As the mom of teenagers, one of the worries I carry on my shoulders is that they will engage in risky sexual behavior. Unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and heartbreak are bogeymen ready to pounce and ruin their futures.
My husband and I have spoken with our children at length about the topic, as good parents are supposed to do. And though we used more sophisticated words, my friend summed up the sentiment well when she described talking with her teen son:
“Don’t have sex. But if you do, use a condom. But don’t have sex. Just in case, here’s a box of condoms. Don’t use them.”
We all like to think that our kids are somehow different - not driven by sexual urges like the rest of the human race. But more than 40 percent of adolescents have done the deed by the time they reach age 17; 70 percent by the age of 20.
This topic brings up a number of issues for parents – their own upbringing and religious beliefs, past sexual missteps, and of course the realization that these kids do indeed grow up.
It’s an emotional topic, as it should be. But because it’s an emotional topic, it also needs to be based on facts.
And here they are:
- A full 70% of teens have sex before their 20th birthday.
- The most effective form of birth control for this age group (meaning sterilization isn’t in the mix) is long acting reversible contraception. LARC, as it is called, includes the IUD and hormonal implants. It can last from three to ten years.
- The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend LARCs as the first line birth control for adolescents.
- This freaks us parents out.
Let’s make it a little less freaky.
The Contraceptive Choice Project at Washington University offered free birth control to over 7,000 women aged 14-45. Access to free birth control did not increase the overall number of partners women had sexual relations with in subsequent months. The overwhelming majority, 84 percent, had the same number or fewer sexual partners. Only 16 percent reported an increase in the number of sexual partners, 80 percent of whom reported jumping from no partner to one partner. I’m guessing that was the idea behind the birth control to begin with.
Meanwhile, the access to free birth control in the Contraceptive Choice Project reduced unintended pregnancies, abortions, repeat abortions and teen pregnancies. No increase in sexually transmitted infections occurred. Since LARCs offer no protection from STIs, it appears their use did not increase risky behavior.
In Colorado, a privately-funded initiative to provide LARCs to low-income teens and young women ran from 2009 to 2013. It yielded a 40 percent reduction in the birthrate among teenagers and a 42 percent reduction in teen abortion. These rates fell around the country during this time, reflecting a generally positive trend. But the magnitude of the drop in Colorado indicates a significant impact made by the program.
What does this mean to those of us on the runaway roller coaster of parenting teenagers? Maybe nothing. Teens can access birth control in all 50 states without parental consent. An industrious teenage girl can make an appointment and secure the birth control of her choosing, and her parents might never know. I don’t wish that scenario on any young woman seeking birth control for the first time.
I also know that teens have pretty well calibrated baloney radars. When parents try to disguise the emotional side of the sex discussion with only “facts” that support their views, trust erodes pretty quickly.
For my family, I hope that the conversations we’ve had surrounding sex, relationships, love, trust, intimacy and all the rest sink in. I also hope my kids will trust me to help them make responsible choices.
And to all my fellow travelers on this parenting journey, remember that it’s a pretty short road. Don’t let fear cloud the windows so much that you miss the view.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.