The best statistics suggest that at age 17 about half of American teens have had intercourse at least once. Some factors seem to help delay when this occurs; teens from intact families and girls with high self-esteem, for example, tend to start having sex at a later age. The best studies of adolescents who take a “virginity pledge” suggest that these kids have sex just as early as those who don’t pledge, but that they are less likely to use birth control when they do have sex.
Some religious and cultural traditions consider birth control of any type to be immoral. As a pediatrician, my priority is minimizing adolescents’ risks of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) once they do become sexually active. While I respect all religious and cultural traditions, my profession obligates me to point out that condoms are the most effective means of preventing sexually active teens from contracting potentially deadly STIs.
Given that condoms are highly effective in preventing teen pregnancy and STIs, you’ll want to talk frankly with your teen about these problems. First, remind her that many people don’t even know they have an STI. Many teens believe they can look at a partner and “tell” if he has a disease, but you can explain that even if someone says he’s been “tested,” he may still have HIV, genital warts, or herpes. People carry and transmit all these infections, as well as chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomonas, and syphilis, without symptoms or outward signs. The only safe assumption for your teen to make is that every sexual partner is potentially infectious.
Your teen should also know that there’s a right way to use a condom (usually conveniently printed inside every box). To be effective, the guy has to put on a condom before sex begins. From that point on it may be too late to prevent pregnancy and disease transmission. He should leave a little space at the end by pinching about a quarter inch of the tip when he’s rolling it on. The space should not be full of air, or it may pop like a balloon. Oil-based lubricants like Vaseline or massage oil can degrade latex; any lubricants should be water-based, like K-Y Jelly or Surgilube. As soon as the male ejaculates he should hold the condom at the base and pull out. If the couple has sex again, they need to use a fresh condom.
Having these conversations with your teen may not feel comfortable for either of you. Remember, however, that talking to kids about sex and even giving them condoms does not make them have sex any sooner. It does, however, lower the chances you’ll become a grandfather before you’re ready, as well as the chance you’ll be talking to your child in a doctor’s office about treating her infection.
What You Can Do
You’ll want to help your teen understand that she can become pregnant at any time, even if her partner “pulls out,” she’s having her period, or she jumps up and down or douches immediately afterward. There is no such thing as “just this once” because once is all it takes. It may help her to know that women often feel most like having sex (and are more attractive to men) at the time in their cycles when they are most likely to become pregnant. Don’t be afraid to supply your teen with condoms and remind her that while it may still be years before she chooses to have sex, “no condom, no sex” should be an unbreakable rule.