As parents, teachers, or school administrators, we have a deep-seated desire to see our students succeed in life, be happy, and healthy. Sexual health is a term you’ve probably come across many times recently, as we celebrated Sexual Health Awareness month. When it comes to teen sexual health, a lot of misconceptions exist. At Pure Freedom, we believe that adults can be the most valuable advocates for students to reach optimal health. In this post, we are going to review 9 common myths regarding teen sexual health.
Although there isn’t one and unique definition of sexual health, the World Health Organization defines it as a “state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity. Sexual health requires the positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.”
So not only does sexual health involve the physical, it also includes many different aspect of well-being such as the:
Contrary to popular belief, less than half of teenagers are sexually active. According to the CDC, only about 42% of girls aged 15 to 19 and 38% of boys report that they ever had sex. Another study available on The Institute for Family Studies shares even lower numbers, adding that not only less teenagers are having sex, but that they are also deciding to wait longer before having sex for the first time.
In our sex-saturated society, it would be easy to think that a higher number of teenagers are being sexually active than in the past 6 decades. In reality, the opposite is true. The percentage of sexually active teenagers has been on the decline (15% down since the early 1990s). The bottom line is that fewer teenagers are having sex than ever before.
Although only a quarter of teens are sexual active, teenagers still account for nearly half of the 20 million new cases of STIs each year. This high rate is despite the fact that a majority of sexually active teenagers (66% of sexually active boys and 53% of girls) use condoms, The HIV virus is also still very much alive, with over 30,000 new infections reported in 2019 in the US. And 21% of these cases were among young people aged 13 to 21. This highlights the need for sexually active teenagers to get tested. But few of them (less than 10%) do. Adults can therefore play a major role in encouraging them to seek testing and treatment. In addition, they can help by providing teenagers with useful resources such as testing centers.
Practicing “safe sex”, which consists of using contraception can reduce the risk of teen pregnancy but it doesn’t completely eliminate it. Although the rates of teen pregnancy have been decreasing, there are still about 16.7 teen pregnancies per 1,000 females each year in the United States. In addition, these numbers are among the highest in the developed western world.
Balancing school, friends, dating, and sex is not an easy task for teenagers. In fact, sexual activity is not without risk when it comes to emotional health. In girls especially, early sexual activity may cause higher levels of stress and depression. One study analyzing over 4,000 teenagers concluded that there is an association between sexual initiation before 17 years and a major depressive episode in females but not in males. This may be due to the fact that teenage girls who engage in sex, and casual sex in particular, are more likely to feel used and have low self-esteem as a result.
STIs are usually treated with antibiotics so many teens are unafraid of catching one. Yet, scientists are warning us that STIs are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics and therefore, may not be treated as easily as they used to. In addition, STIs can be asymptomatic and cause long-term issues when left untreated. For instance, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can in turn lead to infertility. All of these outcomes have the potential to threaten a student’s health and well-being long-term.
Although more research is needed, there have been studies linking early sexual activity with lesser academic achievement. The CDC reports that “students with higher academic grades are less likely to be currently sexually active” and they are also less likely to engage in other risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or doing drugs. Furthermore, it’s important to mention that only 50% of teen moms finish high school and receive their diploma, as opposed to 90% for non-pregnant teenage girls.
The research is clear that teen sexual activity affects all aspects of sexual health. Its impact also goes beyond the teenage years. In its research summary, the sexual risk avoidance organization Ascend raises our attention to the facts that teen sex is associated with many negative life outcomes such as “less academic achievement”, “decreased general physical and psychological health, including depression”, “less financial net worth and more likely to live in poverty”, etc.
We hope this information gives you a better understanding of teen sexual health. As experts in the field of sexual risk avoidance education, we dedicate ourselves to creating a better dialogue between adults and their students.
We know that sex can be an intimidating subject to address with teenagers. Yet, as an adult, you have the opportunity to contribute to the health of your students by being open to discussion. To help you navigate those topics, we have gathered 8 tips for you to apply when you feel ready to talk about it. You can find these tips here.
Do you know a student who is pregnant or parenting? Our pregnancy clinic Lifeline serves women and men in Northeast Missouri as they go through an unexpected pregnancy. All services are offered at no cost. They include pregnancy testing, ultrasound, prenatal and parenting education, counseling, community referrals, material support and more. To read more about our services or to refer a student to Lifeline, please visit lifelinepregnancyhelp.org.
Written by Elodie Takamiya.