Here’s a Novel Idea: Let’s Teach Kids About Safe Sex Before They Have Sex


Would you put kids in driver’s ed only after they’ve been getting behind the wheel and driving around with no instructions for a year? Before kids start playing a sport, don’t we teach them the rules of the game and how to use the equipment safely? Of course! It’s just common sense to establish safety measures before kids get immersed in a risky activity. So why on earth do we only start sharing informationabout sexual safety with young people after many of them have been having sex for months or even years?

Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress recently wrote an article pointing out an interesting tidbit she gleaned from a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on teen sexual health: Most teens don’t get any formal sexual health education until after they start having sex. In fact, among sexually active teenage girls, a whopping 83 percent had not received any formal sex education before they started having sex.

The problem is a matter of timing, really. Teens get over their squeamishness with teen sexuality before adults do. Because the topic of sex is considered so adult, there’s a lot of pressure to put sex education into the later years of high school. It makes a lot of emotional sense to adults to wait to have sex education until kids are “ready,” in our eyes, to start exploring their sexuality.

But since they already are having sex, what we adults deem as old enough to be “ready” is moot. It’s not like driving a car, where we can and should have a mechanism to keep them from doing it until we believe they’re ready. There’s no license to have sex, and even if there was one, kids would ignore it.

This is anecdotal, but I’ve noticed the same tendency in our culture when it comes to contraception use and teenagers. For a lot of parents, the discussion about contraception use—or the actual act of providing teenagers with contraception—if it happens at all, occurs after evidence is discovered that a child is sexually active. Or, if parents are trying to be a little more progressive, they won’t wait until the discover their kids are having sex, but may wait until the kids start having a formal dating relationship to start providing contraception.

The problem with the first approach is obvious, in no small part because sometimes the evidence you get of sexual activity is a sexually transmitted infection or pregnancy that requires medical attention. Starting the conversation because a boyfriend or girlfriend is in the picture is better, for sure. But, I hate to break it to parents: Sometimes the sex precedes the formal dating relationship. Or at least, the sex may precede revealing a boyfriend or girlfriend to the parents. This is certainly true of most adults—most of us prefer to have a few months of hitting the sheets with someone before we’re certain enough to share the fact that we have a someone with our families—so it follows that some teenagers are going to see it that way too. While all families are different, it would be wise for parents to seriously consider using age as a metric to open up the contraception provision lines, making condoms or the pill available without pushing a child to reveal personal details about their plans to have sex or not.

But as a matter of public policy, we need to set aside this belief that innocence is a thing to be preserved as long as possible, and start thinking realistically about when kids actually start having sex, so we can make sure young people get sex education before then. After all, research shows that giving kids sex ed while they’re still virgins doesn’t lead them to have sex earlier; if anything, it may cause them to put off having sex a little longer. 

The truth is, teenagers are both smarter and more mature than adults give them credit for. Look, I get it. When I walk down the street as a high school lets out, I too marvel at how funny it is to see teenagers who practically look like babies to me strutting and showing off and trying to act cool (and usually failing). They seem really immature, and in many ways they are. But they are mature enough to handle basic lessons on how to use contraception and have sex responsibly. (We adults need to stop flattering ourselves by pretending it’s harder than it is.)

In fact, teenagers are already ahead of adults on this issue. Despite the terrible state of sex education in the United States, Guttmacher Institute research shows that the age of first sex and the age of first contraception use are finally coming together. Throughout most of recent history—because of this obsession with preserving innocence—first sex has generally preceded first contraception use. Kids start having sex and often wait weeks or even months to finally suck it up and get some contraception—no wonder our teen pregnancy rates have been so high. But in recent years, kids have gotten really good about using contraception the first time they have sex and keeping up the habit.

Adults really can’t take credit for this change, as made obvious by the fact that schools don’t even bother to provide sex education until a huge chunk of the class is already having sex. I suspect this is a result of a number of factors that have made it easier for young people to take the initiative to plan for sex. Research is clearly needed in this department, but the fact that things started to improve dramatically when kids started to get unimpeded access to the Internet, where they can ask hard questions about contraception without having to embarrass themselves, is probably a big, if not the biggest, factor.

What schools need to learn from this is not to just foist responsibility off onto kids themselves and let the Internet do the work, but that kids have questions—and sex—long before many adults may want them to. And the only real result of getting that information to them earlier is that they use the information. Kids clearly want to be responsible, and are taking initiative. Schools should take a hint and start giving them more and better help with that, at younger ages.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte

  • Lynnsey

    I keep saying this. if you treat sex like a normal part of a healthy adult life instead of a naughty thing you ought not do unless you want to make babies, you can take a much more pragmatic approach to preventing unintended pregnancy and STIs. People who claim to be opposed to all manner of things like teen pregnancy and abortion and whatnot belie their stated goals by also opposing comprehensive, age-appropriate sexual health education and real, affordable access to reproductive healthcare including the most effective forms of birth control.

    Whether people like it or not, many teenagers are physically (if not yet emotionally or intellectually) mature and pretending that they just won’t have sex if we a) don’t talk about it or b) shame them hard enough has failed spectacularly. It’s time to try something new.

  • CocksackieBJ

    Nobody is stopping a child’s parents from teaching them whatever they want to know about sex.

    Lazy parents = dumb kids.

    • Jennifer Starr

      No good reason why it can’t be taught in schools by qualified professionals.

    • L-dan

      Well nobody is stopping the parents from teaching them about math, history, or anything else, and yet, for some reason, we seem to think that it’s better not to rely on parents to make sure kids get these basics.

      Maybe because we don’t think kids should suffer based on who they’re born to? Maybe we think society works better having people educated. Why would we leave sex ed out of basic health education?

      • Lynnsey

        To be fair, a lot of the same people who don’t want their kids to know anything about sex feel the same way about literature, science, and history. It’s only a matter of time before they have a beef with math, too.

        • Ella Warnock

          Yes, I can’t wait until 2+2=4 is referred to as the devil’s arithmetic.
          s/

          • CJ99

            If that were true then I’d be down with the devil.

        • Arekushieru

          They certainly don’t seem to be as vocal about those three, for some reason, though.

      • CJ99

        Puts me in mind of the arguments against religious based homeschooling, many parents who promote such are not effective at teaching math, science or anything else. After all we cant have kids find out stars are not diamonds on a black curtain 500 miles away placed there by god.

    • Mandy

      I don’t think “laziness” is the issue here. Shame. Stigma. Lack of education on the parents part. Embarrassment on the kids part to ask questions. Lack of trust. Religion. Our puritanical societies obsession with imaging kids as pure innocents who we can’t taint with knowledge of their bodies/sex. All reasons a parent might not teach their kids basic sex ed.

      • CJ99

        Don’t underestimate the interference based on religion. I grew up in a religious zealot family and I’d have learned nothing if my only source of info was them.

        • Mandy

          Oh I feel you there. I grew up a Catholic girl the deep deep south (GA). My Grandma is VERY religious and so my Mom was pretty strict on the Sunday school/church going front up through high school. Luckily I was a nerdy kid who loved to read so she could just buy me this American Girl book about puberty and learning about your body and that was most of my kid self’s sex ed. & you can imagine GA’s sex ed in schools is not so comprehensive on top of that. I didn’t get comfortable bring up sex/body issues with her until I was graduating HS. Even now that I no longer identify as Catholic there is still that lingering sense of shame when thinking about or discussing sexuality. Religion has a lot to answer for on this front.

          • CJ99

            That was far better than my own family did. Their idea was NO sex ed. Their views were that sex only took place when approved by god for having children between people who’s marraige is approved by god. Along with that “da church” spoke for god exclusively so individuals had no rights in this area. They also believed taking pleasure in love or sex was immoral and even criminal in their eyes as no person should love anyone else but god. To many reading this, and to me their beliefs are beyond absurd yet for them its “gods law” and cannot be questioned.

          • lady_black

            What a mindfuck. I’m so sorry, and hope you’re recovering.

    • Amanda Marcotte

      Do you think that children who have inadequate parents deserve to get pregnant unexpectedly or suffer STIs? If so, why? What did they do to “deserve” that? It’s not like they chose their parents.

      • CocksackieBJ

        wikipedia . org

        It’s a great website. You should check it out. It has these articles on STDs, and condoms, and oral birth control pills.

        The best part…it’s free. I know. Cool, right?

        • Guest

          Weren’t you supposed to be pooping out a crack baby? They don’t fucking birth themselves, ya know. Better get “crackin’.”

        • CJ99

          Newsflash: wikipedia is not an authoritative source of information on anything. maybe you’d want surgery performed by some who “read it” on wikipedia but I’d prefer to survive.

          • Jennifer Starr

            Cocksackie isn’t any more intelligent or interesting than his eight other sockpuppets were.

          • CJ99

            For sure your absolutely right jennifer. I probably don’t need to point this out but sockpuppets which contain no latex or spermicide are not an effective at preventing pregnancy or std’s. People can practice safe sex and should but practicing safe stupidity is impossible.

        • Arekushieru

          If parents don’t want their children learning about sex-ed because of religion, they most likely will NOT have computers, and if they do, their parents will most likely monitor their usage. Why should teens get punished for lazy parenting based on religion, that is promoted by Conservative assholes like yourself?

        • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

          Because everybody has a computer, right? You grow more stupid as the conversation progresses.

    • CJ99

      No, fanatic parents who want sex banned = stupid parents. I had sex ed in 7th & 8th grade and avoided STD’s & causing unplanned pregnancies no thanks to dolts just like you.

    • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

      What makes you all that sure the parents know anything worth teaching about sex? You, for instance, seem to be grossly ignorant about human sexuality.

  • Ivy Mike

    JMHO, but sex education should be treated like any other biology education…that is, medically-accurate, comprehensive, unbiased, free of shame and religious dogma, and age-appropriate.

    It should also be mandatory…no “opt-outs”. Parents can teach whatever they like at home, but the kids should absolutely receive the best, most accurate information as a baseline.
    “Religious objections” should be treated as the lame, nonsensical foolishness they are.

    Young people have a right to be educated as to how their own bodies work, and to receive that education in advance. To withhold such factual knowledge from them, to deny them such basic information about themselves, is completely criminal.

    The results are obvious…states that mess up or altogether refuse to offer proper sex ed (and that’s a majority) have the highest rates of unintended pregnancies, abortions, and STD’s. The facts are clear…”Ab-Only” or “Leaving It To The Parents” manifestly does not work, and both of these approaches need to be abandoned as the failures they are.

    • cjvg

      Thank you. It is a normal part of regular biology and should be treated as such,
      This included having a test and be graded on how well you retained the material taught!

  • http://www.sexplainer.com Sexplainer

    Great article. We need to front load kids with information to prep them for life. This is what parenting and schooling is for. Sex, sexuality and relationships are a big part of life and if today’s parents were raised on sexual shame (explicit or implicit), they can do some work, get brave and start talking so that their values and accurate information reach their kids well before the kids need to engage the learning.

  • luckymama

    “…Because the topic of sex is considered so adult…” are you insinuating it should NOT be adult? The hyper-sexualization of our children is only getting a helping hand from those who wish to pretend that morals are best ignored (Marcotte and her ilk). And the result since the sexual revolution has been a catastrophe.
    Of course human reproduction needs to be studied, especially in regards to the female cycle and prenatal development. It is stunning to me how many young women I have met, who know more about the Pill than their own bodies. Just one of the fine products of “formal sex education” which tends to mention biology in passing, but focus on “how to explore” with “safer sex”.

    • Jennifer Starr

      Actually, it was the comprehensive sex education that I received from eighth grade onwards (starting in 1986) that helped me to see and to make the decision that I was not ready for sexual activity and that I wanted to wait. We were given accurate, non-biased information, which yes, included information about contraception and safe sex, that no one should pressure us into sex–and even role-playing about that topic. We even practiced putting a condom on a banana, which nearly made Pat Robertson’s head explode at the time (funny). At no time do I recall any instructors directly encouraging students to go out and try anything, just giving them information about how to be safe if they did.

      However, I do recall a girl whose parents chose to opt her out of that class, preferring to ‘preserve her innocence/ ignorance’. She ended up pregnant at 15 with no idea of how she’d ended up that way.

      • luckymama

        I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I should have emphasized that I do believe in teaching how contraceptives work, STIs, etc. Problems arise, however, when the cultural attitude and/or sex ed has the notion that we can “try out” sex, as if intimacy is a toy or mere experience primarily for out pleasure. Divorced from much of the ed and agenda is wisdom in relationships, putting your partner’s well being ahead of one’s desires, and other such moral “finger wagging”. Keeping young people out of the loop is stupid – but hardly worse than the crass, selfish and barren sex ed agenda that Marcotte perpetuates. Like I said, my peers knew how to use contraceptives, and could get them. They ended up with broken hearts, infected bodies, and early parenthood or abortion because what they didn’t know how to plug morals goal setting and self control into that equation.

        • Jennifer Starr

          I happen to agree with Amanda–we need to start giving kids information before they might become active–starting in middle school/junior high and building from there. As for ‘crass, selfish and barren’–I’m not quite sure where that’s coming from, as I really don’t see that in the article above. I really doubt that there are any sex-ed programs that are telling kids to go and ‘try out’ anything. In fact, many of today’s kids have been treated to abstinence-only, which in terms of actual education isn’t much. And as for the current culture, I’m not so sure that this current generation is any more sexualized than past generations, including my own.

    • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

      You have a rich full fantasy life. Ewww.

    • Ivy Mike

      Nice job hitting every right-wing talkradio talking point, there. Got any thoughts of your own?

      There is absolutely no justification for withholding factual, scientific, unbiased information from young people about their own bodies and how to protect them. None. The “alternative options” (abstinence only, opt-out, parents) have proven to be devastating failures.

      Your ridiculous strawman of proper sex education is a fantasy of rightwing pundits with no real, firsthand knowledge of the subject. I strongly advise you to seek other sources for information than Oxy-addicted, serial-marriaging, Viagra-popping, sex-touring radio loudmouths.

      • luckymama

        I am a divorced mom of five who deplores conservative talk shows. And I am speaking from first hand experience with my close friends, peers, and myself. I never discourged information, what I srote was that you should not omit wisdom from the sex ed equation, or emphasize sex experience over the biological reality that contraceptives and condoms can only protect you from a small portion of the responsibility that comes with intimacy.

        • Jennifer Starr

          Surely family members should provide that wisdom? While I think that sex-ed should be taught in school by qualified professionals, I certainly think that family members should share their values with their children.

  • luckymama

    Oops. Did not mean to submit the prior comment without the following: The reason I am so upset over an article which is so lacking in facts, and so high in judgement (ironically) for those who dare point out sex is much more precious and powerful than Marcotte cares to admit, is that I have seen my peers (I am 32) suffer for this horrible advice. Let it be known, I grew up in a conservative pro-life family and knew more about reproduction, STDs, healthy relationships, contraceptive use, and pregnancy than most of my peers by age 16. I never had as much as a pregnancy scare, nor an STD, because I was given (gasp) moral guidance along with information. A lot of my classmates followed popular advice to experiment and do what felt good. The result being going with them to get treated for STDs, and go to showers for their “condom bab(ies)” (not my phrasing; hers). The girls going into the abortion clinic for the second time before the age of 20 had been through the same thorough sex education we received which had included contraceptives use, but received precious little adult rules and moral guidance. They bought into the amoral approach to sexuality. Now approaching our class reunion, I note that by and large the people (including those who had faced unplanned pregnancies early on in their lives) who are functioning well and/or have intact families tend to be those who at some point chose to view sex as more than “hitting the sheets” and regard children as a normal result of sex. Shame, for sure, on advocating that shame has no place. It does, not because sex is dirty (actually it is sacred!) but because the corresponding wisdom given can literally make or break lives.

    • Jennifer Starr

      And incidentally–shame? The whole ‘good girls’ ‘nice girls’ vs ‘bad’ girls crap? It accomplishes nothing at all. And it has no place.

    • lady_black

      Look here Miss Thing… children are only a normal result of sex when you want children. I was raised the way you condemn, and I have never had even one abortion, much less repeaters prior to the age of 20. I have never in my life had an STD. Not even crabs. I had three children that I wanted, and then got my tubes tied, to you know, free myself from your “normal result” because I didn’t want a fourth, and had no intention of being celibate. There is nothing to be gained from polluting children’s minds with shame over sexuality. Shame is for when you steal. Or cheat by copying from your neighbor’s paper. Or plagiarize your term paper. Sex should be enjoyed. Reveled in. Shared in the utmost freedom with someone you love. And that’s how I raised my own kids. Not a pregnancy scare or STD in the bunch. What a lot of hooey.

    • Arekushieru

      Sounds like your school had abstinence-only sex ed with minimal learning on other forms of contraception, other than the hush-hush approach ‘if you’re going to have sex, use these’. MY class had a CALM course that was pretty watered down but it still taught more than a class like that would EVER teach. Guess what? None of the people who took the course ever had an unplanned pregnancy (including myself, partly because I also saw a film on giving birth. GROSS). Those who didn’t had several unplanned pregnancies, never had an abortion and went through several different relationships, and are currently miserable. Which is probably how your Pro-Life Conservative female friends likely feel, but are just putting a pretty picture on for you, because they don’t want to admit that it turned out far differently than they (OR you) expected.

      • Mindy McIndy

        I went to a school with abstinence only sex ed. My parents told me about sex, put me on the pill when I was 12 (mainly to regulate my periods, but as an added bonus to them, pregnancy protection since they didn’t know I was a lesbian) and weren’t shaming me about anything. I felt comfortable asking them questions. I remember sitting at a table at lunch where every girl besides me had been, or was at the time, pregnant. That was six girls. The school was also full of girls who were having oral and anal sex to save their purity for their husbands, but didn’t understand why they had STDs. It was really quite pathetic, being told how sex is only for your husband or wife, being told that birth control has a HUGE failure rate, being told of the girl who lost her virginity on prom night and then got pregnant with triplets, yet not being told anything on how to protect yourself if you are a LGBT student. What was really strange too, the lady teaching the class was my lipstick’s (male version of a beard) mother, and she brought in a fetus in a jar that she had miscarried to show us during the pregnancy part of the health class.

        • lady_black

          Oh my yuck (the jar of fetus).

      • L-dan

        Or, frankly, it could have had purely fact based without any attention paid to navigating things like how to have conversations about contraception. Kids in my school got a minimal, but accurate, set in instructions about what STDs and contraceptives were that was barely connected to sex. Which still leaves all the toxic messaging intact to sabotage actual contraceptive use.

        That said, I highly doubt anecdotal evidence that the only people doing well are those who decided that children were the natural result of sex and so they should have some of those. Pretty much every decently done poll (vs. looking around your high school reunion) contradicts this nonsense.

    • Suba gunawardana

      So much that doesn’t make sense in what you said. if these kids received COMPREHENSIVE education on contraception and had access to contraceptives, how would they get STDS & multiple pregnancies? Sounds like the education was nominal and horribly incomplete.

      • Mindy McIndy

        Yeah, their statement does not compute at all. And they also seem to think that giving teenagers information about contraception and how to protect themselves is the same thing as encouraging them to have sex. How do all of these ignorant sex-negative people wind up here?

        • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

          They are working out their neuroses and sexual ignorance with us. Of course, they do not consider asking our consent for oozing all over our board.

        • Shan

          “And they also seem to think that giving teenagers information about
          contraception and how to protect themselves is the same thing as
          encouraging them to have sex.”

          As if they need any encouragement to have sex, right?

          • Mindy McIndy

            No kidding. It’s what you’re biologically hard wired for. It’s in your nature. People weren’t typically having children into their thirties centuries and millenia ago, they started having them when they were young teenagers. That age is when your hormones really start to rush. The fact that they are trying to get people to deny their programming, rather than allowing them to embrace it when they’re ready and give them the tools necessary to protect themselves, is preposterous to me.

          • Jennifer Starr

            There seems to be this prevailing view among the abstinence-only crowd that giving them facts or information is tantamount to telling them to go out and try it. They seem to believe that if you keep your children in ignorance and don’t talk about sex, they won’t do it. But the truth is that some of them will still go out and do it, they’ll just do it without any sort of protection. They’re not preserving innocence when they do this–they’re preserving ignorance.

    • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

      “A lot of my classmates followed popular advice to experiment and do what felt good.”
      ………….
      Who gives advice like that to children and teens? Fooking liar.

      • luckymama

        Planned parenthood. Duh.

        • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

          Liar liar pants on fire.

        • Jennifer Starr

          Actually, no they don’t.

  • Arekushieru

    John, in my country (Canada, of course) there are a group of people that are promoting this form of enthusiastic consent, but, of course, conservative newspapers like the National Post, here, prefer to assume that everything occurs in a vacuum and pretend that consent (or the lack thereof) is not a systemic, widespread affliction of the patriarchy.

    As for consensual sex between two minors, I would be all for that! Unfortunately, people like CBJ cannot comprehend the difference between two minors having sex and an adult and minor, as in the case of NAMBLA, having sex.