Q: I think my daughter may be having sex even though she says she's not. If I take her for a gynecological exam, can the doctor tell me if she's still a virgin?
A: It would be very difficult for any physician to answer your question based on a physical exam. Presumably, you are wondering whether her hymen is intact as a sign of virginity. However, there is considerable variation in the anatomy of the hymen during adolescence, making it an unreliable indicator of virginity.
Your question raises important points about your relationship with your daughter. We can sense your concerns and encourage you to share them in an open manner with her. If you believe your daughter should not be sexually active, you should tell her so, but also explain why you believe as you do. You may want to talk about the risks of pregnancy, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases that come with unprotected sexual intercourse, or the fact that your personal or religious values prohibit sexual activity at her age.
At the same time, you'll want to listen to your daughter's perspective. Don't assume that because she's displayed interest in a boy that she is having sex. The development of a sexual identity is one important task of adolescence.
Flirting, dating and talking on the phone all are part of that process, but engaging in these activities does not mean that a young person is having intercourse. By signaling to your daughter that you're interested in this aspect of her development, you'll also be encouraging her to come to you with questions when she's confused, feeling pressured or wants an adult opinion.
When parents don't open such a dialogue, their teen-agers assume they don't care. Then, the way they learn about sex is from friends, television or the movies. We think that parents, not these other sources, should be the primary source of sexual education for children and adolescents.
The American Hospital Association has named October PACT (Parents and Children Talking about Sex) month.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.