If not careful, this paper could wander into areas of social responsibility, moral dilemma, and religious argument. Teenage sex is a loaded topic no matter the situation for which it is discussed. For the purpose of this paper, we will recognize that, “right” or “wrong”, sexual activity is, in fact, being practiced by our teen youth and usually in an irresponsible manner. We will also recognize that a modern society intent on spreading knowledge must somehow emphasize responsibility belongs “somewhere” to promote sexual awareness. In the absence of this knowledge, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), not the least of which includes AIDS, and teenage pregnancies could compromise social stability and even burden our already troubled health care system. And so we arrive at maybe the most pertinent question of all questions regarding the topic of teenage sexual activity: What is the best age to talk to kids about sex?
In the following paragraphs, we will first discuss modern statistics of teenage sexual activity. This will help quantify reasonable ages when it would seem prudent to have these discussions. We will also address specific, real life letters and comments from the kids themselves regarding sexual education, questions, and concerns. In the final paragraphs, we will also weigh in on advice from Planned Parenthood and The Guttmacher Institute, each of these not just suggesting appropriate ages for these sex talks, but also suggested methods and approaches to having these talks.
The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focusing on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, has some very compelling statistics regarding teenage sexual activity of today. According to a national survey of vital and health statistics, 13% of teens have had vaginal sex by age 15. This sexual activity becomes even more common during the late teen years and by the age of 19, seven of 10 teens of both sexes have had intercourse. (Guttmacher Institute. (2011) That is to say, 70% of all teens have had sexual intercourse prior to reaching the age of 19.
Among sexually experienced teens, 72% of females and 56% of males report that their first sexual experience was with a steady partner, while 14% of females and 25% of males report a first sexual experience with someone whom they had just met or who was just a friend. (Guttmacher Institute. (2011)
According to another study published in 1999, moms talked about condoms with boys at an average age of 12.9 and with girls at 13.5, and the average age at which teens said they first had sex was 13.8. (Lewis et al., 1999)
Surprisingly, however, teens have been waiting longer to have sex than they did in recent years. Over the years 2006–2008, some 11% of never-married females aged 15–19 had sex before the age of 15, down from 19% in 1995. The same trend was true for males over the years 2006-2008, 14% of never-married males aged 15-19 having had sex before the age of 15, down from 21% in 1995. (Guttmacher Institute, 2011)
As stated in our introduction, this paper is not an attempt to argue IF sex education should be provided to our youth. With a figure as high as 70% of all teens having had sexual intercourse before reaching the age of 19, it is somewhat obvious that there is, in fact, a need for sex education.
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Medical Heath Concerns
Only a few decades ago, debate over sex education focused on whether public schools had a role at all in educating children and young people about sex-related matters or whether parents should be the sole transmitters of sexually related values and information to their children. However, as the level of concern over teenage pregnancy—and later AIDS—increased, so did public support for sex education in schools. Over a few years in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of states that had policies requiring or encouraging the teaching of sex education grew rapidly. (Guttmacher Institute, 2011)
But, again, as stated in our introduction, the purpose of this paper not to argue WHO is responsible for providing this sex education to our youth. Now, as more educational institutions are supporting the instruction of sex education, it is time to take a serious look at the appropriate age for this education to begin.
From a Kid’s Perspective
As it turns out, kids themselves may decide when and how much sex education is appropriate. They are, after all, not comfortable with the topic of sex and may even decide to seek out advice from sources other than parents and other than the classroom. “We talk about sex with our older siblings because they know what is going on in our heads and our hearts. It feels awkward to talk to our parents because fathers automatically go crazy and mothers sometimes understand, but then they’ll start nagging you to death telling you how it’s not right to have sex.” (Lewis et al., 1999) This is not an unusual situation. Parents are frequently as uncomfortable as their children when talking about sex.
This is not, however, to say that parents should absolve themselves of participation. Say, for example, a parent has three children at the ages of 18, 14, and 9. The parent may be wise to ask their eldest if the youngest has had any discussion regarding the subject. In this instance, the best age to begin discussing sex with a younger child can be discovered through a conversation with the eldest child. The elder child may want to plant the seed into the younger child and mention that “Mom and Dad are a good resource for answers to some of these tough questions.” The parents will then need to make themselves open available to the youngest child in the case of any questions or concerns the child may be experiencing.
Finding the Appropriate Age
After looking at these examples and examining these statistics, we could conclude that somewhere after the age of 10 is a good place to start. But what exactly should the subject matter be in the beginning? How should the topic be approached? Which aspect of sex education appears to be the most appropriate at the varying age levels?
When asked his opinion on the appropriate age to begin sex education, Kenneth, age 13 responded: “If you are about to have sex, you need to know the proper precautions.” (Chang, 2003) “Precaution” is not a word used to describe how to eat an ice cream cone or how to tie a shoe. This comment demonstrates a sense of responsibility at a very early age and that the child is aware enough to understand that there are consequences of sex.
Jovana, 12: “We just started learning about sex education… and a lot of kids were joking and we got detention.” (Chang, 2003) Part of sex education is to recognnize that each kid will react differently to introduction of the topic. Some will see this as a serious matter and opportunity to learn more for the benefit of themselves while others will see this is very discomforting, opting instead to giggle and joke about the subject matter. Surprise! Age is just a number and there are varying levels of maturity within each age range.
Michael, 12: “They only teach us some sex ed in school. They think that we don’t have any experiences. I have a girlfriend. What if she comes to me and she tells me she’s ready? I won’t know what to say, because I don’t know if I’m ready or not.” (Chang, 2003) Most importantly to the “young adult” may be simply knowing “what to do and what not to do”. A person’s first sexual experience is unavoidable. In other words, the experience is going to happen; however, it does not need to be an occasion fraught with worry or fear. If the young person is fully educated and knows what to expect, the event may be more than just a “rite of passage.”
Planned Parenthood recognizes that both parents and educators have shared responsibility to educate young people in sex education within our society, and have suggestions and helpful tools to help assist both of these groups. According to Planned Parenthood, “Children have different concerns about sex at different ages. They also have different abilities to understand concepts — and different attention spans. If your five-year-old asks, “What is birth?” you might answer, “When a baby comes out a mother’s body.” If your 10-year-old asked the same question, your answer would have more detail, and might begin, “After nine months of growing inside a woman’s uterus…” (Planned Parenthood, 2011)
The above suggests that “beginning” the talks about sex is not necessarily such a monumental moment for a parent with an open and aware mind. Discussing sex with a son or daughter can begin at the earliest of ages in the most innocent of ways. Discussing sex can (and should) be treated as a relatively commonplace part of life. According to Planned Parenthood, “if a child is old enough and knowledgeable enough to ask a question, the child is old enough to get a truthful answer.” (Planned Parenthood, 2011) If the parent is uncomfortable talking about sex with their child, Planned Parenthood can help to advise and guide.
In my personal experience I have noticed that Dominicans talk more openly about sex than do Americans. Dominicans seem to discuss sex as candidly as politics and religion. Americans in comparison with citizens of other countrys still have an innocent sort of slant on the subject, treating it as a private matter. Using personal observation as a source, maybe the best and most logical conclusion is to open the subject of sex as early as possible. Kids have questions. Kids ask questions. Parents should listen to the question being asked, really listen, and hear what is being asked. Educators need to understand a cookie cutter approach to doling out sexual education may not be effective and invest extra effort to understand where the kid is coming from and the motivation for wanting to know the answer to each question, for in the area of sexual education, ignorance is NOT bliss.