As awkward as it may be, educating your daughter about sex can keep her healthy—and even save her life. Unfortunately, most teens have different views than their parents when it comes to what constitutes a sex talk. About 90% of parents nationwide say they’ve spoken to their teens about sex, according to a 2006 ABC News poll. But something is getting lost in translation, because only half of their teens agree. Here are six facts that every teen should know, along with specific ways to get your point across.
Talking point: Using a condom isn’t as effective—or as easy—as you think.
Fact: Condoms are almost as effective for preventing pregnancy as the Pill when they are used correctly. Condoms also drastically reduce the chance you’ll pick up a sexually transmitted infection—and you can’t tell by how someone looks if they have one.
Additional advice: “A couple may not put on a condom until the last minute,” says Paul Fine, MD, associate professor of gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, “and in the heat of passion, he might not have the control he usually has, so that’s never foolproof.” Besides, you can get pregnant before ejaculation; so-called pre-ejaculate is “loaded with sperm,” says Dr. Fine. A 2002 study of college students documented typical condom misuse, slippage, and breakage. Of the men surveyed, 40% said that they had failed to leave space for ejaculate at the tip of a condom, for instance, and 15% had taken the condom off before completing intercourse.
Talking point: If you have unprotected sex or the condom breaks, emergency contraception is an option.
Fact: Plan B is a high-dose birth control pill that is available over-the-counter and can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours, though it is most effective when taken right away.
Additional advice: Many women’s health organizations recommend purchasing it before you need it, so that it’s readily available if you ever do. Call a doctor, a health clinic, a pharmacy, or a Planned Parenthood office, or place an overnight order from Drugstore.com.
Talking point: Teens and young adults can be at high risk for STDs.
Fact: Young people ages 15 to 24 represent 25% of the sexually active population—but they account for almost 50% of new STD cases, according to a 2006 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveillance report.
Additional advice: Depending upon your child’s sexual behavior, testing might vary from frequent (once every few months) to occasional (once every two years, in the case of a monogamous relationship, for example). “Young people ought to get tested once a year for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea,” says H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington and a nationally recognized STD expert who has helped develop HIV testing guidelines for the CDC.
Talking point: Some STDs have few or no symptoms.
Fact: Women can have gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis without having any obvious symptoms. Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that usually starts out with no symptoms but it is very destructive in the long term, especially to women’s reproductive systems.
Additional advice: Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, an STD specialist at the University of Washington medical school, advises annual chlamydia tests for younger women. “If you have multiple partners, you may want to be screened more often,” she adds. Since chlamydia can be detected with a simple urine test now, a full pelvic exam isn’t necessary. You can also request a gonorrhea test at the same time, if you are concerned that you may have been exposed.
Talking point: If you’re a sexually active adult, you’ve probably contracted several of the 100 different types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) out there—more than 30 of which are sexually transmitted—and you probably had no idea.
Fact: HPV is the number-one cause of cervical cancer and genital warts.
Additional advice: To screen for possibly HPV-caused, potentially precancerous abnormalities in the cells of the cervix, all women should get annual Pap smears. Women under 26 should also consider getting the HPV vaccination, says Dr. Handsfield.
Talking point: The Pill does more than prevent pregnancy.
Fact: The Pill is so safe and effective these days that it is available over-the-counter in some countries. Depending on the formula of the medication, the Pill can:
Help reduce menstrual bleeding for women at risk of anemia
Reduce painful periods
Cut back on the risk of uterine infection and ovarian cancer
Treat PMS mood swings
Help clear up mild to moderate acne
Additional advice: Though safer than ever, the Pill still has minor side effects, such as breast tenderness, headaches, and nausea, but they often subside after a few months. But rare, serious side effects include blood clots, heart attack, and stroke.