By Grisselle DeFrank, MPH and Rachel Gellert, MPA
For people of all ages, talking about sex is (more often than not) awkward. It’s no one person’s fault. Many of us were raised in families where sex was a taboo subject, and with sex education that was either non-existent, or limited to clinical descriptions of puberty and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
But young people deserve better. They need better.
Because not feeling comfortable talking about sex has repercussions that extend into every part of young people’s lives. Helping teens feel relaxed talking about this tricky subject impacts how they relate to their bodies, their gender, their sexuality, their partners and their whole selves.
As health educators at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, we talk with young people about sex every day and see how their relationship to sex impacts their whole being—from their physical health to their sense of self-worth and their ability to communicate.
Adolescence is a time when young people are exploring their own agency. For the first time, they’re beginning to make their own decisions rather than relying on their caretaker to decide for them. To do that, they need information to make their own informed decisions about their body. This means understanding the basics, like the names of their body parts and how they work. We teach kids about the importance of heart health, but get squeamish when it comes to talking about vaginas and penises. This can lead to feelings of shame and confusion during puberty, when they don’t understand what’s happening to their body. And it doesn’t give teens the tools they need to advocate for themselves at the doctor’s office, to decide what kind of birth control they want to use, to understand how to perform a check for testicular cancer (which is especially common in young men).
Understanding bodies is also critical for figuring out their own boundaries, like whether they’re ok using condoms as their primary birth control method, or getting physical with someone who hasn’t been tested for STIs.
When we don’t feel comfortable talking about sex, we also don’t feel comfortable talking about boundaries. Often, this means that young people don’t understand that:
- It’s ok, good, and normal to set boundaries.
- It’s healthy and powerful to think through your boundaries before getting intimate so you can communicate those boundaries to your partners.
Figuring out what you’re ok and not ok with in the moment can be really hard—which is why we need to create spaces for young people to talk about and think through what they’re ok and not ok with, what feels good, and under what specific circumstances. This also gives young people the tools to keep checking in with themselves throughout their lives as their boundaries, desires and relationships change.
Consent and Communication
It can be tempting to pretend that consent is simple. But the truth is that consent is more than a word (or lack thereof)—it’s a conversation. Learning how to navigate consent and communication takes time and practice. When we give young people the spaces to talk openly about consent, they not only begin to feel comfortable enforcing their own boundaries, but also asking for what they want, checking in with their partner, and creating more positive, pleasurable experiences.
We talk more about how to talk to your teen about consent here.
Exploring Sexuality and Gender
Sexuality is a big, complicated, exciting thing that changes throughout your life. But too often, people associate sexuality with feelings of shame and confusion when it doesn’t match some mythical “normal” experience. For young people who are LGBTQ+, exploring sexuality can be especially tough. But it doesn’t have to be. If we talked openly about sex, sexuality and gender, the endless diversity of experiences, identities and desires would be more visible. Young people could talk through their feelings and have them validated, rather than feel shame while processing them alone. Normalizing these identities could also reduce bullying and judgment from non-LGBTQ young people, creating a safer and more welcoming environment.
Consent, communication and boundaries are all huge parts of healthy relationships. By talking about these issues with young people, we could help prevent teen dating violence and help young people build relationships based on respect and kindness instead.
What Can I Do?
Many parents and adults worry that talking about sexual health with teens will make them have more sex, so they often avoid the topic altogether. But in fact, avoiding talking about sexual health only makes navigating this part of their life more complicated and difficult. The young people we talk to everyday WANT to talk to their parents about sex and relationships. They have questions about being pressured to have sex, how to be safe, whether they’re ready, and so much more. But often they feel like they can’t, because no one has brought sex up with them first.
To adults who feel ill-equipped to talk about sex with the young people in their life: you’re not alone. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.” Young people respond well when we’re non-judgmental and listen to them with an open mind. Engage young people in conversations, rather than talking at them.
For more information, here are some of our favorite resources:
- If you know a young person who’s 10-22 years old in NYC, they can come to at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, confidential sexual health services and non-judgmental answers to all their questions.
- If you or your teen wants more information on sex, relationships or their bodies, they can check out the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center blog, Scarleteen or the Planned Parenthood website.
- For comprehensive information on birth control, we recommend Bedsider.
- To learn more about consent, we love Cindy Crabb’s book Learning Good Consent.
Grisselle DeFrank, MPH is a Health Educator at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center School Based Health Program where she provides health education counseling and tailors health education programming to the needs of youth in the community. She holds an MPH in Health Policy and Management from the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy and also holds a BA in Health and Societies from the University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in advancing health equity through health education, research, and policy.
Rachel Gellert, MPA is a Clinical Health Educator and part of the Youth Empowered conSensuality (YES) Program team at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She develops programming and facilitates workshops on gender and sexuality, consent and healthy relationships. She is also a full spectrum doula who supports people through pregnancy and reproductive health decisions.
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.