As young people mature, they may begin to engage in sexual behaviors with another person. But before this happens, it is important that they understand that sex can be a good physical and emotional experience when both people are ready, consent to have sex and establish how they will reduce their risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and/or prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Young people should have accurate information about various forms of birth control, including abstinence—the most effective form of birth control.
In spite of the best-laid plans and having all of the information they need, there are times when a young person may engage in unprotected sex. It is important that young people know what to do in these instances. You can provide them with information about ways to reduce the chance of unplanned pregnancy or STD transmission after unprotected sex, including emergency contraception (EC) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Here is some important information about pregnancy and STD testing as well as EC and PEP that can be shared with young people:
EC—also called the morning-after pill—is a pill that can be bought in a drugstore or pharmacy or picked up from a family planning clinic, like Planned Parenthood. EC can help prevent pregnancy when taken up to five days after unprotected sex or birth control failure. (EC only prevents pregnancy; it does not end or harm a pregnancy that has already started.) The sooner it’s taken, the better it works to prevent pregnancy. Another option is that a health care provider can insert an intrauterine device (IUD) into the uterus of the person at risk for pregnancy after unprotected sex to help prevent an unplanned pregnancy. Neither EC or an IUD prevents STDs, but they can greatly reduce the chance of a pregnancy starting if used soon after unprotected sex.
Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is medication that can be started within three days (72 hours) after unprotected sex, including sexual assault to reduce the risk of HIV infection. PEP is available from a health care provider, like a doctor, a family planning clinic such as Planned Parenthood or from the emergency room of a hospital.
Another important thing to cover are pregnancy tests. Pregnancy tests can be done at home or in a clinic. Home tests are available in grocery stores, drugstores and local family planning clinics. Some tests are so sensitive that they can be used six days before a missed period. To take a pregnancy test correctly, make sure to read and follow the directions that come inside the package. Most simply require that the person urinates on the stick.
Young people also need to know what to do after they get the result of the test. If the test is positive, encourage them to talk with their partner and a trusted adult as there are some big decisions to make. If the pregnancy test is negative, encourage them to talk with their partner about ways to avoid getting into this situation again and discuss whether they are ready for sex and if so, commit to practicing safer sex.
Finally, young people need to know how and where they can access STD testing and treatment. STD testing and treatment is offered by most family physicians, at family planning clinics and community health centers. STD testing often involves either a urine test, a simple blood test or a mouth swab. Young people should also understand that most STDs can be treated with medicines provided by a doctor, but there are some STDs that cannot be cured, such as HIV. Regardless of whether an STD can be cured, there are treatments to help people manage those STDs.
Providing young people with education about this topic will prepare them to act if they happen to engage in unprotected sex. It also may lead them to seek advice and support from a trusted adult if they ever find themselves in this situation.
Parents or guardians can start talking with their children about practicing safer sex and what to do if they have unprotected sex before their children become sexually active. When parents and guardians talk with their children about these topics, children learn that they can come to their parents if and when they have questions. Some people fear that talking with young people about sex will encourage them to have sex. Research has shown that providing information to young people about abstinence and birth control does not increase the likelihood of their having sex or reduce the age at which they begin having sex.
As parents and caregivers we want our kids to be safe if and when they decide to engage in sexual behaviors. This means using protection—like condoms and other forms of birth control—and having open and honest conversations with their partners before they decide to engage in sexual behaviors. When parents initiate conversations about these topics and show that they are open and supportive, this sets the stage for children to come to their parents and caregivers with questions or if they need advice.
Below are some ways to start these conversations:
Bring up the topic while watching a TV show
If you’re watching a show where a couple is engaging in sexual behaviors and there is no mention of safer sex, you can talk to your child about it. You could ask, “Do we know if these characters had a conversation about safer sex before they engaged in these behaviors?”
Bring up pregnancy when it comes up in a show
If you’re watching a show where a couple is pregnant, you can talk to your child about this. You could ask, “Do you think those two characters are ready to have a baby?” You could also ask, “How do you think they could have prevented the pregnancy?”
Walk up the aisle where condoms or emergency contraception are
If you are at a store or pharmacy, walk past the condom section or emergency contraception. This is an opportunity to talk to your child about these items. You can ask them if they know what they are used for and what they help prevent.