Do you know what your teen learns in their sex education class at school? Do you know if your school district even teaches sex education?
You may be surprised to learn that only 24 states and the District of Columbia require schools to teach sex education in high school. And only 20 states require that information taught in these programs be medically, factually, or technically accurate, according to the National Conference of State Laws.
Sex education curricula around the country vary widely. The curriculum for each course, if taught at all, is set either by your state or your local school district, depending on where you live.
Filling in the blanks
No matter what your child is learning in school, you, as the parent, may want to fill in the blanks. The first step is to find out what is covered in sex education in your area. You can see what laws your state has on sex education at siecus.org. You can also contact the guidance counselors and health teachers at your teen’s school to find out more about the specific curriculum for the school district.
In general, there are two main types of sex education programs: abstinence-only and comprehensive. Which is best has been hotly debated for many years.
Abstinence-only sex education programs: These programs focus on teaching the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage. It teaches that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and other social and mental hardships. Proponents of this type of sex education program may think teaching teens about sex beyond abstinence can confuse them — on one hand, saying, “Don’t have sex,” and on the other, saying, “But if you do, here is how to do it.” Abstinence-only advocates believe the core message: “Don’t have sex until you are married.”
Comprehensive sexual education programs: Comprehensive sex education programs cover the value of abstinence, but they also cover birth control methods, how to reduce the risk of STD transmission, and what makes a healthy relationship. These programs teach that abstinence is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and avoid STDs, but they also teach students about human development, relationships, sexual expression, sexual health, and the role of sex in culture and religion. They also give information on abortion, masturbation, and sexual orientation.
Within these two broad categories, there are hundreds of variations.
Topics to discuss with your teen
Once you have done your research to find out what your child is learning about sex in school, next comes the hard part — actually talking to your teen about sex to supplement that learning. Hopefully, this isn’t the first time you have brought up the subject of sex and relationships. As a teen gets closer to independence, these are some of the topics you may want to discuss.
Discuss sexual attraction, arousal, foreplay, and intercourse. Find out what your teen knows and dispel any myths they may have. Don’t worry that your teen isn’t familiar with these topics — they likely are. They may see sexual attraction and sexual behavior on television, on the internet, and in person. Even though today’s generation has much more exposure to sex in the media than past generations, myths and misconceptions still exist. For example, myths your teen may be exposed to include:
- You don’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.
- You can’t get an STD from oral sex.
- If the man pulls out before ejaculation, you can’t get pregnant.
- If a condom breaks, you just have to put another one on.
- Douching after sex prevents pregnancy.
Your teen has ample opportunity to learn the myths surrounding sex. But you have the opportunity to share factual information and combat those myths.
When a couple is ready to begin a sexual relationship, the responsible couple discusses protection beforehand. But it’s hard to discuss what you don’t know. The best time to talk about protection – from pregnancy and STDs – is before you start a sexual relationship. Your teen needs to know their options and understand the pros and cons of each. Having the knowledge now will only help your teen later. Talk about condoms for pregnancy and STD protection and different birth control methods. Cover which methods are effective and what to do if you miss a pill or a condom breaks.
Preparing for the consequences
Every sexual act has potential consequences. Condoms can break or be forgotten in the heat of the moment, certain birth control methods can fail, and you can get an STD even when you think you are being careful. What will your teen do if one of these scenarios occurs? Make sure your teens have the information they need to think ahead, understand the consequences, and decide whether the act is worth the risk.
Don’t forget about relationships
When you are discussing sex, you shouldn’t limit your conversations to the physical acts. Share your personal ideas about how sex fits into relationships. Do you believe your teen should wait until a relationship becomes serious? What do you mean by that? How does sex enhance a relationship? How does it potentially hurt a relationship? Discuss the emotional consequences of a sexual relationship.
No discussion of sex should be complete without talking about respecting one another in a relationship. Sex should be mutual, both in participation and desire. If either partner is hesitant or doesn’t want to engage in a sexual relationship, it should not be forced or coerced.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.