The good news: American teens are having less sex, and the sex they are having is more often protected.
The not so good news: sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise for teens.
Doesn't add up, right? Well, according to a report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, oral sex rates among teens—although slightly lower than 5 years ago—are still high. And that, say some experts, is the problem. "You can't get pregnant through oral sex, so they think it's safe," says ob-gyn Dr. Lauren Hyman, who practices in West Hills, Calif., and specializes in educating teens about sex. "They don't take into consideration all the sexually transmitted infections that can be acquired."
The CDC's report, released last week, found that 42 percent of female teens (ages 15 to 19) have had oral sex (down from 45 percent in 2006). Over the last 25 years, the number of teens who've had intercourse decreased from 51 percent to 43 percent, and condom use dramatically increased.
The assumption, of course, is that teens are having oral sex to remain "virgins". But this doesn't seem to be the case: Only 7 percent of teens have had oral sex without also having vaginal intercourse. What does this mean? Well ... once your kid engages in any sexual behavior (oral sex or vaginal intercourse), the other behavior is probably not far behind.
Despite all the best efforts of junior high health class, teens and young adults still need more sex education, says Hyman. From the study: "Young people, particularly those who have oral sex before their first vaginal intercourse, may still be placing themselves at risk of sexually transmitted infections or HIV before they are ever at risk of pregnancy." The stats confirm this: About half of all new STIs occur from ages 15 to 24. "The risk of STIs, including HIV, is lower for oral sex than for vaginal intercourse or anal sex," the report states. "However, several studies have documented that oral sex can transmit certain STIs, including chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis."
Herpes is the most common STD to be contracted from oral sex, as it's transmitted by skin to skin contact. HPV, the virus that can cause cervical cancer, is also transmitted by skin to skin contact. Today, the same strain of HPV that causes cervical cancer is being found in incidences of throat and oral cancers—a sign that oral sex can also lead to HPV. Barrier methods like condoms and dental dams (a square of thin rubber held over the vagina, to separate the tongue from the vagina—basically the equivalent of a condom, for girls) are helpful and do reduce the risk of transmission, but not entirely. A common mistake that young people make, says Hyman, is not putting condoms on soon enough. "The barrier method needs to be put in place before there is skin to skin contact, or any pre-ejaculation occurs." Syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and hepatits A, B and C can also be transmitted by oral sex, but it is less common.
And no ... sending them to their junior high or high school sex-ed class is not enough. "Don't assume that one hour of sex education, with classmates who are all laughing and uncomfortable, will do the trick," Hyman says. "There's so much information given in such a short amount of time, and it's hard to process—the facts can get lost in the psychological heaviness of the content."
The best thing you can do for your kids, says Hyman, is to educate them. Even if they cover their ears and act totally uncomfortable (the same way you may feel!), it's still important to have a talk with them. "They may appear disinterested or appalled by the discussion, but they're still listening," she says. The next step is to provide your kid with age-appropriate materials to read—on their own time. "Your child may not want to discuss it right now, but they almost always pick up the book in some quiet moment, and then come to you if they have any questions."
Finally, try to make sure there is at least one other adult, like a doctor, whom your kid feels comfortable talking to. There might be things kids don't feel comfortable telling you, but still want support with. And if you just can't bear the idea of talking to your kid about oral sex, imagine the alternative: a doctor's visit where you're told your 15-year-old has an STI.