your whole village! So keep talking!