What sex ed do you recommend when a teen’s had, well, nothing?

Last night, as so often happens when you work at Planned Parenthood, a good friend of mine came to me with a problem. While usually I get asked about sexual health (remind me to tell you about the time a guy at a party started asking me about the little red bumps on his genitals) my friend Carla* needed advice — for her 14 year old cousin.


See, her cousin lives in Florida, goes to a private Christian school, and, apparently, has had no sex education whatsoever. I get the feeling her school teaches some sort of abstinence program (when Carla mentioned condoms her cousin’s response was ‘but don’t they break?’) and her mom just hasn’t felt comfortable bringing it up. So when she ran into savvy New York City-based cousin Carla at a wedding this weekend, the questions started coming pouring out.


Carla was *shocked* at how little her cousin knew. Even though her cousin had been getting her period for a year, she had no idea what it was or where it came from. She knew that babies somehow came from sex, but knew nothing about the mechanics or how it happened.


Carla filled her in as much as she could, but as the questions started getting trickier (‘so what exactly would I do if I did have sex and got pregnant?’) Carla started feeling more and more in over her head.
She turned to me for advice, and last night over dinner, after lamenting the fact that a school could even get away with giving kids little to no sex education, we started brainstorming.


In addition to Carla giving her cousin’s mom the PPNYC guide for parents (Hey, What do I Say?) we decided to give her cousin the following:


That’s all we could think of for now – I know I’ve had Our Bodies, Ourselves since high school and still refer to it all the time. But any and all other advice is more than welcome. What else have people used? What worked for you? What have you seen that was good?


*Name has been changed to protect her teenage cousin.

A version of this post originally appeared on PPNYC’s blog.

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  • invalid-0

    Erica, we dearly love Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS), but it’s as big as a medium-sized city’s phone book and a 14-year-old is not only not likely going to read it, she’s more than likely going to mostly look at the pictures and maybe reinforce preconceived notions which while not necessairly harmful may not convey well the information you’d want to get across.

    The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (publishers of OBOS) put out a few editions of a similar book for teens “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives” (we’ll refer to it as CBCL) which for the daughter of feminist parents would be one of the best books to start with. Here’s a link to CBCL on the OBOS website:


    The last edition was published 10 years ago but it’s still in print and very relevent for teens today.

    The only concern we’d have about CBCL is that really the best book(s) for Carla’s cousin may be one(s) which her parents, in particular her mom, feels most comfortable talking about her with, assuming the mom is approachable and is playing a helpful role in relation to the daughter. We aren’t suggesting literature that is necessary religious, and we’re not saying don’t show the cousin OBOS, CBCL, or any one of a number of other feminist youth-oriented reproductive health books that have come out more recently. Rather, just remember that as helpful as books are (and books are often better than the internet in conveying complex information) the best education often comes from interaction and experience rather than any kind of media, including printed media, and whatever can be done to best educate the 14-year-old and her mom (assuming she’s approachable) is the best place to start.

    After considering what might be most appropriate for the 14-year-old and her mother, we’d next ask what has Carla found most helpful to herself in her life. As with the 14-year-old cousin, Carla is probably going to feel most comfortable and effective in sharing information sources which worked well for her. If Carla wants to share with her cousin and her cousin’s parents books and information sources which Carla is familiar with and has found helpful, great.

    If Carla has a good rapport with her cousin’s mom, Carla might speak with her to find out what was most helpful to her growing up, and what is most helpful to her now. However religious the mom might be and however she might not be supportive of say abortion rights we’ll bet the mom wasn’t helped most in growing up by anti-choice propaganda.

    If the mom seems to be less than interested or helpful, Carla might help her cousin get appointments with local health care providers, perhaps pro-choice clinics which specialize by location or otherwise in services for young people. Obviously Planned Parenthood comes to mind, but what we’d really rather Carla do is look at the Yellow Pages or have her cousin do it with Carla on the phone and go through clinics under “birth control” or even “abortion services” and look for the largest comprehensive clinics near her, and call and ask if they do general educational counseling or have a “teen clinic” or support group for teens of similar age to the cousin. Carla might help the cousin go there on an appointment to just get information and spend time speaking with a nurse or similar allied health professional or maybe a doctor.

    Overall we’d try to recommend doing things that Carla’s cousin would feel most comfortable with, and try to transition as soon as possible to getting out of her way (the cousin) when she finds authoritative sources of information and care that best meets her culture and needs.

    • erica-sackin

      Thanks for the recommendation! And I’ll send Carla the advice! 


      Erica Sackin

      Planned Parenthood of New York City

  • invalid-0

    The Theology of the Body for Teens is very helpful!

  • invalid-0

    Gee Erica, I’d love to see your reaction if some meddeling relative decided to take the religious instruction of your fourteen year old daughter into his/her hands. Maybe someone (anyone) will decide you’re neglecting your parental responsibility when it comes to discussions of faith or maybe you just “don’t feel comfortable bringing the subject up”. After all, you’re just the parent and its always possible you or your daughter’s father has a relative with a connection to the Evangelical movement or Operation Rescue. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to provide your daughter with all those “silent scream” DVD’s you’ve doubless neglected to provide. I’m sure you’ll appreciate it six years from now when you learn about how they kindly took over for you.

  • kater7

    I don’t understand how this is helpful OR an answer to her question of what you think would help someone who has apparently no sex education. I also got the impression that she was trying to include the parent by giving her a guide to help with the communication portion between mother and daughter. 

  • kater7

    I wouldn’t recommend Theology of the Body, one: if the girl isn’t Catholic – it’s a “sex ed” guide from Pope John Paul II and 2: it isn’t a resource for information so much as well, theology, about the body and sex from a very conservative source. I don’t think it would have well-balanced, unbiased information.

  • invalid-0

    Oh no problem. I’m sure anyone handing out pro life information to the author’s daughter would be more than happy to provide the same for her and the literature to go with it. Hey, if she wants to take over addressing personal issues with a stranger’s daughter she obviously understands that her own could just as easily seek advice about ANYTHING outside the home. And in the same way, there are plenty of people happy to take over what they consider to be inadequate upbringing the same way she has.

  • crowepps

    So the response to a young person asking for information should be "if your parents have decided to keep you totally ignorant, I don’t want to abrogate their parental authority.  Ask again on your 18th birthday."


    The problem with that is, those people who offer your child candy if they’ll attend church, invite them to Vacation Bible School, inform your child they’re headed for hell, etc., are not at all shy about abrogating the parental authority of those outside their church.  They insist they should be able to choose what kind of sex education our children get in school, even thought most parents want comprehensive.  They hand out Bibles in the schools and want everyone’s children to listen to their prayers.  They stand outside Planned Parenthood and ‘counsel’ our daughters at the top of their lungs and even drive around in vans with gory photos of fetuses all over them so that small children can be terrified.


    Either other people’s children are off limits, to both sides, or other people’s children are fair game.  The one side can’t take advantage of access to the others children while insisting that their own children should never hear anything their parents don’t want them to know.

  • crowepps

    Your Sexual Health : What Every Teen Should Know about Sex
    Dr. Jenny McCloskey
    “This book reads like a manual discussing issues like STDs, birth control, pregnancy and adolescent anatomy in a sensitive and informative way. There is nothing sensational about the way this book is written.”

  • erica-sackin

    While I definitely appreciate how important it is for parents to pass along their own values to their kids (something which Planned Parenthood lways encourages parents to do!) that isn’t at issue here. The mom simply doesn’t feel comfortable having these conversations with her daughter, and I think to a certain extent had just assumed she was already getting this information in school (oops).


    Additionally, Carla’s cousin was definitely the one who’s asking all of the questions, and honestly, if Carla wasn’t there to answer them I shudder to think where else she might have turned (since there’s so much misinformation out there and she didn’t necessarily know where to look). But keep in mind — there’s never a reason to think that an individual’s values can’t coexist happily alongside medically-acurate facts and information. 

    Erica Sackin

    Planned Parenthood of New York City

  • invalid-0

    Sounds to me like you’d be pissed and so would I if someone tried to parent my child. As you say: “The one side can’t take advantage of access to the others children while insisting that their own children should never hear anything their parents don’t want them to know.” Here’s a deal: if your kids ask me about politics, religion, sexuality or values I’ll refer them back to you and you show me the same respect.

  • invalid-0

    Planned Parenthood encourages parents to pass along their values to their kids? Planned Parenthood will do anything possible to prevent parents from finding out their thirteen year olds are being raped by adults. See http://www.lifeactionfilms.org

  • invalid-0

    For all those teens wanting to consider all the aspects of sex (emotional, intellectual, spiritual, etc.) The Theology of the Body for Teens is actually a very good source. With so many people trying to send teens the, “It’s only sex!” message, The Theology of the Body for Teens speaks to their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves by providing facts and commentary that speak to teens’ intuative understanding that they are so much more than simply sexual beings.

  • invalid-0

    It seems to me that the parents of the 14-year-old girl are at fault here for not sitting their daughter down and having a frank discussion with her about physical development, sex and its possible consequences PRIOR to her first menstrual period, and the girl is a real set-up ;for lots of real mis-information floating around out there! The fact that a 14-year-old girl who’s been menstruating for a year without knowing where it’s coming from is, indeed, a little scary.

    I remember my mom sitting me down for a frank discussion about all of the above-mentioned things during the summer before I entered the sixth grade, and I’m glad I was made aware of physical development, menstruation and sex and its consequences prior to my entering adolescence.

  • invalid-0

    I highly recommend:


    This site is written for teens, by teens and is incredibly holistic, informative, open-minded, and easy to understand.

    I would also recommend:

    http://www.gurl.com and the books that have spun from the site like
    Deal With It (http://www.amazon.com/Deal-Whole-Approach-Your-Brain/dp/B001O9CH2U/ref=pd_sim_b_1) and The Looks Book (http://www.amazon.com/Looks-Book-Esther-Drill/dp/0142002119/ref=pd_sim_b_1).

    I’ve been going to this site since I was 10 years old and it has never failed me. I still use it from time to time, honestly because it breaks so many things down and adds a great sense of humor to the mix. gURL is like having a really knowledgeable, hip older sister. It’s really good at normalizing sexuality and sexual health.

  • http://www.softwiseonline.com invalid-0

    WOW, that is intresting.