Wellness Matters

Let’s Talk About Sex: There is Good News and Bad News About Teens and Sex

October 05, 2015


Remember the early 1990s Salt-N-Pepa hit, “Let’s Talk About Sex?” If you are the proud mom of a teenager, you don’t relish thinking about that topic. But there is some very good news about the sex lives of teens. There are also a couple of areas where you can guide your children toward making better decisions.

First the good news—the teen pregnancy rate has fallen steadily since 1991. There are several reasons. One is that the rate of teen sex has decreased. A recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report finds the rate has dropped to levels last seen when Salt-N-Pepa first started hitting the charts in the 80s. The second is that teens are using condoms more often than they have in the past 11 years, according to that same report. Young women are also using the “morning after” pill more frequently. In recent years, 1-in-5 sexually active teen girls has used this versus 1-in-12 a decade earlier. This pill has some of the same hormones found in birth control pills (similar to what is in our bodies naturally) but in a higher dose. No prescription is needed and there is no age limit to buy them. The wide availability is likely a factor in the pill's popularity.

When Gardasil was first approved for use in 2006, many parents worried that the vaccination against human papilloma virus (HPV) might embolden kids to have sex. The following decade has shown us that the opposite is true. Teenage girls who receive the vaccine start having sex later than those who aren’t vaccinated. Perhaps parents who steered their daughters toward the vaccination were more persuasive in “the talk.” Perhaps the teenaged girls talked it over with the doctor or provider, and they decided to delay sex. Regardless of the exact cause, more teenaged girls who were vaccinated delayed sex than those who weren’t.

All news is not good news when it comes to HPV. Rates of a form of throat cancer associated with the virus are increasing exponentially. By 2020, throat cancer may surpass cervical cancer as the most common HPV-associated cancer in the United States. Anal cancer is on the rise for the same reason. Condoms can decrease the spread of HPV when used properly.

Also in the bad news category, today’s teens appear to be more susceptible to genital herpes than teens of 10 years ago. CDC researchers found that today’s teens have fewer antibodies to herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1. Fewer girls share cosmetics so they aren’t passing around the virus that usually causes cold sores. As a result, when they become sexually active, they haven’t built up immunity to the disease. And while HSV type 2 is more often the cause of genital herpes, people without antibodies to HSV type 1 are more likely to become infected.

So how can you help your teens? Talk with your teens about sex. It will likely be an uncomfortable topic, but they may be more open to it than you think. At the very least, hand them this magazine and dog ear the page. They can make an appointment to discuss this with their caregiver or call me. I like to tell my teen patients (and my daughter) something that a very wise nurse once told me, “Herpes and children, they’re both forever.”

Let’s talk about sex.

About the Author


Myra Dove, MD specializes in Obstetrics/Gynecology,at the Center For Women's Healthcare at Women's Hospital, a Cone Health Medical Group practice.

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