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This month, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 20 percent of ninth-graders surveyed had engaged in oral sex and 14 percent had had vaginal intercourse. The study confirmed what Oprah, Dr. Phil, and other major media personalities have called "an oral-sex epidemic" among kids as young as 12. It's certainly alarming for parents that children are beginning to sexually experiment at a younger age than their generation or mine. Researchers concluded: "That so many adolescents are having oral sex and view it as safe, perceiving little or no risk resulting from engaging in oral sex, stresses the importance of needing more research on oral sex transmissibility rates and increased health education about oral sex."
What's more troubling is that this study was released in a year when the federal government will allocate more money than everabout $130 millionto "abstinence-only-until-marriage" sex education in schools. There are no comparable funds for other kinds of sex ed curricula. A recent study by Yale and Columbia researchers found that teens who take an abstinence pledge are more likely to engage in sexual activities other than vaginal intercourse; members of this same group were also less likely to use a condom in their first sexual experience and less likely to get tested for STDs. In an earlier study, the same research team found that 88 percent of teens who took the pledge had vaginal intercourse before marriage.
Last year, in a report on abstinence-only education, California representative Henry Waxman found that more than two-thirds of government-funded abstinence-only programs contain misleading or inaccurate information about sex. (Example: "A pregnancy occurs one out of every seven times that couples use condoms." In fact, condoms are up to 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when used correctly.) Clearly, abstinence-only education is problematic and ineffective.
But these studies also highlight that abstinence-only and other sex ed programs have a critical flaw in common: The focus is on "sex" defined either explicitly or implicitly as vaginal intercourse. The abstinence kids pledge not to have sex (vaginal intercourse) but do have oral sex, manual sex, and anal sex. The teens in the Pediatrics report who've had oral sex think it's not sex. That study also found that "adolescents did believe that they were more likely to experience pleasure from vaginal sex than from oral sex," a message promoted not only by sex ed, but by kids' peers and the media. Other forms of pleasure, especially female sexual pleasure, including clitoral stimulation, are not part of the discussion. Vaginal intercourse is the big deal, the one with physical and emotional repercussionseverything else is safe and breezy.
Don't get me wrong; abstinence should always be presented as an option. But the reality is that most kids are experimenting with some form of sex, and they need to know how their bodies work, how STDs are transmitted, and how to protect themselves. Most kids are still confused about basic anatomy and how someone gets pregnant (more than 16 percent said there was a chance of getting pregnant through oral sex). These teenagers become college students who attend my lectures and ask, "I can't come from vaginal intercoursewhat's wrong with me?"
I propose a sex ed curriculum that honestly educates teenagers about the risks, responsibilities, and rewards of sex. Educators need to talk to actual teenagers and get their input about what will and won't be effective for them and their peers. Create a safe environment with an outside instructor, without teachers or other monitors in the room. Don't bring out the diagrams without also using three-dimensional, realistic models. Talk to teens in their own language rather than using clinical terms they cannot relate to. Let them ask anonymous questions so they don't feel pressure to act cool or knowledgeable around their peers. Show them how to use condoms, gloves, dental dams, and lube correctly, and have those items available. Give a reading packet that is accessible, informative, and sex positive, which they can take home for future reference. Use resources like Planned Parenthood's teenwire.com and the independently run (read: underfunded) scarleteen.com, two of the best sex ed websites for teens. Encourage parents to get involved. Don't just have them sign the permission slip; give them tools (like a class of their own) for talking to kids about sex, and encourage them to follow up.