A friend of mine was horrified last week when her 14 year-old niece told her that peeing after sex could prevent pregnancy. They argued for a bit until her niece triumphantly said that she had proof because she has been peeing after unprotected sex with her boyfriend for months and she isn’t pregnant. So there!
The niece was promptly marched off to the doctor for a firm conversation about sex, contraception and safety, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just write that off as one spectacularly misinformed kid? Don’t you wish we could confidently tell ourselves that most 14 year-olds aren’t sexually active and even if they were, they would know more than my friend’s niece?
Well we can’t. I’ve known my friend’s niece for years. She’s at a good school, has loving (if very conservative) parents and should know better.
That she didn’t is not nearly as unusual as we might think.
About one quarter of kids in year 10 are sexually active, by the time they reach year 12 that figure doubles. Less than half of those kids are using condoms. More than half are sexually active for at least a year before they visit a doctor to talk about contraception. I could fill several pages with terrifying statistics, but I think you probably get the general idea: teenagers are having sex and they are not doing it safely.
Catherine Manning is the CEO of Melbourne’s SEED (Self-Esteem,Education and Development), and regularly facilitates workshops with teenagers on sexuality and consent. She was saddened but not shocked when I recounted my friend’s conversation with her niece. She told me that she has often heard such claims from young teenagers.
“Kids don’t have the level of understanding about sex and sexuality that we imagine they do. Schools and parents seem to think that teenagers are much more aware of this stuff than they actually are, that they can find it on the internet and don’t need to have those conversations with adults. It’s simply not true. The information is certainly there, and sites like Birdee are great resource, but kids don’t go looking for the information until something goes wrong. By then the horse has bolted. Schools are teaching the mechanics, or at least they’re supposed to, but clearly the message isn’t getting through to everyone.”
School curriculums vary across all the states and territories in Australia, but most schools are supposed to at least teach the basics about sex. Parental consent is required in some states, which presents the horrifying possibility that the kids least likely to receive sex-ed at home are prevented from learning about it at school.
But, as my friend and Catherine Manning found out, even the kids who are present in sex-ed classes are not learning even the most basic information, let alone the more complex stuff about consent, respect, enjoyment and protection from disease.
I’ve had those awkward conversations with my own kids (the one that really stands out is my nine year-old asking me what oral sex was. I told her and she didn’t believe me; we’re both still scarred by that conversation).
I’m fairly confident they understand how it all works, but I probably need to go back and check. Because I’m also guilty of complacency. I mean, I’m knowledgeable, articulate and write regularly about feminist issues, so of course my kids know all that stuff, right?
But now I think about it, we haven’t talked a lot about it over the last few years. What have they been told by their friends since then? How much of what I told them do they remember? How much do they think I got wrong? How much of the stuff that is really important did they dismiss as things that don’t matter?
And the most frightening questions of all: Are they doing something that could endanger them because they don’t know all the things they should know?
And will they tell me about it if they are?