You can reduce your teenager’s risk of harm by providing medically accurate information to support and encourage healthy, informed decisions about sex.
It’s important to remember that the term “teenage” represents a broad age range.
It describes many different ages, stages of development, and levels of preparedness, explains sex educator Erica Smith, M.Ed, creator of Purity Culture Dropout, a program for people who were raised with evangelical beliefs about sexuality.
After all, the term can describe 13-year-olds who are still in middle school and 19-year-olds who are well into college.
“Sex” is another word that can mean different things based on who’s saying it. Some people say that penis-in-vagina and penis-in-anus sex are the only kinds of sex, while others say sex is any meaningful act of pleasure.
No doubt, it can be physically or emotionally harmful for a person to engage in sexual activity when they’re not adequately informed or prepared for the potential consequences.
But despite all the fear-mongering around teens having sex, teens doing it isn’t always doomsday. Some research suggests that sex can not only be a neutral experience, but it may also be beneficial for some teens.
One 2007 study led by clinical psychologists analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative study assessing adolescent health and high risk behavior in the United States.
Although thousands of participants in grades 7 through 12 were surveyed at three different points between 1994 and 2002, researchers specifically focused on data collected from 534 same-sex twin pairs.
This allowed researchers to eliminate genetic and socioeconomic variables that might influence their behavior.
Researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, teens who have sex at an early age may be less inclined to exhibit “delinquent behavior” — including emotional problems, substance misuse, and criminality — later in life.
Most sexually active teens have sex with people they’re in a romantic relationship with. And these relationships teach them about intimacy, communication, and emotions, as well as keep them too busy to break the law.
Researchers note that while there are drawbacks to early adolescent sexual activity — namely unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — these risks aren’t inevitable.
Other Western countries have similar rates and patterns of teen sexual activity but drastically lower rates of teen pregnancy.
The difference? The majority of sex education curriculums in the United States
“Before even asking, ‘Are there studies that show it’s harmful for teens to have sex or not?’ we should also think, ‘Teens where? Teens who are prepared or unprepared? Teens who receive scare tactic-based sex ed or teens who are raised from birth to believe that sex is a normal and healthy part of relationships?’” says Smith.
“The study outcomes will differ vastly depending on the context,” says Smith.
If you do your own deep dive, note who the researchers are and who is funding the research.
Research written or funded by people with a financial investment in abstinence-only education or celibacy culture, including religious affiliates, likely isn’t objective.
Bodily autonomy, at its most distilled, is your right to make decisions about your body.
For children and teens, bodily autonomy looks like:
- being able to wear what they want to wear
- choosing whether they want to keep, remove, or otherwise alter their facial or body hair
- being able to dye their hair, wear makeup, or otherwise alter their appearance temporarily
- having the space to explore their gender identity and make decisions about gender affirming care
- being encouraged to opt in or out of physical touch, including handshakes and hugs, with family members
When you allow your child autonomy over these things, you teach them to notice and honor how their heart, mind, body, and soul feel or respond when they do or do not want something.
For instance, maybe they feel warm and tingly in their body when they do, wear, or feel something good but get a dark, empty feeling when the opposite is true.
Down the line, this information will help them decide the kinds of people they do or don’t want to be intimate with.
If you’re not already, start talking with your child about sex. The sooner, the better.
Although some schools offer sex education, it may not be medically accurate, and it likely isn’t comprehensive.
Only 22 U.S. states require that, if provided, sex education must be medically, factually, or technically accurate. That leaves a lot of room for misinformation.
You need to supplement whatever your teen is learning at school by making medically accurate information available to them, says Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CST, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
It’s important to have multiple, age-appropriate conversations throughout your child’s life, says Smith.
“It helps parents and caregivers create an atmosphere in which their kids feel comfortable coming to them with questions and concerns about sex-related matters, knowing they won’t get in trouble or be shamed for doing so,” she explains.
Over time, these conversations can help create a sense of emotional safety.
“A sense of emotional safety with parents and caregivers allows teens to be more prepared for the intense emotions of sexual and romantic relationships, and to have coping skills and support when those relationships do occur,” adds Smith.
In “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good,” adrienne maree brown writes, “Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.”
Whether it’s savoring the taste of food, taking in the beauty of a sunset, or celebrating with friends, embracing pleasure as a worthy pursuit and encouraging your child to do the same can be life changing.
Pleasure for pleasure’s sake, sexual or not, is a valid form of discovery and exploration. Talking with your teen about sexual pleasure is just as important as talking about sexual risks.
Depending on the particular sex acts at play, sexual activity can lead to:
- changes in the genital or anal microbiome, increasing the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacterial vaginosis
- small cuts or tears around the opening of the vagina or anus, inside the vaginal or anal canal, or along the penis
- STIs and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
Understanding these risks — and having the tools to mitigate them — is key to making informed decisions about solo or partnered sexual activity.
“Giving your child condoms or taking them to the doctor for birth control is helpful, but not enough,” says Smith. “You should also be talking to them.”
This means going over all forms of contraception, how to use each method correctly, and how to access each method as needed. Consult with an affirming healthcare professional to learn more.
“Sex isn’t exclusively a biological process,” says Smith. “It’s also deeply emotional, and they should be prepared for that too.”
Help your teen understand that they could feel any number of emotions before, during, and after sex, such as:
Likewise, it’s important to teach them that several factors can influence how they feel, including:
- their overall level of stress, hydration, or hunger
- the stability and emotional depth of their relationship with their sexual partner
- how physically, sexually, or romantically attracted they are to their sexual partner
- the quantity and quality of time they have with their sexual partner before and after sex
- how safe they feel with their sexual partner
“Talk to your teenager about how guilt and pressure aren’t OK ingredients in sex,” says Kimberly Vered Shashoua, LCSW, with Vered Counseling, an online therapy provider for teens in North Carolina and Texas.
“Let them know that just because they said they fantasized about something or said ’yes’ previously, their partner shouldn’t assume that it’s what they want now,” says Shashoua.
Make sure your teen knows that if something unwanted happens, they can come to you, a therapist, or another trusted adult, she says.
These conversations aren’t always easy. They can stir up your own internalized sex negativity, homophobia, cis-normativity, and more.
“If you don’t feel prepared to have those conversations as a caregiver, you can consult with sex educators and sex therapists who can help you unlearn what you don’t want to pass down, create age-appropriate scripts for communicating with your teenager, and gain confidence and comfort speaking about sex generally and with your teen,” says Kahn.
Other (free) resources caregivers can refer to include:
- Planned Parenthood
- Sex Positive Families
- Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States
- Talk With Your Kids
Take comfort: You don’t have to be your teen’s only source for medically accurate, sex-positive sex education.
In addition to the websites above, there are many books, podcasts, and other tools you can recommend to or buy for your teen.
To name a few:
- “Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf: A Sex Education Comic Book” edited by Saiya Miller and Liza Bley
- “S.E.X: The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens” written by Heather Corinna
- “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource by and for Transgender Communities” edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth
- “Wait, What? A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up” co-written by Heather Corinna and Isabella Rotman and colored by Luke B. Howard
You can find even more resources via this sortable list by Sex Positive Families.
Equipping your teen with medically accurate information about sexual and reproductive health — including anatomy, consent, pleasure, pregnancy, and STIs — can be the difference between more safe and less safe adolescent sexual activity.
Using shame and fear-based tactics to teach teens about sex won’t stop them from engaging in sexual activity. But it will prevent them from talking with you about it, even if they need your help.
Creating a safe environment free of judgment can empower your teen to lean on you for support and guidance.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.