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Teaching teens to respect their bodies

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Updated: October 6, 2012 6:03AM

When it comes to teenagers and sex, it seems that all we ever hear is bad news. From having the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world to the scary statistics about STDs (one in four teenage girls has one), adolescent sexual decisions can be fraught with peril.

However, there is some good news. A recent survey released from the National Center for Health Statistics found that oral sex actually is on the decline among teenagers, as is vaginal intercourse.

Interestingly, the study also showed that oral sex and intercourse began around the same time for most teenagers. Previously, researchers believed that teens used oral sex to delay the initiation of intercourse, but these findings suggest otherwise. Only a small demographic of teenagers delay vaginal intercourse for a long period of time after oral sex has begun, which tells us that oral sex is not necessarily a stopgap for sexual activity and that teens are likely to go “all the way” once they begin exploring sex.

These findings are important for many reasons, including:

It shows us that abstinence-based sex education is working. In the past, teachers and parents tended to rely on abstinence-only sex education, in which abstinence was taught as the only way to prevent STDs and pregnancy. Kids were sternly warned about the risks of sex, but they were not given any resources to help protect themselves if they did decide to have sex. Additionally, this “just say no” approach shut down conversation and left little room for an open dialogue. Instead, teens ended up getting information about sex from their peers and from urban legends, including when it came to oral sex. Many teens wrongly thought that oral sex wasn’t “real” sex and that it had no risks.

Of course, that’s absolutely not true, and it highlights the importance of having an open dialogue between kids and adults when it comes to these issues.

Abstinence-based sex education is different from abstinence-only sex education because it teaches teens that while abstinence is the best way to be 100 percent safe from STDs and pregnancy, there are still several other ways you can cut down on your risk and enjoy “safer” sex. And, it opens the floor for discussion for everything from intercourse to oral sex, which helps to ensure that teens are getting accurate and honest information.

It shows us where we need improvement. The CDC study found that many of these teens do not use condoms or dental dams when having oral sex, yet oral sex can be just as risky as intercourse when it comes to the spread of STDs. From herpes to HPV to chlamydia to gonorrhea, there are a number of STDs that can be spread via oral sex, and while condoms and dental dams aren’t capable of preventing this risk, they can greatly decrease it.

It helps us better understand adolescent sexual experiences. Thanks to this study, we can now better understand how teens first initiate sexual activity and how it impacts sexual decisions down the road. I it also highlights an important point when it comes to teenage decision-making. Many teens often think that once they begin having sex, there is no turning back and they might as well go all the way.

They might reason, “I already lost my virginity, what does it matter?” Of course, it does matter, and not only from sexual health and physical standpoint. When teens submit to sex out of peer pressure or because they don’t value their own voice or their own body, it can set them up for a lifetime of issues inside and outside the bedroom. We need to empower teens to be protective and proud of their bodies, regardless of whether they are virgins or not. It’s about teaching them healthy sexual habits and making them realize that no one has the right to ever pressure them into having sex.

Whether your teen is heading for another year of high school or they are making the big leap into college, you can use this study as a teachable moment to help open the discussion and talk about why safer sex is always a must. And, remember, the sex “talk” is really not a talk — it’s an ongoing dialogue that needs to exist between teens and their parents.

 Dr. Berman is the star of “In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” on OWN and director of

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