Teen-sex talk must get past the word `Don't'

May 09, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN COLUMNIST

If you never have sex, you won't get pregnant. All it takes is once.

It is a warning profound in its simplicity, and it is what parents often say to their teenagers.

But what if our teenagers do have sex?

According to research released last week by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, almost a third of teen girls (ages 15-19) who have had sex at least once have become pregnant.

And more than one out of every eight teen boys who have had sex at least once have caused a pregnancy.

"Most of the time when we talk about the teenage pregnancy rate, we are talking about all teens," said Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign.

"But here we are just looking at the kids who have had sex, and almost a third of them have gotten pregnant.

"That struck us as higher than we would have guessed."

It makes sense to frame teenage pregnancy research this way: What is going on with the kids who are sexually active?

If a third of the girls are getting pregnant, clearly they aren't using protection.

Also according to the research, girls who first have sex before age 15 are significantly more likely (46 percent) to have been pregnant than teens who first have sex when they are older (25 percent).

Girls who have had three or more sexual partners are more likely to have been pregnant (37 percent) than girls who have had one or two sexual partners (25 percent).

Boys who have had three or more partners are twice as likely to have caused a pregnancy than those who have had two or fewer partners (18 percent to 9 percent)

Finally -- and this is key -- teens who report using contraception the first time they had sex are less likely to have been involved in a pregnancy than those who did not (43 percent compared with 27 percent among girls.)

(These figures are based on data collected as part of the widely respected National Survey of Family Growth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics in 2002.)

"Most parents would prefer that their teens not have sex," said Brown. "And many parents are very active in delivering a strong abstinence message.

"Now let's talk about `what if?'

"What if your child is sexually active?"

Parents, who are notoriously reluctant to talk to their teens about sex at all, are now being told they have to have a second -- even more uncomfortable -- conversation.

If you suspect your child is about to become sexually active, you have to do more than say, "Don't."

You have to introduce them to contraceptives and insist upon their use.

"The numbers show what happens if you don't do something," said Brown.

"I understand parents not wanting their teens to have sex. Some parents try very hard to make that happen.

"We know it is wrong, it is a bad choice, it is not in their best interest," said Brown. "But what if your child disagrees?"

Teen pregnancy brings with it a series of stark choices: abortion, adoption, single parenthood, premature marriages that almost always fail.

When weighing their distress over the prospect of actively providing contraceptives to teenagers who are, or who are about to become, sexually active, parents need only consider the unhappy alternatives.

At some point, parents have to be willing to change the direction of the conversations they are having with their kids.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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