Last month, the CDC made an alarming announcement: The total combined cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia reported in 2015 was at a record high, with nearly two-thirds of those cases occurring in 15-to-24-year-olds.
This was already troubling news under a president who’d demonstrated a commitment to fact-based, comprehensive sex education. But with Donald Trump and Mike Pence headed for the White House—and, given Pence’s previous support for abstinence-only sex education, a return to that school of thought potentially imminent—the news feels especially troubling. When it comes to safer sex education, we’re clearly failing our sexually active young people, particularly teens, whose decisions and sexual identities are constantly policed by adults.
And while it may be tempting to blame porn for teaching kids that condoms aren’t cool, or encourage young people to just keep their legs closed until they get married, neither of those strategies has worked so far.
So I figured I’d try something different: reaching out to adults who started having sex as teenagers to learn a little bit more about what they knew, didn’t know, and wish they’d known about sex back when they started getting busy.
For starters, it’s important to remember that—as with any sexually active population—young teens who start exploring sex are not a monolith. There’s no one reason why a teen might decide to start having sex; the seven adults I spoke with (who grew up all around the U.S., as well as in Canada and South America, in rural, urban, and suburban environments and a variety of socioeconomic levels, and range from being in their early twenties to their late forties) offered up a number of different stories. Some of them started exploring sex in the context of a committed relationship. Others happily (and sometimes not so happily) were more casual in their early sexual experiences.
Across the board, the people I spoke with said that school did little to prepare them for a safe, healthy sex life.
Even though we tend to portray teens who have sex only in relationships as more virtuous or making better decisions than their peers who don’t wait for true love to start getting busy, I spoke with several adults who didn’t seem to feel damaged by youthful promiscuity. For sex worker Bella Vendetta, who lost her virginity to an older woman at the age of 14, early sex felt “pretty normal and not like a big deal,” perhaps in part because her first partner took the time to check in and communicate, even circling back weeks later to talk about the experience.
Across the board, the people I spoke with said that school did little to prepare them for a safe, healthy sex life. Many received abstinence-only sex education that offered more fear than actual information—though older friends, family members, books, and, of course, the internet helped give them an idea of what to expect and how to navigate their experiences. “My parents didn’t talk to me about sex before they gave me a computer in my own room,” says Adrian, a 31-year-old man from in Illinois. So, by the time my dad decided to have the talk, I was already well educated.”
But there were still quite a few gaps in their knowledge, often regarding basic details unlikely to come up even during a good sex education class. Janice, a 47-year-old woman based in New York City, says that “I wish I’d known that you should always pee before and after sex,” and that more explicit information about how UTIs are contracted would have saved her a great deal of anguish.
More information about the mechanics of pleasurable sex would have been useful as well: “I wish Cosmo had said, ‘Here’s all the reasons sex hurts at first.’ Just some way of knowing what to expect,” she says. Adrian says that he would benefited from a lesson in proper condom technique. Though he was always adamant about strapping up, he didn’t realize the importance of holding onto the base while pulling out during his early forays into sex.
“I naively thought it was just so hard for lesbians to contract STIs from other lesbians.”
Not surprisingly, queer people felt the least prepared for their sexual experiences, particularly when it came to safer sex. Vendetta says that “I naively thought it was just so hard for lesbians to contract STIs from other lesbians,” which meant safer sex rarely factored into her early sexual experiences. Progressive sex education curricula have made strides towards being LGBT-inclusive since Vendetta first started getting busy, but there are still significant gaps between the information made available to straight youth and their queer peers.
And honest, inclusive STI education isn’t just about condom demonstrations and an intro to dental dams. It also means providing accurate information about what it means to contract something like chlamydia, including the fact that, well, it’s not the end of the world. For many, that might seem counterintuitive—If kids think STIs are NBD, what’s their motivation to use protection?—but the stories I heard suggested otherwise.
Devon, a 23-year-old from Edmonton, Alberta, whose official sex education came in the form of fear-mongering from her Christian home school, notes that those scare tactics didn’t prevent them from contracting herpes. What they did do, however, was convince them that their herpes diagnosis meant they were dirty, unlovable, and disgusting. “If I had been taught that most STIs mean nothing and… don’t end up making a huge difference on your life, I would never have been suicidal about mine,” they say.
“My first boyfriend’s and my hormones were insane, so the sex was very good, even if we both knew very little.”
In contrast, when Lorelei Lee contracted chlamydia from her supposedly monogamous high school boyfriend, it was the open-minded sex education she’d received from her mother (as well as access to Planned Parenthood) that enabled her to get tested and treated before things got worse. “With only my public school sex ed as influence, I could have easily felt too [intimidated] to get care,” she says. “I definitely had friends in that position.”
And if you need more convincing that moralizing about sexual health is ill-advised: Lee, who now works as a porn performer, points out that the same high school boyfriend was her only STI exposure; in her 16 years in the adult industry, she’s never contracted another STI. “STIs are not punishment for bad behavior,” she tells me.
Perhaps the most positive account of youth sexuality came from Callie Little, a 27-year-old sex educator based in Seattle, who grew up in Portland, Oregon. Little, who started having sex at 14 with her then-boyfriend, spoke glowingly of her early experiences, noting that “my first boyfriend and I had fooled around so much, learning what we did and didn’t like, and our hormones were insane, so the sex was very good, even if we both knew very little.”
Little’s preparation for her inaugural sexual experiences (which included a Pap smear, getting on birth control, and making sure she had access to plenty of condoms) didn’t come from school. Like many of her peers, she received abstinence-only sex education, including a middle school presentation from a group called STARS (Students Today Aren’t Ready for Sex) who came to her school a year before she punched her v-card. Instead, Little turned to her mother—“Of the many problems my mother and I encountered with one another, openness about sexuality was not one of them,” she says—who helped give her the information and guidance she needed to have a healthy, happy, and safe introduction to sexuality.
Of course, most teens aren’t fortunate enough to have parents as open and forthcoming as Little’s. But figuring out a way to foster that kind of thoughtful, informative, non-judgmental environment around sex—whether it’s online, in schools, or elsewhere—is key. Because, much as we might want to deny it, some teens are going to end up having sex no matter what, and the less information they have, the more likely they are to make potentially damaging decisions. As Alejandra, a 22-year-old from Colombia, puts it, “Sex is something that should be talked about more, not just in schools, but in general.” The more we normalize sexuality—treating it as a healthy, albeit risky, part of life—the more we empower young people to make smart decisions about their health.