A version of this article was originally published on our Medium channel.
Teens, generally speaking, are becoming more responsible about sex. They are waiting later to become sexually active, and they are more likely to use contraception than young people in any other generation. But there is one sexual behavior that’s on the rise, among both teens and adults: anal sex. And when teens have anal sex, they often do not use a condom.
But there’s good news: when we talk to teens about sex in a medically accurate, engaging way, we empower them to make good choices, and help them learn how to have healthy relationships.
Adolescence is a period of exploration. While lots of adults can’t get their heads around the idea that teens have anal sex, many young people are exploring this part of their sexuality. We have the power to give them the tools to do so in a safe, informed, and consensual way. Unfortunately, though, we’ve let our personal sexual hang-ups get in the way of keeping teens safe. Sex education, where it exists, talks about little more than how to put a condom on a banana and what terrifying STIs you can get. There’s limited discussion of sexual behaviors other than penis-in-vagina intercourse, and little talk of consent, communication, and healthy relationships.
Limiting teens knowledge about sex leads them to engage in risky sexual behaviors that put their health in jeopardy. For example, in a recent study of adolescent female patients at an urban health clinic, 41% of sexually active teens reported having attempted anal sex. Twenty three percent completed anal sex, and 17% include it as a regular part of their sexual practice. These numbers are consistent with other studies of young people’s sexual behaviors.
Of young people having anal sex, close to 60% of them either never or rarely use a condom. Most of the time, this is because they are using a birth control method other than condoms and are not worried about pregnancy prevention. The problem? Unprotected anal sex is one of the highest risk behaviors for the transmission of HIV, HPV and other STIs.
We’ve got to do better. We need sex education that is comprehensive and realistic — that understands what kinds of behaviors teens engage in, what questions they might have, and what information they need to keep themselves safe. We need to talk about consent and communication, so teens can effectively negotiate condom use, and so they can learn how to say and hear “no” to various sexual activities. We need sex ed that normalizes sexuality, so teens feel comfortable asking questions and seeking out empowering information.
Teens are not going to stop having sex simply because adults wish it away. If all we do is wish, the sex they have will only be riskier. So let’s all get over our embarrassment and begin talking to young people about ALL health behaviors, even anal sex.
Moya Brown, MPH, is the Coordinator of Health Education and Peer Educators at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She oversees the SPEEK (Sinai Peers Encouraging Empowerment through Knowledge) Peer Education Program, which empowers young people to make healthy decisions and become their own health advocates.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.